Victor Hugo published his novel “Les Miserables” in 1862, and the reviews were mixed. Flaubert said it was “infantile,” and Baudelaire is supposed to have called it “tasteless and inept.” Since then, the book has become many things, in the process garnering a whole spectrum of positive and negative responses: a 1930s Hollywood film starring Charles Laughton, a seven-part radio serial directed by and starring a then-22-year-old Orson Welles, a Japanese manga. Most famously and pertinently, it became a musical.
“Les Miserables,” the musical which first premiered in Paris in 1980 and was then translated and reworked for an English-language audience five years later, today occupies a rarefied space in the world of theater, having become one of those token crossover successes that appeal to even those otherwise uninterested in Broadway. It is a cultural behemoth, a force of its own, and this week it returns to Little Rock.
The Times interviewed the director and principal cast of the company’s new production of the musical. Or at least most of the principal cast — Douglas Webster, who plays Jean Valjean, was upstairs in fitting, running a few minutes late. The other actors, who a little while earlier had been loudly pretending to be 19th century French revolutionaries, quietly played with their iPhones.
Bob Hupp, the theater’s artistic director for the past 15 seasons, wore a blue V-neck sweater and sipped hot tea from a Styrofoam cup. He explained why they’d decided to revive the musical this year, having also produced it in their 2008-09 season.
“It was the most popular play in our history, so we felt it was appropriate to revisit it,” Hupp said. The actors nodded. “And for the most part, we’re starting from scratch. The cast is mostly new, the set design is new, the costumes have been enhanced. Every other member of the creative team except the choreographer is new. I’m the same, only older and sadder.” He took another sip of his tea.
“Secondly, the film just came out.” He meant the 2012 Tom Hooper adaptation of the musical starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, a film that proved more than a little divisive among theater die-hards, to say nothing of the critics. Anthony Lane’s review for the New Yorker contained the memorable phrase, “I screamed a scream as time went by,” while The New York Times write-up ended with a warning that by the end we might be “raising the white flag in exhausted defeat.”
This group was a little more diplomatic with their critiques. “There were aspects of the film that demonstrate why a musical like ‘Les Mis’ demands to live on the stage,” Hupp said. “It was brave, but [the film actors] didn’t have the voices for the show.” Karenssa LeGear, who plays Cosette, agreed: “I missed the voices. You have to really know your instrument to have the freedom to play with it.” Chris Behmke, the company’s Marius, took a more positive tack, though his conclusion was essentially the same, noting, “Whatever its failings were as a film, the movie is a gateway to get people into a theater to experience it the way it’s meant to be experienced.”
Webster returned from fitting and took his place with the others. He wore a dark gray pea coat and sat hunched back in his seat. He’s played the role of Jean Valjean, the musical’s ex-convict protagonist, since 1989 in cities all over the world. Asked if the intensity of the role ever got to him, and how he handled it, Webster responded, “It’s a job, I look at my bank balance.” Later, he seemed to reconsider. He said he remembered hearing the score for the first time, a recording of the London cast before the musical had premiered in New York. “I was traveling through Lincoln, Nebraska,” he said, “and a friend had left a post-it note on the record, saying ‘This is for you.’ I remember the chills on my arms with that first upbeat. I remember thinking, ‘Oh shit.’ “
Webster was cast for this particular production via Facebook message, though Hupp assured me this wasn’t typical. “We had auditions in New York, Arizona, and here over the course of about six or seven months,” he said. “It was our biggest audition process yet.” Webster shrugged: “Casting over the phone or on Facebook — that’s trust, intuition and 20 years of experience. I knew I’d be walking into a very cool situation. This is a charmed environment.” Speaking to Webster, you also get the impression that there is an element of weary responsibility to his continually playing the role of Jean Valjean. He understands the character; it’s something he thinks is necessary. As he puts it at one point, “It’s the only thing I know how to do.”
Like Webster, the other cast members remembered their first encounter with the musical vividly. Terey Summers, who plays Madame Thenardier, described “not feeling like I took a breath the whole time,” while Behmke referred to “that feeling where your jaw drops to the floor and you’re rendered speechless.” Hupp noted that off all the ways one can experience “Les Mis” today, their production offers something different, and important.
“I think what takes the experience of seeing ‘Les Mis’ at the Rep over the top is connecting with the actors on a stage where you’re never more than 30 feet away from the performers. It’s that intimate connection.”
Later, the cast discussed seeing the Chinese figure skating team use a song from “Les Mis” at the previous night’s Winter Olympics, and I asked if they still enjoyed the music. “It’s magical,” said Michael Sample, who plays Thenardier, “though I don’t personally listen to it.” Christopher Carl, who plays Javert, recalled hearing “I Dreamed a Dream” on the plane down to Little Rock. Hupp nodded, saying, “It’s elevator music, that’s when you know you’ve become part of the canon. It’s like The Beatles. It’s part of our common social vocabulary.” He laughed, “It’s in my head right now, in horrifying ways.”