Les Miserables is a long book filled with everything imaginable, ranging from detailed character backstories and historical background info to intense action sequences and suspense. However, I think some of the most moving scenes are those where a character is left alone with their own thoughts and confronted with some internal dilemma. In the musical, these moments are often transformed into solos, some of which are among the most memorable pieces of music in the show.
For example, the chapter Javert Derailed follows Javert away from Valjean, who he can’t bring himself to arrest, to the Prefecture de Police and the Pont au Change. It focuses on his inner thoughts as he goes over the dilemma of what to do about an escaped criminal who spared his life. The whole chapter is only a few pages long, but it is powerful and haunting to read.
Another very similar section is the one in which Jean Valjean has just met the Bishop and struggles with how to react to his act of mercy. Like Javert after the barricades, Valjean sees two paths before him and has to choose, when before he believed he had no choice at all. He chooses to abandon Jean Valjean and create a new identity for himself. These two songs in the musical share the same tune and have lyrics that are a reflection of each other.
Valjean experiences several moral dilemmas that he must decide on his own, without the help of any other character, since no one knows his true identity. For instance, when he discovers that another man is about to be condemned in his place, he spends the remainder of that day debating what to do, weighing his moral obligation to speak up with his desire to avoid going to prison. This ends up being the song Who Am I? in the musical.
And, of course, there’s Fantine, whose fall from grace is stretched out over a long period of time in the book but summed up in a few powerful minutes of song with I Dreamed a Dream in the musical.
Even the solos that don’t come directly from the novel speak to the powerful emotions the characters are feeling. For instance, Marius does not really have an Empty Chairs at Empty Tables moment in the novel, and Eponine’s point of view is not explored enough for her to have an equivalent to On My Own, but the emotions in the songs ring true at those points in the story and fit with the pattern of deep, heart-wrenching, introspective solos that reveal a character’s inner turmoil.
The characters in Les Miserables are solitary people. They do not confide in many, if any, of the people around them, and aside from a few intense action sequences such as the police chase through Paris, the attack on Rue Plumet, or the barricades, many of the struggles they face are internal ones. Perhaps this is why Les Miserables works so well as a musical. While it would seem silly to have characters in a modern play monologue about their deepest secrets, it seems perfectly natural for them to sing solos about their thoughts and feelings in a musical.