Set in early 19th-century France, it is the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant, and his quest for redemption after serving nineteen years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for his sister's starving child.Valjean decides to break his parole and start his life anew after a kindly bishop inspires him by a tremendous act of mercy, but he is relentlessly tracked down by a police inspector named Javert.

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The image is based on an etching by Gustave Brion based on the drawing by Émile Bayard.

It appeared in several of the novel's earliest French-language editions.

Subsequently, numerous tours and international and regional productions have been staged, as well as concert and broadcast productions. A Broadway revival opened in 2006 at the Broadhurst Theatre and closed in 2008, and a second Broadway revival opened in 2014 at the Imperial Theatre and closed in September 2016.

The show was placed first in a BBC Radio 2 listener poll of Britain's "Number One Essential Musicals" in 2005, receiving more than forty percent of the votes.

In 1815, the prisoners work at hard labour ("Work Song").

After 19 years in prison (five for stealing bread for his starving sister's son and her family, and the rest for trying to escape), Jean Valjean, "prisoner 24601", is released on parole by the policeman Javert.

Desperate and embittered, Valjean steals the Bishop's silver and flees.

He is captured by the police, but rather than turn him in, the Bishop lies and tells the police that the silver was a gift, giving Valjean a pair of silver candlesticks in addition.

By law, Valjean must display a yellow ticket-of-leave, which identifies him as an ex-convict ("On Parole").

As a convict, Valjean is shunned wherever he goes and cannot find regular work or lodging, but the Bishop of Digne offers him food and shelter.

Farago had been impressed by the work and asked Mackintosh to produce an English-language version of the show. Mackintosh, in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company, assembled a production team to adapt the French musical for a British audience.