“Les Miserables, which features the song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” is a popular musical that opened in London in December, 1985. The producer was Cameron Mackintosh. Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel wrote the lyrics in French, while Herbert Kretzmer translated them into English. Claude-Michel Schonberg composed the music. The work is based on the book of the same title by 19th century French writer Victor Hugo.
The song “I Dreamed a Dream” is performed by a character named Fantine, a young unmarried woman who is abandoned by the father of her baby. When the foreman at the factory where Fantine works discovers her “immorality,” Fantine is forced into the streets. Completely crushed, Fantine sings her ballad. She begins by reminiscing about her childhood “when hope was high and life worth living.”
Then she moves to her early twenties:
But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder,
As they tear your hope apart,
As they turn your dream to shame.
Fantine remembers her wonderful summer with her child’s father. She had believed their love would last forever – “but he was gone when autumn came.” She tries to revitalize the dream but just can’t force herself to believe in any more miracles,
And still I dream he’ll come to me.
That we will live the years together,
But there are dreams that cannot be.
And there are storms we cannot weather.
At last Fantine concludes, “Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”
Fantine cannot stand the bitter cold without shelter. She dies of pneumonia shortly after she sings, “I Dreamed a Dream,” leaving many if not most of the audience in tears. There is a grim fairness to the song, though. Life does not always give out happy endings, and there are blows which are so staggering we cannot fight our way back from them. Nobody wants to think that life can be so cruel, but most of us know all too well that it can.
Many talented performers have sung, “I Dreamed a Dream.” The first was Patti LuPone who played Fantine in the London version of “Les Miserables.” Randy Graff opened the American run on Broadway. Susan Boyle soared to stardom with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on “Britain’s Got Talent.” And Anne Hathaway played the part of Fantime in the movie version. Even men such as Michael Ball and Michael Crawford — the original Phantom of the Opera — have taken a shot at the song with varying degrees of success.
At the end of the show, Fantine does find some redemption. Her spirit appears to a dying character who had, in life, been her friend. “Come with me, I’ll lead you to salvation,” she sings to him. “[T]o love another person is to see the face of god.”
They fade toward the back of the stage, presumably to a world that is kinder.
“I Dreamed a Dream” is a song that resonates with practically everyone. There are few people who have not felt damaged by life or who have not known someone else who felt damaged by life. The words and the soft, intense music give voice to Fantine’s agony. When she returns at the end of the show and the audience sees that she has found peace at last, the emotion in the theater is all but overwhelming.