Les Miserables is one of the country’s most beloved musicals. Now, Atlantans can see a local, professional production of it for the first time at Aurora Theatre. Bryant Smith stars as Jean Valjean, and in this Feature Q & A, he discusses the role, the importance of the musical and more.
What drew you to take part in Les Misérables?
Les Mis has been one of my top two favorite shows since I first heard it in 1995. Of course, then I was so young I wanted to play Marius; then, as I grew older, that changed to Enjolras, then to Javert, but never in my wildest dream did I imagine I would be blessed enough to play Valjean. My voice is best suited for legit-style musicals. You will never see me in a Spring Awakening or a Rent or an American Idiot . I don’t fit in this new wave of rock style musicals, unfortunately. So, when I got the audition notice for Les Mis it was a no-brainer. I would go in for it. When I found out I was being brought in for the role of Valjean, I could not have been more pleased, or more honored. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to take on a role like this? Not only do you get to sing some of the best music EVER written, but the actor in me could not wait to tackle the acting side of the character. My training and degrees (B.A. & M.F.A.) are all in straight theatre (not musical theatre), so I love the opportunity to use this training. I long for roles that allow for true acting and character development – to be able to delve into the script, the words, and break it down, discover the relationships, see what discoveries come from the rehearsal process – this excites me. So, the chance and the opportunity to work on a show and a character that not only allows this but REQUIRES this is a dream come true!
What was your first experience with Les Misérables?
My high school drama teacher, Kimberly Staples, introduced me to Les Mis in 1995. I was performing in the IE events at the International Thespian Conference in Lincoln, Nebraska; so, we were out there for the week. We were walking across the campus talking about my future. She told me that if I planned on making theater my future then I had to know this show. I bought it that afternoon from a music store across from campus (I know, remember when places like Turtles Music or Blockbuster Music actually existed!?). Up to that point, my favorite (and still a favorite) musical was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. My dad and I had heard “Music of the Night” performed by Michael Crawford on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon in 1986, and we went to Record Heaven that afternoon to buy the LP Record. I listened to that thing constantly. I wore out too many record player needles in the decade to follow. When I heard Les Mis, I could not get enough of it. Even though I listened to the show for years, I did not have the opportunity to see the show until December 13, 2007 (some dates you never forget) when it was about to close on Broadway for the second time. To say it was well worth the wait would be an understatement. The cast included John Owen-Jones, Judy Kuhn, Gary Beach, and Jenny Gallow. Listening to John Owen-Jones sing “Bring Him Home” ranks as the most moving and emotional moment I’ve ever experienced in a theater.
How would you describe Jean Valjean?
He is the ultimate example of what redemptive love and grace can do to change a life. Here is a man who spent 19 years in the Toulon prison for a petty crime – stealing a loaf of bread. He received 5 years for the crime and 14 years for trying to escape. During this time, Valjean was stripped of his name and given a number. He was dehumanized. And, when given parole, none of this was restored to him. His yellow ticket of parole would forever become a scarlet letter, branding him a convict and a social outcast for the rest of his life with no chance of redemption or opportunity to change. But, his life was forever changed when a kind old man, the Bishop of Digne, offers him grace, love and trust. Amazing how strong these are, they cut through the pain and hatred of nineteen years and stirred inside Valjean something he had never felt. He could no longer pretend he was the same man. The Bishop had spoken love and grace over him and touched his heart. He then decides to break parole and he disappears, becoming a new man-a man the society would not let him become otherwise. He becomes an honest man, revitalizes a small manufacturing town, becomes mayor of the town, and spends his life’s saving taking care of the people of the town. He proves that love and grace can be a redemptive force when accepted. When not able to accept this, it can be destructive, as in the character of Javert (but that is another story entirely).
How important is that message in today’s society?
If everyone would actually understand not only what grace is but also how to give and receive it, then this world would be a much better place. Upon his parole from Toulon, Valjean finds himself shunned from society. He can’t find work. He can’t find lodging or a meal to eat, though he is willing to pay. He has been forever branded a convict, and this brand allows for no redemption and no chance for change. As Javert says,“Once a thief forever a thief.” Now, I could write a whole exposition on how this is still true today. Society never forgets, let alone forgives. I could list three examples in the headlines as of this morning where this is apparent, but I do not wish to start any type of argument ( if you want to do that, just post something on Facebook and watch how fast the social media piranhas jump all over it).
When the Bishop extends grace to Valjean, he chooses to live the remainder of his life in such a way as to make up for the first part. Valjean becomes generous and giving. He learns to love when Cosette enters his life. But, much like the society, Valjean can never forgive himself. He can’t let go of his past. He keeps it from Cosette and everyone around him. He feels that if Cosette knew the truth, she would never love him again, and nothing is more important to Valjean in the second half of his life than being “Papa” to Cosette. She is his world. She showed him how to love. She brought happiness to his dark life. He is afraid if she knew he was a convict who broke parole, she would begin to treat him with the same disgust that society would. Cosette knows he is hiding something, but she doesn’t learn what until he is dying. And what does Valjean discover? She doesn’t care. Her love for him is stronger than any hate the world can muster. He is and will always be her “Papa.” The truth didn’t scare her off. It caused her to hold on to him even stronger. How could you not fight to live for that? So what do I hope the audience takes away? The power of love, grace, and forgiveness – not only for ourselves, but for others – be able to accept grace. It is one thing to offer grace to someone undeserving, but to be the undeserved, it is even harder to accept it. But we all need it . Otherwise, what hope do we have? Don’t judge anyone until you have gone through what they have experienced. Let he who is free from sin cast the first stone? Last I checked, the world is full of sin and sinful people. So leave the stones on the ground.
Why do you think audiences are so drawn to the musical?
Not only for the reasons I listed in the answers above concerning love, grace, forgiveness, and redemption, which I think are subconsciously why people are drawn to the musical, but, obviously, the music. I think, no I believe, that Les Miserables is the most perfect musical ever written. From book to music from the relationships and the overarching themes everyone can relate to (who isn’t in need of grace or forgiveness?) to the way the music is arranged (which 99% of the audience will never realize), it is as close to perfection as you can get. It speaks, in some way, to every person in the audience. We can relate to every character, whether we like what we see or not. It is as close to holding a mirror up to reality as is possible. We just have to be brave enough to look into it!
What do you hope an audience member gets most from seeing Les Misérables?
To begin with, this is the most intimate production of Les Miserables that you will have seen to date. The Aurora offers an intimate space which literally thrusts you into the barricade with us. Believe it or not, the main focus of this production was not making the music pretty. Don’t worry, with Ann-Carol Pence as music director, you can rest assured the beauty of the music was NOT sacrificed! The main focus is actually on telling the story. I believe too many musical productions, Les Miserables included, focus on the pretty music, but you have to remember there is a story to tell. You can’t get caught up in singing the “beauty” of the music and forget to tell the story. If you do then all you have is a concert. Acting 101 says everything onstage has to be motivated. This is true for singing a song as well. The best example of this I can give is the “Confrontation” between Javert (Kevin Harry) and myself. I have just revealed to the court that I am the convict “24601.” Javert, the inspector whose life mission it is to track me down, has cornered me in Fantine’s hospital room. This is a pivotal moment. Will I succumb and go back to prison or will I fight? The song, in rehearsals, started out as this pretty (for the sake of a better adjective) duet, but once on our feet and putting the “why” (a.k.a. motivation) behind the words, it became an animalistic piece, where our character’s very survival is on the line. Now, which is more interesting to watch? I hope the audience comes away with a better understanding of the story and of the relationships. The best compliments we have received thus far are from people saying that they heard things they had never heard before, even after 20 years of seeing it! Or, that they never realized the relationships between certain characters. Or, as one patron put it, having seen the show way more times than he could count, he never realized how Valjean and Javert are the same character until watching our production. The difference? One accepts grace and the other doesn’t, but come see the show to fully understand what I mean! Our production will literally throw you into the world of the French Revolution, and it is my hope that as you experience the journey with us, you will never be the same. The story is THAT powerful.
What is your favorite song in the show?
My favorite song in the show has always been “Drink With Me.” I have the privilege of being onstage and listening to this song every night. It is the night before the second battle at the barricade. The revolutionaries, mere boys, are sharing this night with their brothers, girlfriends, and in some cases, their fathers. They all realize that this could be the last night of their lives. They are outmanned. They are outgunned. All they have is resolve and the vision of a better France for everyone, especially the poor. This song offers a perspective as to what they are thinking. My favorite verse is Grantaire’s (sung by Chris Lewis): “Drink with me to days gone by / Can it be you fear to die? / Will the world remember you when you fall? / Can it be your death means nothing at all? / Is your life just one more lie?” Even though outwardly these boys are putting on a strong face and façade, knowing their slim to none chance of success, this line is a glimpse into their hearts. The words that they are afraid to say out loud. It has always been a touching, tender, and gut-wrenching moment to me.
As for my own songs, how do I pick just one? I am blessed to be able to sing songs such as “Soliloquy,” “Bring Him Home,” “Confrontation,” “Who Am I,” and “One Day More” every night, but I think the one song that I enjoy the most is the ending, “Epilogue.” I am at the end of my life. I have confessed to Marius the truth about myself, but sworn him to secrecy. He can never tell Cosette. I have left, knowing her life is with him now. It is the night of their wedding, and instead of being there, I am alone with God, knowing my final moments are here. It destroys me to know I am missing her wedding, but, in my world, it is better for her to be without me, knowing what I was before her. The truth can only bring shame and ruin to her. I have my moment with God, asking him to give grace to Cosette and Marius on this their wedding day. Then, with all that is in me, I ask Him the mercy of allowing me to join Him. I have lived my life. I have done my duty and raised Cosette with all the love I was capable of ; there is nothing left on this Earth for me. But God is not ready for me quite yet . He has one more gift for me, and it is the best gift I could ever receive – and if you don’t know what it is, then you will just have to come see the show (but be sure to remember the Kleenex, especially knowing how good Kelly Schmidt as Cosette and Michael Stiggers as Marius are in this scene!).
Why was Aurora Theatre the right choice for the first regional theater in the Atlanta area to present Les Misérables?
Why not the Aurora? Anthony Rodriguez and Ann-Carol Pence and their staff have created a machine in Lawrenceville. First off, the theatre itself is perfect. I love intimate spaces, especially as an actor. The space with the set literally thrusts you into the barricade. The audience can’t help but feel like they are a part of show. And with Anthony producing, you could be assured that the backing would be there, and with Ann-Carol music directing, you could bet that the music would be spectacular. Add Justin Anderson as director into that mix, with his vision and concept, and how could you possible go wrong? It is truly the one of the strongest teams I have had the opportunity to be a part of .
I had no doubt when I heard that the Aurora Theatre was the choice for Atlanta’s first regional theater to produce Les Miserables that they would do whatever was required to make this the best production it could be , and they have not disappointed!
I am blessed beyond what I deserve to be a part of the Aurora’s production of Les Miserables. My passion for this show and this story knows no bounds. There is so much for someone to take from this story – so many life lessons. From what it is to accept grace to what it is to forgive and to love unconditionally. These will never cease to be important. In the novel, Valjean says it best: “To die is nothing; but it is terrible not to live” (1197).
Les Miserables runs through September 8, 2013 at Aurora Theatre. For Tickets and more information, click here.