Episode 156: Double Les Miz Double Valjean
Host Lindsay Price and Theatrefolk co-owner Craig Mason had a unique theatrical experience. They saw Les Miserables twice in three days. The first show had the closing night performance of Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean and the second saw Alfie Boe in his opening night performance. Two actors. Two Valjean’s. How did each performer interpret the role? In a long running piece like Les Miserables is there room for actor interpretation? What were the similarities and the differences? Tune in to find out!
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere. Woohoo! I had to get excited there!
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 156.
You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at theatrefolk.com/episode156.
Today, today is a Lindsay and Craig talk – Lindsay and Craig, Lindsay and Craig. That’s Lindsay Price – me – and Craig Mason – co-owner of Theatrefolk and my co-cohort – co-cohort? Is that a word? Cohort! Cohort in crime.
We had a unique theatrical experience a while back. We saw the same show twice, a couple of days after each other. We saw Les Miz with two different actors in the lead role – two different Jean Valjeans. One on his closing night and one on his opening night.
So, what were the similarities? What were the differences? Did we like one more than the other? Is there room for actor interpretation in a long-running show like Les Miz? So many questions! I bet we have answers! I hope we have answers! We better have something, you know – otherwise, it’d be a pretty short podcast. So, let’s find out.
LINDSAY: All right, let me set the scene.
This is Lindsay. Hello everybody. I am also here with Craig Mason.
CRAIG: Hello everybody.
LINDSAY: Hello everybody.
It is quarter to 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night and we are in New York City. We have just come back to the hotel after seeing Les Miz – Les Misérables – for the second time in two days.
Now, there is a very specific reason why we have seen them twice and I’m going to turn this over to Craig.
Craig, why did we decide to come to New York specifically to see Les Miz basically two times in a row? We saw it Sunday afternoon and then we saw it Tuesday night.
CRAIG: A few months ago, I was looking at the theatre area in Reddit and there was a mention that Alfie Boe was coming in to play Jean Valjean in Les Miz. One of the comments on it was Ramin Karimloo was the existing Jean Valjean and he was leaving the show and Alfie Boe was coming in and one of the comments on the post was, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to go see closing night for Ramin Karimloo and then come back two days later to see Alfie Boe do it?”
LINDSAY: And you said, “Hey, Lindsay!”
CRAIG: This little lightbulb went over my head and I thought, “Wow! That would be kind of cool to see!” And so, we checked our calendar. The trip is very tight against some other plans we have but we were able to squeeze it all in and here we are.
LINDSAY: Yeah, and we were like, “Well, you know, we won’t be able to do this because the tickets will be extraordinary.” No, the tickets were pretty much normal. Okay, is the time going to fit? Yeah, the time fits. And here we are!
Craig, what was the first time you were exposed to Alfie Boe?
CRAIG: Well, I first knew of Alfie Boe from watching the 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables which was showing on PBS. I was actually never really a fan of the show but, when it was around, I was in theatre school and I was in that phase where anything that had more than five lights in it was like a mega-musical and was not cool because we were doing these shows with chairs and flashlights and that was cool. So, I was never really a fan of the show and I did see it, actually. I don’t know if it was the original production. When was the original production?
LINDSAY: Oh, you mean not Toronto?
CRAIG: No, the Broadway production.
LINDSAY: Oh, when you were in New York your summer?
LINDSAY: That was ’89?
CRAIG: Something like that. Anyway, I saw that production and then I didn’t think anything of it at all. But, again, I got student rush seats and I was like at the back of the third balcony so I really couldn’t see and I already had a bad attitude and there you go. But, anyway, when that 25th anniversary show came on, I was really captivated by it – namely by Alfie Boe’s portrayal of Jean Valjean and Ramin Karimloo who played Enjolras in that production. So, I thought it would be just amazing to actually see Karimloo do Valjean and then see Alfie Boe do it.
LINDSAY: You know, it’s kind of funny because we have the same opinion of the show because I remember – and here we go, I am about to date myself but – I was 17 years old and I got the tape. I got the tape of Les Miz! I remember wearing out that tape because I thought the songs in isolation were awesome. And then, I went to university and, through circumstance, was able to see the Toronto production twice. I’m not going to say I hated it but I certainly did not play that tape very much after that because I found the show long and I found the show repetitive. This was the old show where there was a revolve and that was okay and I found the ensemble not captivating. I didn’t find it captivating. I didn’t find Javert’s death captivating when I absolutely did in song – when I had that tape and I was playing it. It’s really funny. There was nothing about the show in its origins that attracted me.
And then, same thing, because this 25th anniversary was a concert version, right? It was a concert version, right?
LINDSAY: And so, there were so many things that were great about it and we’re not going to talk about Nick Jonas’ Marius. We’ll just let that slide.
So, here we are. Let’s talk about the show that we saw on Sunday afternoon because there were a lot of extenuating circumstances about the show that we saw – one of which, of course, was Ramin was leaving and Cosette was also leaving and Fantine was leaving.
CRAIG: Yes, and I think there were also some other ensemble members, too. It very much was a closing night for a great many of them.
LINDSAY: You really got the sense that it was the closing night of a family. I think most of these people had been around the show. It was very clear that this was a cohesive bunch.
CRAIG: Yes, they seemed like a very tight-knit family.
LINDSAY: And then, there was an actual tragedy that was also layered on top of this – the young man.
CRAIG: His last name is Jean-Baptiste.
CRAIG: Kyle Jean-Baptiste.
LINDSAY: Kyle Jean-Baptiste – he was the understudy for Jean Valjean. He was the youngest understudy.
CRAIG: He went on and, when he went on, he was the youngest person to ever play Jean Valjean on Broadway. He was 21 years old and he was also the first black person to play Jean Valjean on Broadway – quite a ground-breaking achievement for this young man.
LINDSAY: So, we saw the show on Sunday. On Friday night, he fell from a fire escape and he died. Think about that. The young man has died. There were two shows on Saturday that this group would have had to have done. And then, we saw the show on Sunday which was not only a fresh tragedy but goodbyes.
CRAIG: In a show that is full of death and loss and mourning and questioning the value of life and questioning what happens after you die, all of this layered on made for quite an emotional afternoon.
LINDSAY: We saw the touring production – oh, I don’t know – it must have been last year it came through Buffalo. It was fine. It was a really good serviceable production, very fast-paced, and I remember the second act being long and I think it was always like, “Because that’s Marius and Cosette. We get more Marius and Cosette and I don’t need that.” I’d have to say, the Marius in this production – let me look at the page again – his name is Chris something. They do this in order – Chris McCarrell – he is a rock star. He sang Empty Chairs and Empty Tables. I’ve never been more moved by this song – certainly not when Nick Jonas sang it – and it just never had more poignancy for a song about goodbyes and wasted goodbyes and it was very clear that he was motivated by life and yet still in the character and it was just the whole thing was a magical moment.
It’s one of those theatrical magical moments that we talk about all the time. It’s the reason we do theatre. The problem is you cannot manufacture those moments. You cannot make them happen. So, when they happen, they’re always by surprise and they come and they go and they’re gone.
CRAIG: Yeah, that’s exactly why theatre is so wonderful. It’s because it’s what’s happening in that room right now between you and us. It never happens again. It can’t be recreated. You can go through all of the same motions, sing all the same songs, do all the same things, and you’re not going to have the same result. It’s always different and it’s always changing based on who’s there and what’s happening.
LINDSAY: And so, we saw the show again tonight and we had a new Jean Valjean and a new Fantine and a new Cosette. You got to see Alfie Boe perform the role properly – you know, not just in a concert version but full out. What was your impression?
CRAIG: Both of the Jean Valjeans, I was quite impressed by. They both had, I think, different approaches to the role even though it was the same direction. It’s the same production so it’s the same staging. Karimloo is more…
CRAIG: Light-hearted or loose, and that could have been a factor that it was the last show, too. His Valjean was a little more easy-going whereas Alfie Boe you really felt like the convict that he was continued to be inside him for the rest of his life. You felt like he could be dangerous at any given moment. I didn’t feel that way from Ramin.
LINDSAY: Well, I think that’s a really interesting way that you’ve put it because we both saw on Alfie Boe’s Facebook that one of the things that he chooses to do as Jean Valjean is wear his convict socks. He wears the socks as part of the convict all the way through the show. So, it doesn’t matter how far he’s come with money. It doesn’t matter how far he’s come with raising Cosette. He is a convict at heart. I was looking for it but I never saw them.
CRAIG: Well, it’s something that haunts him his entire life and that’s mirrored by his relationship with Javert who is the policeman who hunts him through his entire life.
LINDSAY: I also found that Alfie Boe’s relationship or his Jean Valjean relationship with Javert was different and it almost felt like a relationship.
CRAIG: Yes, like two great boxers who meet for four iconic fights in their career. Or two great tennis players who meet in Wimbledon four years in a row. It felt like they almost had a respect for one another. They needed each other, basically.
LINDSAY: Yeah, whatever that moment’s called when Fantine has died and the two of them are squaring off.
CRAIG: The confrontation.
LINDSAY: The confrontation and the chains are flying. With Alfie Boe, if he had gone off and punched Javert in the face, I wouldn’t have doubted it. It felt dangerous. I also really loved the moment when Jean Valjean let Javert go. It was this back and forth and back and forth and back and forth – very tense-filled that was not there with Ramin.
CRAIG: No. Yes, I would say that we were never in doubt that Ramin was going to go and do the right thing and let Javert go whereas I felt like Boe’s portrayal, you weren’t sure if he was going to let Javert go. You felt like, “You know what? Maybe he will kill him this time.”
LINDSAY: It’s a perfect example of, you know, the reasons why we did this experiment. What happens when you take a show that is pretty much a train? It has to be a train. There are so many moving parts. There’s so much moving furniture. There’s furniture that moves of its own accord on and off. If you are in the way, you risk hurting yourself and getting run over by a table. There’s so much moving machinery. How do you make a part your own? I felt, in this case particularly, Alfie Boe had his own Jean Valjean and Ramin had his own Jean Valjean.
CRAIG: Well, I think that was clearly, to me, built into that production whereas the touring show that we saw really did feel like a music video. By that, I mean it’s basically switched on at the beginning and goes, goes, goes, goes, goes, goes, goes, goes, goes, and then ends. This production was clearly directed with actors in mind. I’ve never seen it where they’ve given the actors such free reign in the interpretation of the music. They weren’t held to strict metre if they were back-phrasing like crazy. If you know anything about music, you know what that means – back-phrasing like crazy. They were just changing beats up. Everyone was given that opportunity to do so. The only time everyone was really together was, you know, on the parts where everyone is singing together. But, in solos, people clearly were allowed to almost take free reign with their music.
And so, the positive thing about that was that it really was for the actors. The actors really could put their own spin on the characters all within the same context of the same production but acknowledging that everybody’s different, everybody’s approaching the role from a different place, and that they were allowed to express themselves that way. Even between the two shows, there were a couple of ensemble members who were noticeably different. Like, they were playing 15 different roles in the show and they’re noticeably different characters in those tracks. I think that was a fine aspect of the direction of the show – that that was allowed to happen.
LINDSAY: Yes, I would say – and I can’t believe I’m saying this because I’m an ensemble girl and I love when I see ensemble doing business – a couple of times, I’m like, “Guys! Guys, I get it! Chill out with the business.” The business in the Thénardiers song, Master of the House, it overwhelmed the song and I’m like, I loved it, a watched a piss pot end up in some wine that I thought was just choice.
So, I wanted one more very vivid example of making a moment character your own with the Valjeans and it really showed the difference between Ramin and Alfie Boe. There’s a moment where Valjean gives little Cosette a doll and he pulls it out of his sack and the doll’s head is on backwards and it happened twice so, obviously, this doll has got a loose-y-goose-y head.
So, when Ramin pulled the doll out, he made a pretty big deal about the fact that the doll’s head was on backwards and turned it around in character, got a laugh. Alfie Boe – he picked it up, left it in his lap, saw the head was on backwards, very small shift, gave the doll. Alfie Boe was business. His Valjean was all business. His Valjean would not have done that. Ramin’s Valjean got laughs during the Thénardiers song. In Alfie Boe’s, it was very clear and I can’t remember if the Thénardiers reacted the same way to Ramin but they were scared of him and that was great.
Now, we’re going to talk about a compare and contrast the Fantines. I’m not sure what to say because the first Fantine – and I’m not going to name these girls because I’m going to say something not nice – these ladies – they’re not girls, they’re women – the first Fantine was fantastic. The one was saw on Saturday night, again, she’s been with the show a long time. It’s not a part that I enjoy and I was riveted by that journey. I don’t know if it’s because of the way things got in this new rendition – if things got shuffled a bit – but Fantine’s journey really struck me and her portrayal struck me.
What did you think?
CRAIG: Yeah, no, I loved her. Actually, I do like that role – if nothing for the fact that I’m jealous of that role because you get to have one of the best songs in the show!
LINDSAY: And you go away.
CRAIG: And you can hang out in your dressing room! Before intermission, you’re done! It’s great!
LINDSAY: I will say that song has my favorite adaptation moment because the song takes about – I don’t know – four chapters of the book and condenses it down to one stanza and then it has my favorite line – “the tigers come at night with their voices soft as thunder” – I just love the imagery in that. But, anyway…
Great. Our Tuesday night Fantine, she’s new to the company. She’s not new to Broadway but her other shows were not in this style. I frankly thought she was having a seizure onstage – the way that she performed the role. You felt she was just out of breath.
CRAIG: I felt that she was very… I’ll tell you why I think that now even more. I felt that she was very nervous. She was not able to take in enough air to sing through an entire thought and those are very short phrases that are in that song. There’s very few long phrases in that song. She was breathing in the middle of four or five-word phrases, taking a breath in the middle of a sentence which is, you know, it’s not good technique. A breath in singing takes you through a phrase, takes you through a thought. You don’t take a breath in the middle of a thought. She was doing that throughout that song.
But what tells me that she was nervous or that something was up there was that, at the very end of the show, when Fantine comes back to take Valjean to the afterlife, she wasn’t doing any of that. Her singing was clean and measured. And so, I’m not sure what was going on. I don’t know if it was an anomaly or what. But I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt.
LINDSAY: I always thought that was supposed to be the showcase role. Didn’t Patti Lupone do it for heaven’s sakes?
CRAIG: Yeah, sure.
LINDSAY: I don’t know. It just was weird to me that someone who would get that nervous, it just wasn’t her first rodeo. I don’t know. It was a very strange thing and I think that her performance alone led to a very strange rhythm in the first act. It was not as fluid. There was something. There was a kind of rhythm.
CRAIG: There was a feeling that something was going wrong in that first act, to me. I don’t know what was happening.
LINDSAY: Lines were missed.
CRAIG: Yeah. I’m not sure what happened but there was something funky going on backstage.
I want to talk about one more thing before we go, too. I want to talk about seeing a show that close – like, a second time.
CRAIG: That close to the first time.
CRAIG: I think back on shows I’ve seen – maybe you do, too – about, you know, favorite memories – shows that you’ve seen that have moved you, shows that you wish you could see again in the same context, relive it again. Seeing it a second time tonight really highlighted for me that those things really just exist in that one moment and you can never go back and see them again and experience them again and to treasure what it was that you loved about that show that you saw because, seeing it the second time, I found myself not being in the moment watching the show. This had nothing to do with the cast; this was all just me.
I found myself wondering about a set piece that shows up later in the show and, “Oh, where does that come from? Because there’s something else there now and that scene’s coming up. How do they get that there?” Or when Javert jumps off the bridge and there’s quite a beautiful effect with him falling into the water.
LINDSAY: Yeah, you and I were both going…
CRAIG: We were both kind of staring and trying to figure out how that effect is done.
LINDSAY: When’s the clip-off? When’s the clip-off? There it is!
CRAIG: When you see it that close together, it takes some of the magic away.
And so, one thing I’ll take away from this experience is to always look back fondly on the shows that I see and keep those memories and treasure them and just celebrate that that’s the one and only time you’re going to have that experience, and that’s not a bad thing, and that’s what’s beautiful about what it is that we do.
LINDSAY: For me, it was so interesting to see the different energies and that a closing has a much different energy than an opening. At a closing, it’s the end of the race, really. It’s the end. It was the end for Ramin and the looseness – and I use that as a compliment in his Bring Him Home and, oh, my gosh, at the opening of the show when he rips up his whatever that card is and ripped his shirt off – he was saying goodbye and he was saying goodbye to this part. I felt the same way with Fantine – that they were saying goodbye to something – a treasure.
The energy of an opening is just on the same. Alfie Boe was all business and I think he should be. He’s there for the long haul. He is at the beginning of his marathon and there is a settling in and new people create new dynamics and new energies. It was very interesting to me. The new Cosette who, in the first act, I went, “I can’t tell the difference between the two Cosettes,” which I think is a compliment because it means she fit right in. But her energy with Marius was quite different when they got to more of their love stuff and that seemed to really start to gel and it was like, “Oh, she’s going to fit in just fine here. She’s going to have a home here because she can fit in with the energies.” And then, it was very interesting because, when we got into the Enjolras stuff because all of those people were the same. That’s when things really settled in for the show because the energy was consistent. It wasn’t new people. It was that same thing.
I enjoyed Sunday’s show more for all of those reasons and because theatre is a magical thing – to be able to witness people saying goodbye to an actual person – that layer on top of the character layer was a unique experience.
I’d just like to end by, you know, if you’re listening to this, maybe you’re listening, this is a great compare and contrast sort of thing that we’ve got going on here, if you’d like to elongate the lesson in this kind of thing, why don’t you get students to do some research and find YouTube videos of different actors playing the same part? Les Miz is a great one to do this with because there are a gazillion actors who have played Éponine and Jean Valjean and Marius.
Just do your own compare and contrast exercise where you see three people sing Bring Him Home or you get three actors who sing A Little Fall of Rain. Oh, what’s the one? On My Own, the Éponine one. Compare and contrast. What are the similarities in the performances? What are the distinct differences? How does the actor make that character their own?
Okay, I think it’s probably too late. It’s late – not too late but late – and it’s time for us to wrap this sucker up.
Thank you very much, Craig Mason.
CRAIG: Thank you very much, Lindsay Price.
Ah! Such an interesting experience! Love it!
Just wait until you hear what Craig and I are doing next. I’ll give you a hint – Shakespeare… Norwegian. Okay, that’s two hints and they’re pretty big, too. But you’ll have to wait for a later podcast to find out more.
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
It’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play!
I’m going to talk about a new middle school play of mine called Box.
Sometimes, we choose the way the world sees us – what our exterior box is, right? Black box and indestructible. Jewelry box, plain on the outside, shiny on the inside. Sometimes, our box is defined by others – by our parents, our friends, our enemies.
A box built by others can feel small and confined and impossible.
This is a really big point, I think, in middle school. How are we defined? How do we define ourselves? And what happens when we are defined by others? Such a big thing in middle school. And how do we handle the boxes imposed of us? How do we handle the boxes imposed on us because of gender or race or peer pressure or parent pressure? Do we live with this box – the way that people see us for the rest of our lives? Is it possible to change?
I’ve really come to love writing middle school plays. I think it’s important. I think it’s so important to give this particular group of students a voice because they have things to say and they complex thoughts and they want to be heard and I really love playing a very tiny part in being able to give middle schoolers a voice.
That is Box. You can go to theatrefolk.com to read sample pages or click the link in the show notes. What are those? Well, they are right here at theatrefolk.com/episode156.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”