H e i d e l b e r g
Andrew T. Culjak is playing "Jean Valjean"
and has volunteered to post his personal journal here.
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Part I. I remember Roadside Theater announced back at the beginning of the season (September 2000) its intent to produce Les Miserables. The current that ran through the theatrical community, from Darmstadt to Stuttgart, was immediate and highly charged. Who was going to audition? Who was right for what part? Would the theater ever get enough people to do the show justice? Was there that much talent in the area? Would that many people come out of the woodwork? Speculation was rampant
The two biggest questions on everyone's lips, however, were HOW ARE THEY GOING TO DO THE BARRICADE?? HOW ARE THEY GOING TO DO JAVERT'S SUICIDE?? As time went by and other shows were cast, rehearsed, and performed, the talk died somewhat, but the thought of doing Les Mis never seemed to leave people's minds. In December, I had been doing Nuncrackers at the US Forces Off Main Street Theater with the Rhein Neckar Theater Company in Mannheim. After one of the shows, I was pulled aside by a couple of audience members I had never met who told me they had just seen Les Mis in London and that I was a dead ringer for the bishop. Here it was two months before auditions and even audience members were speculating and putting in their bids for who would do which part. Of course it helped that I was playing the part of a priest at the time.
Speeding forward through Jan to mid-Feb, I watched the production of Lost in Yonkers take shape at Roadside Theater and tried to ignore the rumble of anticipation in the pit of my stomach. There was talk of hundreds of people showing up for auditions. A woman from Canada emailed the theater, inquiring if she might come over to do the show. Rumors all, but who knew what the truth was? Auditions were in three weeks and I still hadn't found an audition piece. I spoke to the director and asked if he preferred something from the show or a separate piece indicative of the part you were auditioning for. He had said that perhaps a piece from some other show would be better, but I had no idea what piece would represent the character I was auditioning for. Was it fear that caused me to procrastinate? What if I didn't get in the show? Would I accept any part - chorus? Yes, I would take anything they gave me in this show. Like so many others, I wanted to be part of this great musical. I wanted to make people feel what I felt when I had seen this show. Considering how rich and full the chorus parts are, I thought it would be fulfilling to even be in the chorus.
I found a piece to audition with. As people asked what part I was going for and I told them along with my reasons, it became clearer to me the piece to do. I chose the Impossible Dream from Man of LaMancha - another personal favorite of mine. I thought the song was perfect as it shared so many themes with Les Mis. Besides, it was smack in the middle of my range. I worked on the song for two and a half weeks prior to the auditions and asked a very talented pianist I knew to help me work out the kinks (so did many others who auditioned - he was very busy). I also worked on two songs from the show - just in case they asked for comparisons. I did not want to embarrass myself. The time came for audition night, and I felt I was as ready as I'd ever be - not that what I thought mattered all that much. I warmed up, ran the songs a few times and headed out the door with the blessings and best wishes of my wife, Julie.
Scene 1 (Auditions and Callbacks) Feb 26th, 27th, 28th : No one I know actually likes to audition. There are some that slide into this process a little easier than others, but no one I've ever talked to or read about said they actually enjoyed auditioning. It seems to me you must have a pretty healthy ego, be very certain a part is yours, or not really want a part at all for auditions not to bother you. General experience is, the more important a show is to you and the more it means to you to get a part, the worse the audition process tends to be. Some just hide it better than others.
you arrive, there are the greetings to all the people you know and have done
shows with. The atmosphere amongst these people is usually genial and supportive.
Everyone wishes everyone else well, and few, if any, harbor secret desires for
another to have an accident going home after auditions, thereby creating a clear
path to the part they want. You sign in, fill out the audition form and list
what part or parts you are auditioning for and if you don't get those parts
would you accept any part in the show. Then you sit and wait and watch. There
seemed to be more people auditioning for this one show than for the auditions
of all the other shows of the season combined. The rest of the evening was pretty
standard as far as auditions go - with the exception of the amount of people
in attendance. People stood when they were called, handed their music to the
accompanist, told the director what the piece was, sang and sat down. People
applauded almost everyone that sang. At the end of it all, the director announced
he did not need anyone auditioning that night to come back the next. A Call-back
list would be posted on the web and on the front door of the theater. If you
were called back, you were lucky enough to make the second round of auditions
two days later. If not, you weren't in the show. The stakes just kept getting
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Part II. "Pride goeth before the fall", "Be careful what you wish for.....", "etc., etc, etc" Before going any further - I must admit something - I was auditioning for the part of Javert, just in case there is any confusion. I'm a baritone, that part is perfect for my voice. Personally I am known by friends to be bombastic, opinionated, intense, and sometimes one-track minded. My voice too, is not known for its gentleness. Besides, I considered Javert's death to be both tragic and heroic (I'm not sure it could be heroic unless it was tragic). This was the only role I wrote on the audition form. I also wrote, when asked on the form "Would you accept any role you are cast in", Yes! Anything! And now for the embarrassing confession: Although I was fully convinced Javert was the part I was right for, I wanted to at least be considered for Jean Valjean. I was under no assumption that I'd ever be cast in that part and I'm sure that if asked at that time, I would have said "No, I don't want that part" (I did, in fact, say this adding that I didn't think I could sing it), but call it pride, ego, whatever, I didn't want to be immediately dismissed from the thought of being cast in that part. The two songs I worked on aside from The Impossible Dream (which I sung on Monday's audition) was Stars and Bring him Home. I also took a look at the end of the Prologue, which I consider to be one of the more difficult pieces for Jean Valjean. It jumps over an octave from one note to the next and it hits a b in full voice. As I said, I didn't want to embarrass myself. I was sure others would be there that would sing Bring Him Home much better, but I wanted to make a good showing of myself.
Having said that, it's time to move on to the final night of auditions - THE CALLBACKS aka THE NIGHT OF DREAD. Relief! The callback sheet is out, and my name is on it. I made the cut. I still have a chance to be in the show. The number of people was sliced to 80 for the callbacks. I start looking for who else made the callbacks when, REALIZATION SETS IN. We have to audition - AGAIN! How is the director going to run this? Eighty people in one night? This is going to be a long night. We show up at 7 pm on Wednesday night. People have already started to gel into groups. Many people already know each other and seem to be collecting together for support, to have a quick laugh to ease the nerves they feel or to speculate on how this final night will run. Even most of the new people seem to have met someone they can associate with and are busy doing just that. The director comes out, thanks everyone that made the callbacks for coming out and congratulates them on making it this far. He knows the audition process is difficult and it is no easier for him - he has some tough choices ahead. He then explains how this evening will run. People will be grouped by the part(s) they are auditioning for and/or the part(s) they are being considered for. My name is called for the Jean Valjean/Javert group. The rest of the groups, as best I can remember were as follows: The Students/Marius Group, The Cossette/Eponine Group, the Young Cossette/Gavroche Group, The Thenadier's Group, and lastly by vocal groups Sopranos, Altos, Tenors, etc. The director further explains that groups will be called up and they will learn pieces of music from the show. After singing together several times to make sure everyone knows the part, each person will take a turn singing that part solo. Each group may end up learning two or three parts which means all the other groups have plenty of time to worry, warmup, worry, speculate on who they think is now in the show, worry, warmup and worry somemore.
At this point you tend to do one of several things. I started taking deep breaths, as quietly and innocuously as possible, in order to calm down. I now knew who is also in line for the part I had in mind, if I was actually being considered for the part I had in mind. I also knew that I would now have to sing some of Valjean, IN FRONT OF EVERYONE! Luckily it's not the part I'm going out for. During this process of sorting, people sing and then stand on stage together for a good comparison by the director. In the case of the students/Marius group, and the Cossette/Eponine group he also did a final comparison with the whole of both groups on stage. He did this for each group and the only indication you may have had of what he was thinking was if he moved people from one group to another. I don't remember more detail of these events because I was having adrenaline hallucinations.
About third on the list, he taught the Valjean/Javert/Enjolras hopefuls several pieces and I remember thinking, "Everything seems rather easy so far", when he dropped the bomb on us - The end of the Prologue. There was one difference however, he didn't teach it to the group collectively for it was only the last two lines of it "I'll escape now from this world, from the world of Jean Valjean," (Jumping over an octave to aabababaaababaa) "Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story to begin." As it came to my turn, I felt my mouth go dry, and a slight trembling in my legs began when I stood to sing. I nodded that I was ready and I started to sing - setting off a chain reaction to my adrenal glands which then flooded my system and I felt like I was simultaneously flying and about to collapse. Well, I was closer to collapse, because the trembling in my legs escalated into a major quake, which reverberated through my whole body. I had to grab the back of the chair - I WAS HAVING A SEIZURE. I finished and my last thought, before collapsing back into my chair in a ragged, sweaty heap, was I did it. I gave it my best shot and whatever happens, happens.
After asking our group to stay because he had more for us to do later, the director moved on to other groups. I spoke to people and we had a good laugh about my loss of bodily control. I began to relax thinking the worst was over, and settled into watching the rest of the groups audition. At last the director called the thinned out Valjean/Javert group back. As we were the only ones left in the theater, this made perfect sense. We assembled and collectively/then individually sang some Javert, ending with Stars; Enjolras ending with I can't remember what; and finally Valjean ending with Bring Him Home. At this point I was so exhausted that I could no longer become nervous. We finished and he had us stand on stage for a comparison before thanking us and reiterating when the Cast list would be published.
had to wait two days before we'd find out anything. Two days to review all the
mistakes you made, two days to compare and find every reason under the sun why
you will barely make the chorus - if you are cast at all, two days to convince
yourself it wasn't that important so you don't feel like a total fool when you
haven't been cast and lastly, two days of waiting to find out that you've been
cast as JEAN VALJEAN!
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Part III "You're Jean Valjean!" A few of the thoughts that flashed through my head when Dane Winters, The Roadside Theater Director, said those three words to me were: "Funny Joke!" "He isn't joking." "Are they all crazy!" "How am I ever going to pull this one off!"? I, at present, no longer have any recollection of my response to Dane. I might as well have fainted for all the memory I have of the moments following Dane's proclamation.
I do remember telling Jim Sohre, the director of Les Mis, when he congratulated me, "Thanks, I'm scared sh*tless!" He just smiled and said, "Good, fear is a wonderful motivator." I think I really did faint after that.
A complete cast rehearsal to run the choral music was scheduled for the following Wednesday with solo rehearsals on the Thursday and Friday after that. The rehearsal schedule for the first two weeks was rather light because Lost in Yonkers was running for another two weeks and trying to choreograph so many people (over 50) on a stage set with the interior of a house would be impossible - so we stuck to the music, which some would argue was the important part of the show, anyway. Also, Jim had to go TDY (a sort of military business trip) and would be gone the second week; so, we were given the necessary jumping off point, and it was up to us to become a little more familiar with our parts and music after the initial rehearsals.
Prior to the first rehearsal, I began listening to two different soundtracks (BIG MISTAKE!!!!! - but I'll get into that later), and downloaded the book off the Internet to begin reading. Ron Paoletti (Thenardier) was also kind enough to give me his copy of Cliff Notes which I devoured in two days. I then proceeded to wade through many Les Mis fan websites, to get an inkling of any new and differing perspectives on both characters and the show as a whole.
The night for the Complete Cast Rehearsal came. There were the usual rounds of greetings and congratulations, followed by a brief speech and introductions by the director. I'll now bypass most of my impressions of that evening to present the one impression that hit me like a freight train and has thus far stayed with me. As the chorus opened their collective mouths for the first time and almost every time since, I became awestruck. I felt gooseflesh on my arms and the back of my neck as they sang At the End of the Day and grinned broadly while tapping my foot during Lovely Ladies. It brought the feeling of seeing the show on Broadway back home to me, and I kept thinking, these people are great, we CAN do this! We had a long, long way to go, but I felt at that moment we surely would get there. The soloists and principals were strong, though if anyone was like me, they were feeling "I have to prove I deserve this" and also like me, felt they most likely fell short of doing just that. An almost constant thought for me that night was "How do I live up to these people?"
The next two nights I attended rehearsals with Jim Sohre, alone on Thursday and with Brendan (Javert) on Friday. Several interesting things revealed themselves during these rehearsals - First, I was going to have to change my singing technique. What I used to create - a big, broad baritone sound - wasn't going to work. I had to work on a new style consistent with the part, something that would keep the whole range in one voice versus switching from my normal style for the lower register and going into head voice for the higher. Secondly, and it was apparent on my own but even more so as Javert and I rehearsed together, I had to stop listening to the soundtracks. The latest edition of the music we were using was written differently than it was sung on the recordings (even if at most times only slightly). The theater had received a digitized music training aid from MTI (the publisher) called RehearScore, which could be played on a computer and through a keyboard. This was an invaluable tool for me to learn my part, and I started using it daily at the theater after work each day for an hour or so while waiting for my wife, Julie to finish work. It wasn't the most private atmosphere and I would stop, embarrassed, every time someone came walking through the area (every 5-10 minutes), because I was afraid of my caterwauling being judged (a stupid assumption on my part) prior to the actual performances and felt I had to apologize for my singing to each person coming through.
closing this portion, I would like to say that during those two weeks, I ran
into many, many people I knew in and outside of the show, from other theater
communities, and even just interested audience members who, to say the least,
surprised and perplexed me with their seemingly complete and utter trust and
faith that I could do this part justice. I was constantly being bowled over
by people's enthusiasm, excitement and, especially their belief in me. At that
point, it seemed people had more confidence in me than I had in myself. I did
have the odd "I thought you were auditioning for Javert," at which I'd smile
sheepishly and say, I did, and receive a skeptical look of disbelief in reply.
But overall during those first two weeks, I received nothing but goodwill and
faith that I was right for the part. I had no idea how I'd ever live up to the
kind of expectations that seemed to be building. I wasn't in for an easy ride,
but I was now determined. Jim Sohre was absolutely right, "Fear is an excellent
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PART IV Rehearsal weeks 4-5: GETTING TO KNOW YOU. The barricade is being built (The design drawing of it was so impressive, I pilfered it from Dane to mat and frame - I need to get as many mementos as possible), props and set pieces have been procured from the local Opera house, costumes are being built and we begin blocking the show. Blocking. What do you say about blocking? It is probably one of the most mundane aspects of doing theater, yet one of the most wonderful as this is the time the production actually begins to take shape. The Director becomes a traffic cop as he orchestrates the movement of anywhere between 2 - 50 people on the stage. He also becomes a teacher to the people who have never done theater before and are just learning staged movement. You go over a scene again and again to adjust it until everything looks the way the director wants it, and then you go over it again to set it in everyone's memory.
It is also a time where the cast is really beginning to get to know one another. I had worked with Jim Sohre previously, but this had been the first time I'd ever auditioned for him and was cast by him in a show. Up until now I had only filled-in for someone who had dropped out of a show he was directing. That really isn't as bad as it sounds. In any show you do with Community Theater, there is always the possibility, because of work, personal problems, whatever - it could be any one of a hundred valid reasons - that a person will drop from a show. It doesn't happen often, but those were the only shows I had worked with Jim on. I only mention this because by casting me, Jim showed an enormous amount of trust in me, that I didn't feel in myself and I was bound and determined to never give him reason to think he made a mistake. I think also, because of the many shows I had enjoyed watching that he had directed, I felt a tad intimidated by him. But from the beginning, it became clear that all he wanted was to present me and everyone in the best light possible. He laid the ground work which enabled me to find a new voice for this show.
When we had started the rehearsal period a few weeks ago, I believe the three girls playing Little Cosette (they are rotating between Little Cosette/Little Eponine/urchin) were somewhat wary of me. Since they've seen that Jeanne Ragonese, a teacher they know who is playing Mdm Thenardier, is a friend of mine, they must have come to the conclusion that I'm safe, because they have begun speaking to me of their own accord.
Tonight will be Clifford Butler's first night and I think a lot of the cast is excited to see who it is that will be playing Enjolras. Clifford flew in from the States over the weekend to spend three and a half months here rehearsing and performing the part. Before he checked into his hotel on Sunday, we had dinner with Clifford and talked about the show (Okay, Clifford and I talked about the show. I think it was starting to wear Julie out). Julie and I had both known Clifford for quite awhile and had done shows with him before he left Germany for Texas, so we knew what the cast would soon find out - Clifford was a Les Mis fanatic. He has seen the show in three different countries that I know of, owns, to my recollection, 6 different soundtracks - some in languages I'm not sure he is fluent in (not including the video of the 10th Anniversary Concert Version), has read the book repeatedly, and seen more versions of the film than I knew had been made. This meant he would be an excellent reference for me, and anyone else who'd choose to pick his brain.
I had spoken to Brendan (Javert) for a bit at the auditions, and a little more at the solo rehearsals I'd had with him, but it wasn't until we had started this portion of the rehearsals that I'd get to know him a little better. Already possessing a very powerful voice, Brendan began taking voice lessons to gain control over that power, and he already seemed to understand how to utilize what he was learning. Never having done a show before, he admitted to being a little concerned about his ability to memorize not only all his music (which he had done already), but the blocking, costume changes and then combine everything, but he already knew what we'd later find out - that he'd do anything to be successful in his dream role. I think Brendan and I both feel that, of our shared scenes, the confrontation will be the most challenging. We are practicing constantly to make it as realistic as possible without actually hurting one another.
I'd seen Barry (Marius) do several shows and always admired his singing which has a rich velvet quality. We'd actually become friends through Mdm Thenardier (Jeanne Ragonese) who'd have a group of us over to her house for dinner when she wasn't involved in one production or another. I've known Jeanne probably longer than anyone else in the show since we met in "The Show That Won't be Named" (Not the real title) back in 1991 and had done several musicals with her since. With Ron Paoletti (Msr Thenardier) and his strong sense of comic timing playing opposite her, it was a sure thing from the very beginning that their scenes were going to be some of the strongest, most appreciated in the show. These are people who would, along with Terry (Feuilly, worker #2, Pimp) and Heather Powell (Fantine), provide an atmosphere of professionalism and a drive to create the best show possible. My working experience with the Powell's was limited, since I'd only done one show with Heather before and had only seen Terry on stage, but we'd gotten to know each other somewhat offstage, and through our discussions I knew that they would be invaluable to this production.
It was a while into the rehearsal period before I really started working with and got to know Christa (Cosette) and Rebekah (Eponine). These two probably traveled the most to and from rehearsals each day. I admit wondering at first how they were ever going to last through the rehearsal period without exhausting themselves, but had to admire the spirit of their dedication. It would be a little longer into the rehearsal period before I would really get to know the rest of the Students and Chorus that I hadn't worked with before or didn't already know.
At this point, I had been singing every day before rehearsals in an attempt to strengthen and stretch my voice, and find the proper vocal placement for my part. There were moments of great frustration and anxiety about whether or not I could actually carry this off. I had to return time and again to Hatem (the pianist who'd helped me with the audition pieces and who now came to work with individuals on music during their down time at rehearsals) to work the kinks out of pieces of music and help smooth out the rougher edges of my voice for the softer material in the show. Talking to Julie Hodge, another member of the cast, also helped me tremendously, as I'd wade through some of the problems I felt I had. Without relying on these two people, I'm not sure I would've ever made the final leap I made to keep the whole show in one voice (though Hatem would disagree with me) and the rehearsal period and performances would've been all the more difficult for me. By the end of this period, as I became more comfortable with this new singing technique and the music in general, it became painfully clear to me that I really needed to start cramming for an emotional and psychological basis for my character.
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Part V Weeks 6-7: Chasing my tail or is insanity setting in? Where to start? I still don’t have all my singing at the comfort level that I’d like yet. I have taken to compulsively singing the problem songs or pieces throughout the day. This can be a bit unsettling, especially when I’m watching a film with [my wife] Julie and I blurt out a bit from “The Bargain”, “Bring Him Home”, “Marius and Cosette” or the beginning of the “Epilogue”. This stuff is going through my head all the time, so I’m not even aware of singing “Alone I wait in the shadows. . .” under my breath as some actor is doing whatever he or she is doing on the TV screen – I mean, I can’t even remember the movies we’re watching. When I answer the phone at work people think they’re being put on hold as they hear me hum “Bring him home”. You get the idea. Julie is dealing rather well with it though. One good solid jab to the ribs usually gets me to stop.
The Barricade is now up and running. It is amazing the effect a set piece can have on the timbre of the rehearsals. To this point, we’d been standing on or in front of a platform, miming the Barricade scenes. It’s difficult getting a firm grasp on what you are actually doing when you are doing it with thin air. Dane put a lot of thought and endless hours of work into the Barricade (If you recall, I nabbed his production drawing of this piece) and was rewarded by whoops, hollers and cheers as it was rolled out for the first time. The guys couldn’t get onto that thing fast enough. Little by little, the whole production is starting to come together: we have a Star Curtain, many of the cast have been to the costumers (myself included) for fittings, and the rest of the set pieces and props are developing more and more each day.
The next two weeks were totally devoted to blocking the rest of the show and running scenes already blocked to iron out the snags or incorporating the new toys into the scenes like the “Runaway Cart”. Dane borrowed a huge wooden cart for the scene from a local opera house. Standing upright on its wheels, it is about as tall as I am at a little over 6ft! Some of the problems were – how do we get this onto Gary without actually killing him and what is the best way for me to lift it so that it looks real? Every day something new was thrown into the mix and hashed and rehashed until the scene worked (the muskets and pistols were another favorite for the Barricade scenes that the students and I had to get our hands on as soon as they came in).
How many people will it take to move the barricade? (I think it’s about four) What’s the easiest way to carry Marius and (after the sewer was built) how do I lower him into the sewer without killing either of us? (We actually had several attempts at this one before deciding I’d lift him off the barricade into an over-the-shoulder Fireman’s Carry. I then get down on both knees with one hand on the stage for support and lower him through the hole in the stage).
Another scene that a lot of time and thought went into was Javert’s Suicide. Do they rig the bridge to fly up, or do they roll it back as Brendan is hoisted on cables to suspend in mid-air, or do they cut the stage and rig a platform for him to stand on as he is slowly being lowered? They eventually decided to have the Bridge fly and combine that with lights and fog to give the impression of the suicide.
Brendan (Javert) and I are still working on The Confrontation. It is feeling a little contrived at the moment; mostly, I think, because we are not used to such deliberate movement which should almost look as if we are stalking each other. We don’t feel it is real – yet.
Christa and I have talked a little about our on-stage relationship and feel there should be, underneath the love between a father and daughter, a bit of tension born of a sheltered teen that is searching for her own way in life and the fear a father has in losing the only love in his life.
Ron Paoletti and Jeanne Ragonese (The Thenardiers) haven’t spoken much of our own stage relationship – I’m sure we’re all feeling that one is pretty clear-cut.
Are you starting to get the idea that I have completely submerged myself in this show? As the weeks progress, I have begun to think less and less of anything else. One morning at work, someone (I can’t remember who because they began to take on the appearance of a Beggar to me) said “Good Morning, How you doing today” to which I responded “That’s very kind of you to ask, here’s for your troubles” before handing them a quarter and trudging towards my office. I haven’t seen that person at work lately; I wonder if they’re avoiding me?
I actually haven’t gone to that extreme – yet, but I have become somewhat obsessive about this show. By the end of this period if I am not thinking about, listening to, singing or humming the music, I’m envisioning the scenes and working through where I want to go with this character.
Ron gave me a copy of the Cliff Notes once the cast had been chosen, and I downloaded the book (abridged version) from the web. We hadn’t gotten the libretto yet, so I also looked for that on the web as it would be my main resource for character development. Once we received it, reading the Libretto purely for textual content was immensely helpful and in most cases all I needed to do – especially since the script is well written. Usually, everything you need to support you as an actor is given to you in the script. Not only are the things Valjean says indicative of who he is, but also what others in the play say about him. So, after reading the script through several times to acclimate myself to the piece, I began looking for specific signals from him and the others as to how I should play him. I had finished the Cliff Notes by this time, but was still reading excerpts from the book itself in order to immerse myself in the flavor of the story.
It is my belief that one of the first things an actor must do, either instinctively or through active preparation, is to find a way to associate with the character they are playing. This is what lays the groundwork for what people call their interpretation of a role.
What seemed most interesting to me about Jean Valjean was his constant struggle to do the right thing. At no time did it ever seem that his deeds were born from an inherent goodness or saintliness. There were even times when his instincts seemed to drive him to do wrong or harmful actions. Especially in the book, he seems to stumble many times before catching himself and questioning his motives and actions. He even questions the motives of his good deeds – whether or not he did them for the right reasons.
When Marius' feelings for Cosette and her feelings for Marius become apparent to Valjean, he heads to the Barricades to see Marius dead. He is so fearful of losing the one love he’s ever known, he intends to remove the source of his eventual loss and suffering. Once at the barricades, his conscience and Marius’ valor sway him to save Marius without a second thought thereafter.
I mention this particular item for a very specific reason. Although it illustrates beautifully the type of man Valjean was and how I wanted to convey the character, it was also totally inappropriate, as I had no way of using it directly. There is never a time in the play that I could show all the negative feelings Valjean has towards Marius. He doesn’t even really know who Marius is until the beginning of Act II when he reads Marius’ letter to Cosette. Valjean then promptly goes to the Barricades, fights along side of the students, prays Marius makes it out alive, and then saves Marius. I initially tried to show how torn he was during the reading of the letter Eponine gives him, going from initial surprise and shock, to anger and then finally acceptance, but it didn’t seem to work - too much information to process and transmit to the audience in too little time which would later become confusing when he saves Marius. So I modified the letter reading to surprise, shock and acceptance, but was able to use the Capture of Javert at the Barricades to illustrate what I could not with Marius.
From the beginning of Act II, Javert convinces the Students he is there to help them, but Gavroche later uncovers his deceit and the students take Javert hostage. Once Valjean arrives he is given free reign by the students to dispose of Javert as he will. As I approach Javert my intent is to rid myself of the thorn in my side and it isn’t until Javert sees my intent and states it is right that a thief should kill with a knife, that I return to my conscience, realize he and I might not be all that different and set him free. There are areas, the end of the prologue for instance, where it is easier to demonstrate Valjean’s conflict with himself.
The rehearsal period is also an excellent time to explore parts of your character that aren’t necessarily dictated by the parameters of the play and discover whether or not something works. After Fantine becomes a prostitute and is about to be arrested by Javert, Valjean discovers them while disguised as Mayor of the town. I found that as I was ordering Javert to release Fantine I was taking pleasure in thwarting his sense of justice and the confusion it caused him, so I expanded on that feeling. As I walk on stage, see Javert with Fantine and discover what is going on, I recognize my opportunity, so that even before singing any of my lines, saving the woman is secondary to humiliating Javert. Of course the pleasure of the moment is swept away by the guilt I feel when discovering I inadvertently placed the women in this situation, at which point my concern for her and doing the right thing becomes my primary focus.
By the end of this two-week rehearsal period I had pretty much discovered where I wanted to go with Valjean and how I wanted to get there. Now it was a matter of putting it into practice for the final two weeks of rehearsals.
Throughout this period Julie remained patient as night by night I’d recount rehearsals to her and discuss where it was taking me. She’d offer her opinions, insights and help me clarify what I was doing which, as always, was invaluable. Now if I could only get to where I was happy with my singing.
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Part VI Julie's gone home to England to visit family for the next two weeks. She actually left last Thursday, the 26th of April, and she felt a little guilty, as if she was running out on me in my time of need, but this was planned a long time ago. Her sister is flying in from Canada and they are all going to their sister-in-law's 50th Birthday party. My feeling is that she better get while the getting is good, because if the next two weeks don't drive me crazy, I'd surely drive her crazy.
We have begun to run an Act a night. The set, for the most part, is completed, but the lights and costumes won't be done until this Sunday when we will put the whole thing together in what is called the tech rehearsal. We run the whole show from then until opening night.
I continue to sing throughout the day because I am still frightened by certain songs. I know I can sing them now - I have reached that level of comfort, but I don't feel I can sing them effortlessly - it even looks like it's hard work. I've found singing the material at home (where it seems so much easier) is much different than singing on stage (where you have a hundred other things to think about beyond the singing). Also, I don't know how long my voice will hold out singing the show in total - will I be able to do a solid opening and find I have no voice the next morning? I should be able to do the show without any strain, so, I'm still concentrating on my singing and my hope is that repetition brings about a kind of muscle memory so that once I've warmed up, I can just go out there and do the role and not think about it. That, unfortunately, has not yet been the case.
Reservations have really started to come in and this in itself is getting everyone psyched up. The next to last week before we open is running very smoothly. No one seems concerned on Thursday night that we open in a week. Of course, we've yet to run this with costumes, lighting, makeup, props or set changes - that comes this Sunday in a scheduled 5 hour rehearsal.
Though needed, Sunday was a grueling process. I don't think that anyone expected anything less, and that being said, I believe everyone felt it went better than expected. I know that sounds a little contradictory. On this day called tech rehearsal, you run the whole show bit by bit. There is a lot of waiting around, but you can't wait in the auditorium or house and watch because this is the day no one is supposed to be anywhere but backstage, paying attention and ready to go on. Well, you can be waiting for 30, 40 minutes or even an hour if a particular scene change is hard to iron out. You might repeat some bit small or large 10 times before moving on. We started at approximately 1pm. and finished somewhere between 6 and 7 that evening. There were three or four scenes (mostly the choral scenes where you're moving a large amount of people, set pieces and props on stage) that took a little more coordination before moving on. Costume problems are brought to the costumers' attention (too tight, too loose, too hard to change in or out of if the scene is a quick change - some scenes you may only have 1-2 minutes or less to change costumes - imagine 25-50 people having to do this). After the regular rehearsal, I stuck around a couple more hours with Patrick, our lighting designer, to be his focal point as he set and focused the lights for as many scenes as we could. So Sunday I got home somewhere between 9:30 - 10:00 pm which was fine because I was taking the whole of the next week prior to opening night off from work.
If all of this seems a bit anticlimactic compared to the buildup weeks ago when we were first getting together to learn music, it is in a way. You tend to concentrate so much on getting everything just right at this point - even knowing you can never get it perfect, that Opening Night is on you before you know it. This last week we ran the show every night and continued to polish scene changes, work pieces of music, worry if costume changes would be made in time and prayed the weather would stay cool as it would probably be 15-20 degrees warmer in the theater than outside. Every night after we ran the show, we'd get notes from Jim Sohre, the director, and the tech crew would meet to discuss problems peculiar to them. Then there comes the time when you have done everything you can do, and that time is OPENING NIGHT.
Friday, 11 May 2001, I am in the Opening Night of the American Community Theater Premiere of Les Miserables. I can't swear that is what was going through every cast member's head throughout the day, but I'd say it was close to that. There are some that might say, "So, what's the big deal?" I dare say those would be the same people who'd say "Les what? Wasn't there a book on that written by some guy?" Actually, I do know of a couple people who were less than impressed with the show (not our production), but were very happy that I was doing it and would see it just to support me. Also, the last thing you really want to do is fail, stink, suck - you pick your favorite synonym and use it. When you have just spent so much time investing yourself in something that will ultimately be judged and you along with it (for that is what an audience does and they let you know by show's end, and sometimes earlier, how you pleased or displeased them) you can't help but be a little anxious.
Julie, her mom, dad and older sister flew in the day before and were going to see the show this evening. It's a relief that she's back though we did talk on the phone at least every other evening and sometimes more frequently. Friday afternoon, Julie's family came by the apartment for an early dinner and to get ready for the evening. I ate, but very little. As they were having coffee and desert, I said my farewells, they gave me their best wishes, and I left for the theater.
I had arrived at the theater, with my two liters of tea, cough drops, Fishermen's Friend and 2-3 liters of water, about two hours before curtain to begin my preparations. I had to place certain costumes in the most accessible areas for my quick changes, check all the props that I'd use to make sure they were in the right places, change into my first costume, all the while doing my warm-ups. During the run of this show I found it necessary to start warming up about an hour to an hour and a half prior to curtain. A concentrated 10-20 minute vocal warm-up wasn't working for me. I'd start slowly working from the bottom up taking a little break to drink some tea and as I began to check on some other aspect of what I'd need to do that evening, I'd begin warming up again, perhaps this time working from the top of my head voice down. After that, I might vocally jump around a bit concentrating on placement, and trying to loosen up a bit. By the time I finished all this, it would be about 1/2 hour before curtain and the rest of the cast would head to the back to do their warm-ups. I then would take the rest of the time to do a kind of meditative relaxation process to calm myself and get into the right frame of mind for the beginning of the show. I have since repeated, to a greater or lesser degree, this 1 1/2 - 2 hour process every evening we've performed. Especially before curtain, I found it necessary to isolate myself from the rest of the cast or withdraw into myself. This was not a show I could go around cheerily slapping backs, joking, offering congratulations and best wishes before taking the stage.
Finally, places are called. As you enter the wings of the stage you can hear the rumble of the audience fill the auditorium. Standing just off stage, I continue to quietly and gently hum to keep my voice warm and focused. The lights go down and the music begins. My heart speeds up - to me, a feeling very similar to hanging out the side of a helicopter a hundred feet up and watching the ground drop as you careen over the edge of canyon cliff. I take a couple of long, deep breaths. The music changes. We step into the darkness of the stage and place ourselves. The lights slowly fade up and the show begins.
Throughout the evening, there were a couple kinks, but no show-stoppers. One of the scrims came off the pulley track, but the tech crew was so prepared that no one noticed it being pulled by hand. A couple of the lighting cues had to be fixed later or explained so we didn't miss them. There may have been a few others but they are lost from my memory. The next few weeks ahead are filled with a similar excitement as each sold-out evening we work our way through this wonderful show, and each performance has it's own unique set of challenges to overcome. One particular moment was when I gouged a finger during the Barricade scene. As each bandage we applied offstage became saturated with blood, I began dripping on the stage, the set and the students. People commented on the realism of the revolution that evening. I continue to search for ways I can grow into Valjean and I've been lucky to find something new, however small, each night. Gradually, step-by-step, I become comfortable enough singing the piece, that I no longer have to think too hard on the process.
Was the show a success? If you believe, as I do, that in every show an actor should learn something about themselves, the craft or art of acting, anything new, that you grow in some way; if you believe that the joy of doing this comes from the hard work of rehearsals, the repetition of trying to get it right, meeting new people and the camaraderie of working with others to create something alive for people to enjoy, to laugh at or with, to cry over, to think about; if you believe that just by doing something, you are already a success because you are giving your best effort, then: yes. This show has been, for me, a tremendous success - doing a show and a part I never thought I'd do. I'd like to take this last moment to thank Jim, Dane, Tim and everyone else involved in this show for a wonderful experience.
The standing ovations and cheering doesn't hurt either.
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