In this musical version of Hugo's 1861 novel, the peasant Jean Valjean is freed from prison after serving nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread (Work Song). However, he discovers that his new life is "another jail, another key", for wherever he goes, he must display a yellow passport declaring him a convict, and face the resulting discrimination.
With nowhere else to go, he lodges with a kind bishop for the night and repays the man by stealing his silver. Yet when Valjean is arrested, the bishop claims the silver was a gift and gives his precious candlesticks as well (Valjean Arrested/Valjean Forgiven). Stunned by the bishop's kindness, Valjean breaks his parole and vows to start a new life (What Have I Done?).
Valjean becomes mayor of a small town. One of his factory workers, Fantine, is secretly sending money to innkeepers in another village to pay for her illegitimate child. When this is discovered, she is fired from her job at the factory and left without a way to pay for the girl (At the End of the Day) (I Dreamed a Dream).
Now desperate and extremely ill, Fantine is forced to sell her necklace, her hair, and her body (Lovely Ladies). When she defends herself against a cruel customer, she is about to be arrested by Inspector Javert, but "the mayor" arrives and demands her freedom, apologizing for turning aside from her before.
The mayor then saves a man trapped under a cart, and Javert, a former prison guard, recalls the unusual strength of convict 24601, Jean Valjean, whom he has been tracking for eight years. He says, however, that he has already found the real Valjean, and that the man will be sentenced and sent to prison.
Valjean is then faced with an agonizing moral dilemma (Who Am I?): let an innocent man go to prison in his stead, or destroy the safety he has worked so long to preserve. He confesses his identity, and, as Javert arrives to arrest him, he promises a dying Fantine that he will care for her daughter, Cosette (Come to Me).
Meanwhile, young Cosette dreams of a better life as she is horribly abused by the innkeepers, the Thernardiers, and is sent out to fetch water in the dark (Castle on a Cloud). As Mme. Thernardier dotes on her own daughter, Eponine, the innkeeper explains his highly successful method for cheating his customers out of every single sou (Master of the House).
Valjean, who has escaped Javert, finds Cosette wandering in the dark and gives the Thernardiers 1,500 francs to let him take Cosette away (The Thernardier Waltz).
Unrest is brewing among the poor as a popular leader, General Lamarque, is close to death. While the urchin Gavroche mingles with the beggars and prostitutes, the revolutionary students, led by the charismatic Enjolras, wonder when the fighting will begin (Look Down).
Thernardier, now living on the streets of Paris, leads a gang of robbers and murderers who plan to ambush Valjean and Cosette. The Thernardiers daughter Eponine, now grown and no longer coddled by her parents, flirts with the student Marius, who is ignorant of her feelings and falls for Cosette. Now stationed in Paris, Inspector Javert prevents the robbery of Valjean, but only realizes who he has saved when Valjean and Cosette have disappeared. He then muses on his duty (Stars), unaware that Gavroche is watching him.
Consumed by thoughts of the mysterious girl he has met, Marius asks Eponine to find her address. Eponine sadly obliges as Marius enters the revolutionary meeting late and still dreaming of Cosette. Enjolras reminds Marius that he serves a higher cause and speaks about the way the world is changing (Red and Black).
While the students prepare to fight, Gavroche bursts in with the news that General Lamarque is dead, and the students take to the streets to stir up popular support (Do You Hear the People Sing?).
Meanwhile, Cosette has fallen in love with Marius and wonders if he shares her feelings. She entreats Valjean to tell her about her past, but he refuses, stating that some things are better unheard, better unsaid (In My Life).
Eponine brings Marius to Valjeans garden, where Marius and Cosette declare their love for each other (A Heart Full of Love), as Eponine looks on and prevents an attempt by her fathers gang to rob Valjeans house (Attack on Rue Plumet).
Valjean rushes in after hearing Eponine scream, and Cosette claims the cry was her own. Convinced that Javert has found him, Valjean tells Cosette that they must leave for England at once. As Valjean prepares to escape, the students prepare for battle, Marius and Cosette mourn losing each other, Eponine laments over Marius, Javert plans to join the students as a spy, and the Thernardiers plot to get rich robbing the corpses (One Day More!).
As the act opens, the students build their barricade. When he sees that Eponine has joined them, Marius sends her away with a letter to Cosette. Valjean intercepts the letter and decides to join the students at the barricade while Eponine wanders the streets, musing about her love for Marius (On My Own).
At the barricade, the students defy a warning that they must give up [their] guns or die (The First Attack). Javert tells the students that "there will be no attack tonight", but Gavroche appears and denounces him as a police spy (Little People).
Eponine is shot as she tries to return to the barricade, and she dies in Marius's arms (A Little Fall of Rain). The students declare that her death will not be in vain. Valjean enters the barricade and is not entirely trusted by the rebels, but they allow him a gun, and he saves Enjolras's life as the National Guard attacks. In return, Valjean asks permission to kill Javert, and Enjolras consents.
Claiming that he holds no grudge against the inspector, Valjean sets a shocked Javert free without the students knowledge and fires into the air. Javert vows never to stop hunting Valjean.
The insurgents settle down for the night, reminiscing about the life that used to be (Drink with Me). The student Grantaire poses the questions: Will the world remember you when you fall? Can it be your death means nothing at all? Is your life just one more lie?
Meanwhile, Valjean prays to God to save Marius from the battle that will come (Bring Him Home).
In the morning, Enjolras announces that the people have abandoned the revolutionaries, but the revolutionaries will not abandon the people. He realizes that they are fighting a losing battle and sends the women and fathers of children away from the barricade.
The students again battle the National Guard, and when Gavroche overhears that they are running low on ammunition, he runs out to collect extra bullets from the bodies littering the street. The National Guard shoots at Gavroche repeatedly, finally killing him, and they offer the insurgents one last chance to surrender.
The students vow to make them pay for every man and Enjolras calls out his last words, "Let others rise to take our place until the Earth is free!" All of the rebels are killed, except for Valjean, who escapes into the sewers with an unconscious Marius. Javert, looking among the corpses, realizes where Valjean has gone, and waits for him at the outlet of the sewer.
Valjean collapses, exhausted, and Thernardier, who is robbing the corpses (Dog Eats Dog), takes the opportunity to steal a ring from Marius. Valjean then emerges from the sewer only to find Javert waiting for him. He begs Javert for an hour to bring the wounded student to a doctor, promising to return, and Javert consents.
Left alone with his thoughts, Javert realizes that his unbending beliefs have been shattered by Valjeans mercy, and discovering that he cannot come to terms with this new viewpoint, he throws himself into the Seine (Javerts Suicide).
A group of Parisian women come to terms with the bloody end of the insurrection, and its many casualties (Turning).
Marius, meanwhile, also comes to grips with the fact that all of his friends have died on the barricade (Empty Chairs at Empty Tables). He recovers in Cosettes care, all the while wondering who saved him on the night the barricades fell.
Valjean grieves over losing Cosette, and confesses to Marius that he is a former convict. Despite Mariuss protests, he insists that he must leave the young couple, and Marius agrees not to tell Cosette what Valjean has admitted to him.
The Thernardiers appear at Marius and Cosettes wedding and attempt to sell information to Marius. Thernardier claims that Valjean is a murderer and produces a ring he stole from the corpse Valjean was carrying.
Marius recognizes the ring as his own and realizes that Valjean was the one who saved him. He then punches Thernardier and throws money at him, calling to Cosette to come quickly. The Thernardiers celebrate their good fortune (Beggars at the Feast) as Marius and Cosette rush to Valjeans side.
Thinking he has been forgotten, Jean Valjean prepares to die, praying to God to "Take me now" and telling the spirit of Fantine that he is ready. Marius and Cosette rush in, Marius thanking Valjean for his life and Cosette begging her father not to die.
Valjean reveals to Cosette that he has left a paper for her, "a story of those who've always loved you", and Fantine and Eponine lead the old man to heaven. All of the characters, living and dead, reappear for a reprise of "Do You Hear the People Sing?", expressing hope for a brighter future (Finale).