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Saturday, October 24, 2009

My Les Mis Journey

It's taken me a week to get around to writing my post Les Mis wrap up. It's Saturday night, and I'm home capturing two hours of footage I shot today for a law firm's Christmas video. I'm exhausted from a long day so what better way to fight exhaustion than to write an epic essay of Victor Hugo proportions about the significance of Les Mis and its impact on my life. (Note: Please disregard my own disregard for continuity of tense. :p)

I needed to find the right time and the right words to express just what a journey doing Les Mis was for me. If you've been reading my blogs, following my tweets or watching my YouTube videos, you'd know it was all I could really talk about for the last six months. I thought maybe the best way to revisit the whole journey of it would have been to cut and paste all of the tweets going way back to my audition in March. Part of the reason I signed up to Twitter and use it actively is to keep a personal record of my life and thoughts. But by God there were a lot of them. Also, I realized in retrospect that my descriptions of the rehearsal process weren't all that particular, more emotional descriptions. And those emotions tended to repeat. I was either "tired" or "amazed". So, there wasn't a whole lot of point to that.

So the Les Mis journey started for me when I was in primary school - I'd guess Year 4 or 5. Dad had managed to get a taped copy of the Original Cast Recording from a mate and he would play it in the car on drives. On top of this, Dad photocopied the lyrics booklet and put them into a folder with plastic sleeves so we would be able to read and sing-a-long to the extraordinary music. Whenever there was a swear word, Dad would give a little yelping noise to mask it out. "Comforter, philosopher and lifelong WHOOPS" is how Master of the House sounded to us, followed soon after by "Raise it up the master's WHOOOOOOP!" Of course, the fact we had the lyrics in front of us completely defeated the point of such censorship.

The point is, Les Miserables was the musical I first listened to from start to finish. It was the musical I grew up with. I knew every song from constant play and replay. I would end up seeing it twice at QPAC with Rob Guest as Valjean and Bruce Spence as Thenardier, and then not again for some years.

In 2005, Ignatians did it. This was the first time I'd heard of the group "Ignatians". It was marvellous from what I heard but I didn't get to see it, because of my busy schedule with prepping the Law Revue. Daniel Pizzato - Law Revue legend and one of my best friends - was a Les Mis nut. Dead set. He lived and breathed it. He played Gavroche all those years ago and thankfully never let it die within him. We both connected over the love of Les Mis, as well as Marc McKechnie who convened that year, and we rewrote One Day More to close our own first act. It was an odd instrumentation admittedly with guitar, keys, drums, bass and trombone, but the whole cast leapt behind it with great gusto. Such was the power of Les Mis. I do two more years of the revue before I graduate and leave it behind for good.

In 2008, I join Ignatians' choir based on a recommendation from a friend. It's a fun year, it introduces me to a whole new group of people who I now consider good friends and one very special person who is now my best friend and more. The choir meets every Wednesday night and eventually a show is put on by July. But it seems the choir, while fun, is overshadowed by Ignatian's big production of the year - Into The Woods. I'm gobsmacked by the design of the show and the talent on display, it's the first show I've seen of Simone de Haas's.

December 2008. News comes through to me that Ignatians' show for 2009 will be Les Mis again. After saying "squee" more times than a fully grown straight man should say, I calmly decide to be bold and audition. On a rainy rainy night in March with shitty shitty public transport arrangements, I audition for the part of Thenardier but am more than content to simply be in the ensemble. I brought the pliers from work to use as a prop for removing teeth from bodies in the sewer. The special CD I made isolating the backing music to Be Back Soon from Oliver screws up so I have to nervously fudge my way through Master of the House without properly remembering the lyrics. I do get a call back - there's a lovely guy named Alan who's also been called back. I leave the callback thinking "I'm out of my league here. He's good. He's right for it." There's confusion and conflicting messages from different directors as to what my role will be, but in the end, I'm confirmed I'm in the male ensemble, which I'm more than fine with. There's absolutely no room for ego when you're finally going to get to be in the musical you've loved since you were 10. I say "squee" one more time before I put that silly silly word to rest.

Our first meeting/rehearsal in April. The entire cast of 40-45 sits in a giant circle. There are maybe half a dozen people I recognize from choir, the rest are all new people to me. I recognize Brad McCaw from Starlight's Rent at the Schonell a few years ago and from Into The Woods. In the circle, I'm seated next to a friendly guy who introduces himself as Chris. He knows nobody here. He asks who I'm playing, I say "male ensemble". I reciprocate the question, he says "Javert". "That's awesome!" I say, and I cheekily think "The good villains are always nice in real life. This is good." Simone, Edgar, Harmony, Sara, Bryn and Christine all introduce themselves and their roles on the production crew. We're reminded of how awesome we are to have gotten through 200 auditionees and it's reassuring - the first feeling I get of "this is really going to be good". We're told to not listen to any cast recordings for fear that they will influence our performances. We're told to take three months to learn the music and read the book - to do our research, to base the show on the original source of which the musical is an abridged, condensed and altered version. Simone's vision for the show was gritty and seamy, like the streets of Paris in 1832 should have been. I thought it would be like the Batman Begins version of Les Mis.

In June, the rehearsals start. The strangest night was reading through the show, like a script reading, with only occasional singing. Given the show is entirely sung, it felt and sounded quite odd to hear it spoken, particularly with all the rhyming. It was like Dr. Seuss had written it.

We were shown models of what the set would look like and a description of the lighting and costuming and how it all ties into the concept of the show. There would be a forced perspective design with buildings on trucks/trolleys that will give the appearance of a street with connecting alleyways; as a result, the barricade will completely (and appropriately) block the whole street off, as it would have back in the real Paris of 1832. The lighting would be done in a way to represent the passage of a single day, as if, "this is the life of Jean Valjean, from the moment he changed his life in the prologue to his death at the end". We're all already stunned by how much thought has gone into this.

Week by week, scene by scene, we slowly pieced together the music with Harmony and Edgar. The ensemble parts are cast as we proceeded. Eventually, the staging began. It's also a slow process, but painstakingly done to Simone's vision. We hold a special rehearsal where really really workshop all of our characters, even the ones with no names or lines. It's Simone's vision to have an incredibly detail pastiche of characters with their own storylines happening in the background, reinforcing the fact we are an "ensemble" not a "chorus".

Week by week, the cast began to grow closer. We bonded over Sunday afternoon drinks at the RE or Regatta. At first, there were only four or so people. The next week, there were twelve to fifteen. It kept growing until the majority of the 30-something cast were there casually socializing. We started to see each other three times a week for rehearsals, and if we didn't, we added each other on Facebook and would talk online all the time. We'd get together for coffee and movies and social arrangements outside of rehearsals.

We had our first run with the AMAZING orchestra at the end of August. From the first note of the overture, we were in tears, we were giddy. The music we'd heard over and over on the piano was suddenly a fully fledged beast of an epic, and all of the pieces slid into place. We erupted with applause. There were no words that could describe the sensation of sitting there and hear that first timpani bang, cymbal roll and blast of the brass in the Old Museum that day - shivers, goosebumps, tears and standing ovations. It was suddenly very very real. We were in Les Miserables. There was no doubt, no fear. There was nothing amateur about this show - this was as professional as you could get without being paid for it. This will be spectacular. :)

And it's at this point that I realized that I called it at the start of the year.

I made an observation that, every five years, I'll find myself in a emotionally unhappy place but will then happen to get myself involved in a show so amazing with people that become incredibly close friends. In 1999, I did my high school musical which did so; in 2004, I did the Law Revue with people I'm still close friends with and work with. 2009 was Les Mis for me.

Tickets sales rocketed even before we'd done any real press for it. We had about 8500 seats to fill over 20 shows. By the end, thanks to amazing word of mouth and reviews from the local media, we ended up selling out most of those performances. 420 people a show. People who baulked at the ticket price initially saw the show and rang up the next morning to rebook and demand to be in the front row. The audience reception and demand for tickets was phenomenal. On the last few nights, there were women with signs in the foyer begging for someone to sell them a ticket. I had friends who had to cancel their tickets - when I alerted the box office as to this, the tickets were resold in a matter of minutes. One desperate girl confessed to searching eBay for them (she didn't find any, but still...). In the end, almost 8000 tickets were sold. I can't believe we were all in a show that played to almost 8000 people.

I knew this would be a fun show, but I genuinely didn't realize it would be this good.

Les Mis is a favourite musical of everyone involved - it was such a labour of love. Early on, I proposed to some of the guys that the show was coming along so well simply because of a love of the material, but I was quite quickly met with looks of "I don't know" and told it was much more than that. And they were right. They'd said that they'd been in some right rotten casts with divas and limelight hoggers, of which there were none in our show. It's one thing to love a show, it's another thing to love a show, be talented and be in good personal company. It really came down to the calibre and quality of all of the people involved - the crew, the cast, the orchestra, the backstage, the sound/lighting guys - who aren't just talented but beautiful people as well. Simone continually described us not as a chorus but as an ensemble. There is a difference and it's a difference that changes the significance of a show to the people involved.

It really was one of the best things I've had the honour and the privilege to be a part of. I'm forever personally grateful to Simone, Harmony and Edgar to give me - and all of us - the opportunity to do something I will never forget for the rest of my life.

To me, there will be no other Les Miserables cast like ours and I'll never see or listen to the show the same way again.

They are the people. They are my friends.
I hear them singing.
I will always hear them sing.

For more information on Ignatians and how to get involved in their choir or other productions, go to

1 comment:

hendo said...

James. This was a fantastic experience and for my first on-stage show I couldn't have asked for anything more.
I especially like your statement about the first run with the orchestra at the OMB... I couldn't believe how that sounded!!
Here's to working together again and having at least half as much fun along the way!