A relic from the heyday of the '80s mega-musical (its peers include Cats and The Phantom of the Opera), for many of its fans Les Mis served as an early introduction to Broadway. I also suspect that it's a prime example of a cultural experience that you must encounter when you are young or you will never wholly embrace it. Fans of the musical are legion, and they come in all ages, genders and nationalities—but the onslaught of emotion released over the course of the production is best absorbed in a state of pre-irony vulnerability. (For a taste of this fandom, visit les misérables confessions.)
My affinity for this musical epic about redemption, first love and doomed revolution is at least partially rooted in nostalgia, and the fact that I fell in love with it at a time when I had not yet developed any emotional armor. There was a distinct period in my very early teens when if the original Broadway cast recording of Les Mis wasn't on my CD player, it was only so that Miss Saigon could get some airplay. Embarrassingly, my friends and I used to harmonize to our favorite song, "On My Own," on the bus ride to middle school. We had no use for boring, flaxen-haired Cosette (the emblem of the show) who gets the guy in the end. It was the resourceful, lovelorn street urchin Éponine who inspired us. "On my own, pretending he's beside me" is a poignant anthem for a girl who, at the advanced age of 12, fears she will never find love.
The current Glee era seems like an opportune time to dust off the beloved musical and dress it up as extravagantly as possible for a film audience. But Les Mis has remained a constant presence in popular culture—largely due to national tours, revivals, and anniversary concerts—also because it has a tendency to pop up in unexpected places, like an episode of Seinfeld where George can't get the song "Master of the House" out of his head, or a memorable scene in the first season of Dawson's Creek. (Even my bus rendition of "On My Own" can't have been as painful as Katie Holmes's version.)
Until it was undertaken by Anne Hathaway, the musical's signature ballad "I Dreamed a Dream" was most notably revived by Susan Boyle in her legendarily viral 2009 audition for Britain's Got Talent. It was a television moment carefully orchestrated for maximum impact, from Boyle's introduction as the frumpy underdog to the moment when the judges' smirks and the audience's eye rolls are transformed into thunderous applause. But despite the knowledge that you are being shamelessly manipulated, the catch in your throat when those first pure, mournful notes emerge from Boyle's unimposing person is entirely real.
Such is the magic and the appeal of Les Misérables: It is impossible to approach the material with anything less than quavering earnestness. Take for instance this great impromptu performance of "The Confrontation"—a tour-de-force vocal duel between the musical's hero Jean Valjean and its antagonist Inspector Javert—by Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel during a 2006 talk show appearance. Paul Rudd and writer/director David Wain also tackled the song in an enjoyable, if inexplicable, promo for their film Role Models. These clips demonstrate that resistance to Les Mis is futile; there's much more fun to be had by simply giving in to it.