It has soared during an airport sit-in, united street protests and drowned out the Chinese national anthem at a school assembly. Do You Hear the People Sing?, the defiant chorus from the musical Les Misérables, has become a song of protest in Hong Kong and, more recently, mainland China. Explicit references to Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor censured for his warnings about the coronavirus outbreak, and to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, are stamped upon – but lines from the song slip through the net on China’s social networks Weibo and WeChat, fostering a community of covert opposition.
You may hear the people sing on China’s streets, but not on its streaming platforms – the authorities have responded to the song’s incendiary impulse by removing it as an individual number and scrubbing it from the soundtrack albums. “Do you hear the people of Hong Kong?” wrote Herbert Kretzmer, author of the English lyrics, last summer. “At 93, I can only be with them in spirit. But my words are on their lips – and I am singing with them, too.”
The song evokes the Paris uprising of 1832, when protesters briefly sought to overthrow the government, galvanised by the funeral of a reforming general. Victor Hugo, then a young playwright, sheltered from the bullets between barricades. Thirty years later, he captured the experience in Les Misérables, which continues to find new audiences via Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical.
As the ardent Paris students rally at the climax of the first act, a solo high baritone and drum are gradually joined by more voices and more instruments. The camera in Tom Hooper’s 2012 film version picks out individual faces – Eddie Redmayne, Fra Fee – before pulling back to show the defiant crowd swirling flags and eddying around Napoleon’s monument, the Elephant of the Bastille. Kretzmer believes the song endures because it addresses “injustice, which can turn men and women into slaves, cause anger and humiliation and crush the human spirit”.
Boubil and Schönberg often veer towards bombast, which makes their signature chorus ripe for parody. Saturday Night Live had a lobster resisting its place on the menu (“Do you hear the lobster scream / Screaming the scream of scalding flames?”) while it also enlivened one of James Corden’s Crosswalk Musical skits. Playing a vainglorious theatre director, he led hits from Les Mis (“The greatest – and unless I’m mistaken, only – French musical”) for frosty-faced Parisians, brandishing baguettes at the barricade “because le pain is mightier than the sword”.
It’s banal when little is at stake, yet gives voice to moments of political urgency. The chorus has arisen during popular protests in the Philippines, Iraq, Turkey and Ukraine (though it isn’t in the repertoire of France’s gilet jaunes). Even in less pressured circumstances, it fosters pride in the scrappy underdog: a Louisiana anthropology student, Heather Moats, tweaked the title for her thesis on often-scorned community theatre as she shadowed an amateur production of Les Mis in Baton Rouge. One performer described the communal endeavour as “a form of fellowship at the church of Misfit Toys”.
Commitment to community isn’t necessarily progressive, and Do You Hear … can also be co-opted for a hit of populist emotion. During his 2016 election campaign, it welcomed Donald Trump to a rally in Miami alongside images retitling the musical Les Deplorables (after Hillary Clinton described his supporters as a “basket of deplorables”). The musical, slapping you across the chops with fervour, isn’t universally loved – screenwriter Andrew Davies, adapting Hugo’s novel for the BBC (2018), scorned it as a “shoddy farrago”.
For the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1985 British premiere, John Napier designed a barricade which, wrote Michael Coveney, “seems to contain a city in itself, a fantastic jumble of chairs, barrels, planks and people,” and defined the stage production for more than 30 years. (A redesigned version recently opened at Cameron Mackintosh’s swankily refurbished Sondheim theatre in London.)
In retrospect, perhaps, the RSC was an apt home for a musical with some parallels to a Shakespeare history play: individual grudge plays against political unrest, and no one escapes unbruised. However urgent it is when Do You Hear … gives communal voice to protest, the chorus is nonetheless an anthem of the soon-to-be defeated. Though its final reprise ends, as Kretzmer notes, “with the words ‘When tomorrow comes’ – because I truly believe that hope can never be extinguished”.