The 'Les Miserables' Soundtrack: A Pop Cultural History

The songs from the show have been stuck in heads the world for 25 years. From Seinfeld to Tiananmen Square, we break down their cultural cameos.  

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Les Misérables, the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, had a long life before it became an Oscar hopeful this season. The show premiered in London in 1985 and on Broadway in 1987, and its songs have been stuck in heads around the world ever since. From Seinfeld to Tiananmen Square, we break down their cultural cameos.

"I Dreamed a Dream" 
We begin with the ubiquitous, because you couldn't avoid hearing this song after Susan Boyle sang it on Britain's Got Talent in 2009. It was all the more heartbreaking coming from a woman who seemed like she could identify with Fantine's lament about life's cruelty — until it became all the more uplifting when Boyle's dreams really did come true.

On the flip side, Aretha Franklin invoked "I Dreamed a Dream" rather inappropriately when she sang it at Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. Because nothing about this songs says "hope," exactly — except maybe that the word "dream" is in the title. Franklin made some lyrical changes, but it's a pretty depressing song for an otherwise celebratory occasion:

Naturally, there was a Glee cover as well, and no matter how you feel about the show you have to agree that Lea Michele and Idina Menzel were meant for this kind of belting:

This number between Jean Valjean and Javert has taken on a life as a party trick for funny-men, as Vulture's Les Miz Advent Calendar points out. Our personal favorite is this duet between Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel duet, if for no other reason than their sheer energy:

Now here's a rendition performed by David Wain and Paul Rudd:

And here's Rudd and Segel's attempt:

"Master of the House" 
The more obscure Les Misérables song was a recurring joke in the Seinfeld episode, The Jacket.  George can't get the Thénardiers' diddy about thieving and conning out of his head and eventually he infects Elaine's terrifying father, Alton Benes, with the earworm. Video of George's performance is not embeddable, but we recommend clicking through, and you can read the episode's script here.

"Do You Hear the People Sing?" 
The ballad of rebellion has had a life that's actually been, well, revolutionary. The New York Times reported in 1996 that the song was sung at a Hong Kong vigil for victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre on its anniversary. More recently, it was performed by protesters in the Wisconsin Capitol building challenging Scott Walker:

Search for "do you hear the people sing protest" on YouTube and you find videos from across the world. Below is one about Tiananmen Square. The description for this clip explains that it "ran on our news KPRC houston six times and was shown by other NBC stations:"

"One Day More" 
The sprawling Act One closer has lived on in politics as well. Obama supporters invoked it in 2008 and again in 2012:

The song has also proved a good tune for flash mobs, since it involves multiple characters joining in. Most recently this wedding version went viral:

"On My Own" 
Eponine's plaintive declaration of love for Marius is the rallying cry of teen girls suffering from bouts of unrequited love everywhere — as evidenced by actress Samantha Barks's Twitter interactions — so it only makes sense that it would make an appearance on the ultimate teen show: Dawson's Creek. In the first season lovelorn Joey Potter sings it during the talent portion of a beauty pageant. Though we wouldn't tell Katie Holmes to go into musical theater — she somehow manages to smile out of one side of her mouth while singing — she does win over Dawson, much to the chagrin of Jen Lindley:

The song also served as our first introduction to Rachel Berry in the early days of Glee:

And eight months before her casting in this Christmas's Les Miz movie went public, during her 2011 gig as Oscar host, Anne Hathaway sang an amended version of "On My Own" to her soon-to-be costar, Hugh Jackman:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.