In Bagne prison in Toulon, France, 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. By law, Valjean must display a yellow ticket-of-leave, which identifies him as an ex-convict (“On Parole”). Valjean is turned away from many people due to him being a convict. However, The Bishop of Digne offers him food and shelter. Overnight, Valjean steals silver from the bishop, and the police catch him. The Bishop lies to save Valjean and not only lets him keep the silver he stole, but also gives him two more valuable candlesticks. The Bishop tells Valjean that he must use the silver “to become an honest man” and that he has “bought (Valjean’s) soul for God” (“Valjean Arrested, Valjean Forgiven”). Ashamed of what he did, yet humbled by the bishop’s mercy and kindness, Valjean follows the Bishop’s advice and tears up his yellow ticket, breaking his parole (“Valjean’s Soliloquy” / “What Have I Done?”).
Eight years later, Valjean has assumed a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine, a wealthy factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. One of his workers, Fantine, has a fight when another worker discovers she is sending money to her secret illegitimate daughter,Cosette, who lives with an innkeeper and his wife (“At the End of the Day”). Fantine and the worker fight, and the Mayor breaks up the conflict but asks his factory foreman to resolve it. The other women demand Fantine’s dismissal, and because she had previously rejected his advances, the foreman throws Fantine out. Fantine reflects on her broken dreams and about her lover, who left her and her daughter (“I Dreamed a Dream”). Desperate for money, she sells her locket, her hair, and some of her teeth before becoming a prostitute (“Lovely Ladies”). When she fights back against an abusive customer (Bamatabois), Javert, now a police inspector stationed in Montreuil-sur-Mer, arrests her (“Fantine’s Arrest”). The Mayor arrives and, realizing his part in the ruination of Fantine, orders Javert to let her go and takes her to a hospital.
Soon afterwards, the Mayor rescues Fauchelevent, who is pinned by a runaway cart (“The Runaway Cart”); this reminds Javert of the abnormally strong Jean Valjean, whom he has sought for years for breaking parole. However, Javert assures the Mayor that Valjean has been arrested recently (actually a man named Champmathieu). At first, Valjean thinks the man could be his chance to escape his past life, but unwilling to see an innocent man go to prison in his place, Valjean confesses his identity to the court (“Who Am I?—The Trial”). At the hospital, a delirious Fantine thinks Cosette is in the room with her. Valjean arrives and promises to Fantine he will find and look after her daughter (“Come to Me” / “Fantine’s Death”). Happy upon hearing this, Fantine dies. Suddenly, Javert confronts Valjean. Valjean asks Javert for three days to fetch Cosette, but Javert refuses to believe his honest intentions. They suddenly argue, and Javert reveals that he “was born inside a jail” (“The Confrontation”). Valjean once again promises to Fantine he “will raise (Cosette) to the light.” He then knocks Javert out and escapes.
Meanwhile, in Montfermeil, the rascally innkeepers, the Thénardiers, have been working and abusing little Cosette, while indulging their own daughter, Éponine. Cosette dreams of a better life, and imagines “a room that’s full of toys” full of “a hundred boys and girls” and “a lady all in white.” Mme. Thénardier arrives and angrily accusses Cosette of “slacking,” and orders Cosette to retrieve water from the woods. Afraid of going alone, Cosette does not leave, and Éponine points to Cosette to show her mother this. Mme. Thénardier warns her to go or she will “forget to be nice,” while Éponine teases Cosette and pushes her out the door (“Castle on a Cloud”). The Thénardiers cheat their customers in various ways together, despite Mme. Thénardier showing contempt for her husband (“Master of the House”). Valjean finds Cosette in the woods and accompanies her back to the inn, and offers to pay them to take her away (“The Bargain”) The Thénardiers pretend to have concern for Cosette, and they tell Valjean his “intentions may not be correct,” so he pays them 1,500 Francs to let him take her away. They accept the money, and Valjean and Cosette leave for Paris (“The Waltz of Treachery”).
Ten years later, Paris is in upheaval because General Lamarque, the only man in the government who shows mercy to the poor, is ill and may soon die. The young street urchin Gavroche mingles with the prostitutes and beggars on the street, while students Marius Pontmercy and Enjolras discuss the general’s imminent demise (“Look Down”). The Thénardiers have since lost their inn, and Thénardier now leads a street gang. They prepare to con some charitable visitors who are about to arrive, who are Valjean and Cosette. Éponine sees Marius, whom she secretly loves, and she grabs his books, telling him she could have become a student herself and not to judge her on her appearance. Mme. Thénardier tells her daughter to keep watch for the police, and Éponine warns Marius to stay away; concerned over what may occur, Marius chases after her, but bumps into Cosette and immediately falls in love. Thénardier recognises the visitor as Valjean, and with his gang, they ambush him. Marius protects Cosette from the ambush. As Thénardier sees the brand on Valjean’s chest, Éponine warns that Javert is coming (“The Robbery”). Javert thwarts the Thénardiers’ attempt to rob Valjean and Cosette, not recognising Valjean until after Valjean takes Cosette and escapes. Thénardier informs Javert of the brand he saw on Valjean (“Javert’s Intervention”), and Javert vows to recapture him (“Stars”). Meanwhile, Éponine remembers Cosette from when they were children. Marius persuades Éponine to help him find Cosette. Despite her own feelings for him, she reluctantly agrees to help (“Éponine’s Errand”).
At a small café, Enjolras prepares a group of idealistic students for a revolution (“The ABC Café—Red and Black”). When Gavroche brings the news of General Lamarque’s death, the students march into the streets (“Do You Hear the People Sing?”). At Valjean and Cosette’s house, Cosette thinks about Marius. Although Valjean realizes that Cosette has grown up, he refuses to tell her about his past or her mother’s. Éponine leads Marius to Cosette (“Rue Plumet—In My Life”). Marius and Cosette introduce themselves and declare their love for each other, while Éponine sadly watches them (“A Heart Full of Love”). She suddenly sees her father and his gang attempting to rob Valjean’s house, and stops them by screaming (“The Attack on Rue Plumet“). Valjean hears the scream, and Cosette tells him that it was she who screamed. Valjean, believing that Javert was outside his house, tells Cosette that they must flee the country.
On the eve of the 1832 Paris Uprising, Valjean prepares to go into exile; Cosette and Marius part in despair; Éponine mourns the loss of Marius; Enjolras encourages all of Paris to join the revolution as he and the other students prepare for the upcoming conflict; hearing Marius ponder whether to follow Cosette to England or join the other students, Éponine takes Marius to where the other students are, and when the two reach them he tells Enjolras he will fight with them, while she secretly joins them as well; Javert briefs the soldiers under his command while he reveals his plans to spy on the students; and the Thénardiers hide underground and look forward to robbing the corpses of those who will be killed during the battle. Everyone ponders what this “tomorrow” will bring (“One Day More”).
As the students begin a barricade (“At the Barricade—Upon These Stones”), Javert, disguised as one of the rebels, volunteers to “spy” on the government troops. Marius discovers Éponine has disguised herself as a boy and that she too has joined the revolutionaries. She tells him that she knows she should not be there, but chooses to stay with him. Marius sends her to safety by having her deliver a farewell letter to Cosette. Valjean intercepts the letter, promising Éponine he will tell Cosette about it. In the letter, he learns about Marius and Cosette’s relationship. Éponine walks the streets of Paris alone, imagining that Marius is there with her, but laments that her love for Marius will never be reciprocated; nevertheless, she decides to rejoin him at the barricade (“On My Own”).
After the students defy an army warning that they surrender or die (“Back at the Barricade”); the disguised Javert tells the students that the government will attack (“Javert’s Arrival”). Gavroche exposes him as a spy (“Little People”), and the students detain him. Éponine is shot as she returns to the barricades and collapses. As Marius holds her, she assures him that she feels no pain and that he will keep her “safe” and “close,” and she dies in his arms (“A Little Fall of Rain”). Marius mourns her death, while Enjolras and the other students are left devastated at this first loss of life at the barricades (“Night of Anguish”). Valjean arrives at the barricades in search of Marius, dressed in an army uniform as means to get there safely. As the first battle erupts, Valjean saves Enjolras by shooting a sniper. He asks Enjolras to be the one to kill the imprisoned Javert, but instead he orders Javert to leave. Javert warns that if he releases him, he will still arrest him. Valjean says there are no “conditions” to letting him go, and holds no blame toward him. Valjean gives his address to Javert, and Javert leaves. Valjean shoots his weapon in the air to indicate Javert has been executed (“The First Attack”). The students settle down for the night and reminisce. Marius mourns over Cosette, and Valjean overhears him (“Drink with Me”). As Marius sleeps, Valjean prays to God to save Marius from the onslaught that is to come (“Bring Him Home”).
As dawn approaches, Enjolras realises that the people of Paris have abandoned the rebels. He sends away women and fathers of children but resolves to fight on (“Dawn of Anguish”). Gavroche climbs to the other side of the barricades to gather ammunition for the students, but is shot dead (“The Second Attack / Death of Gavroche”). Enjolras and the students realize that they will probably die. The army gives a final warning to surrender, but the rebels refuse, and all are killed except Valjean and Marius (“The Final Battle”). Carrying a wounded Marius on his back, Valjean escapes into the sewers, while Javert enters the sewers as well. Thénardier, also in the sewers, has been looting bodies (“Dog Eats Dog”). He takes a ring off Marius’ “corpse” as Valjean is passed out, and then escapes when he sees Valjean getting up. When Valjean reaches the sewer’s exit, he runs into Javert, who has been waiting for him. Valjean begs Javert to give him one hour to bring Marius to a doctor, and Javert reluctantly agrees. Because Valjean saved his life, Javert cannot bring himself to arrest Valjean. Unable to fit Valjean’s behavior into his own strict code of right and wrong and good and evil, Javert commits suicide by throwing himself into the Seine (“Soliloquy – Javert’s Suicide)”.
Back on the streets, women mourn the deaths of the young students (“Turning”) as Marius mourns for his friends (“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”). As he wonders who saved him from the barricades, Cosette comforts him, and they reaffirm their love. Valjean realizes that Cosette “was never (his) to keep” and gives them his blessing (“Every Day”). Valjean confesses to Marius that he is an escaped convict and must go away because his presence endangers Cosette (“Valjean’s Confession”). Valjean makes Marius promise never to tell Cosette, and Marius makes only a half-hearted attempt to hold him back. Marius and Cosette marry (“Wedding Chorale”). The Thénardiers crash the reception in disguise as “The Baron and Baroness du Thénard”. Thénardier tells Marius that Valjean is a murderer, saying that he saw him carrying a corpse in the sewers after the barricades fell. When Thénardier shows him the ring that he took from the corpse, Marius realises that Valjean saved his life. Marius strikes Thénardier, the newlyweds leave, and the Thénardiers enjoy the party and celebrate their survival (“Beggars at the Feast”).
Meanwhile, Valjean prepares for his death in a convent, having nothing left to live for. As the spirit of Fantine arrives to take him to Heaven, Cosette and Marius rush in to bid farewell. Valjean thanks God for letting him live long enough to see Cosette again. Marius thanks him for saving his life. (“Epilogue – Valjean’s Death”). Valjean gives Cosette his confession to read, and the souls of Fantine and Éponine guide him to Paradise, where those who died at the barricades ask once more: “Do You Hear the People Sing?” (“Finale”).