How Trump isn't the first to use 'Les Miserables' music as a political rallying cry

The stirring song rang out across the convention hall as Donald Trump took the stage at a rally in Miami: “Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men?” the chorus boomed over loudspeakers as the crowd cheered the Republican presidential candidate. 

“It is the music of the people / Who will not be slaves again! When the beating of your heart / Echoes the beating of the drums / There is a life about to start / When tomorrow comes.”

The rousing song is one of the signature numbers from the musical “Les Misérables,” an anti-monarchist call to arms signaling the climax of the bloody Paris Uprising of 1832.

For Trump supporters, the popular Broadway musical has become an unlikely rallying cry following Hillary Clinton’s comments this month in which she said half of her rival’s supporters constitute a “basket of deplorables.”

Instead of repudiating the pejorative label, many of Trump’s fans have embraced it — perhaps ironically at first, and then sincerely. An online meme emerged conflating “deplorables” with “Les Misérables” — “Les Deplorables,” set above a graphic of a 19th century French barricade.

The Trump campaign adopted the meme on Friday, using it as the visual backdrop as the candidate began his Miami rally. “Welcome to all of you deplorables!” Trump said at the top of his speech, drawing loud applause and cheers. 

Video of Trump’s “Les Misérables”-inspired entrance went viral, prompting supporters to praise his theatrical flair, while his detractors lamented the ruining of a perfectly good musical.

Trump isn’t the first American presidential candidate to use “Les Misérables” for political ends. Supporters of Barack Obama  and Bill Clinton employed the musical as rallying cries to bolster their votes during elections in 1992, 2008 and 2012. 

The creators of “Les Misérables” said Sunday that the musical has been used for political and social causes around the world. Adapted from the behemoth novel by Victor Hugo, the musical was written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, and it was produced in London and on Broadway by Cameron Mackintosh.

In a statement to The Times, a spokesman for the creators said the Trump campaign didn’t ask permission to use “Do You Hear the People Sing?” at the rally Friday. He said the creators “did not authorize or endorse” the usage of the song, but they “have never done so for any of the songs from the musical for this or any other political event.”

The Trump campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Political campaigns have appropriated “Les Misérables” because of the musical’s popularity and its depiction of a political and social revolt led by the common man, according to Kathryn Grossman, a professor of French at Penn State University and co-editor of the book  “Les Misérables and Its Afterlives.”

“It's probably the best known musical around. If you want something that is about society, that has a social justice theme, it would be ‘Les Miz,’” she said.

But Trump supporters appear to be taking its themes out of context, she added, because Hugo “had a big left-wing message. He always gave speeches on behalf on the rights of children and women and of men to work.”

During the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton supporters adopted the song “One Day More” — heard at the end of Act 1 of the musical — and turned it into an unofficial theme of the Democratic candidate’s campaign.

At his inauguration celebration, Aretha Franklin performed a rendition of another song from “Les Miz,”  “I Dreamed a Dream.”

The 2012 election saw a pro-Obama YouTube parody of “One Day More,” retitled “One Term More,” urging Americans to vote for the incumbent president.

Trump’s embrace of “Les Deplorables”  is “certainly one of the oddest appropriations of the musical that we've seen,” said Bradley Stephens, a senior lecturer in French at the University of Bristol in England, via email. His areas of study include the life and works of Hugo and their adaptations.

He noted that “Les Misérables” has been appropriated worldwide in protests against hardline social regimes, including Hong Kong's so-called “Umbrella Revolution” to flash mobs in the U.S.

“Perhaps this is, in part, a swipe at the Democrats, since that party's candidates have a history of being associated with the musical in some form or another,” he said.

In recent years, the musical has also found nonpartisan uses. The number “Bring Him Home,” sung in the show by protagonist Jean Valjean, has been used extensively by military and veterans groups around the world in commercials and online promotional videos.

“Les Misérables” was first produced in France in 1980 and made its West End debut in 1985. It came to Broadway two years later, where it ran for more than 16 years and won several Tony Awards, including the prize for new musical.

The 2014 Broadway revival closed earlier this month, but a new North American touring version is expected to begin next year that producers no doubt hope will be “yuge.”

david.ng@latimes.com


UPDATES:

10:50 a.m.: This article was updated with additional comments.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°