Master of the Bass

Broadway's masterful musical Les Miserables storms Austin's Bass Concert Hall stage

Broadway's masterful musical Les Miserables storms into Austin

Les Miserables
Nick Cartell takes on the role of Jean Valjean during the Austin run of Les Miseables. Photo by Matthew Murphy

With its sweeping score and timeless themes of forgiveness and redemption, audiences never seem to tire of Les Misérables. One of the longest-running Broadway productions of all time, the story set in 19th century France has been reimagined for the 21st century — and will welcome Austin-area audiences to Bass Concert Hall September 10-15.

Nick Cartell has very big shoes to fill playing his dream role as leading man Jean Valjean. “It’s a huge undertaking and challenge to do it justice. So many great people have played this role, so I have such an important responsibility to the fans and their ideas of what they believe the character should be,” says Cartell. “But, I have to stay true to myself as well and make sure I make this character my own.”

As Valjean, Cartell must evolve and age during the emotional three-hour production, beginning as a hardened convict and eventually becoming a respected businessman, a devoted father, and a protector. Valjean grows in large part in response to his endless pursuit by Inspector Javert, who would like nothing more than to see Valjean returned to a life behind bars.

Cartell says he thinks part of the secret to Les Mis’ longevity is that it contains so many age-old themes. “We are in such a world of change ... of people standing up for injustices in the world and for what is right. And that’s the theme of Les Mis,” he explains. ”The entire show is about individuals trying to fight for a better world for themselves. Audiences connect with that.”

The actor says there are at least two elements that make this particular production unique. The first is that the cast is young, which he says adds energy to the show and leaves the audience feeling inspired and as if they are seeing it for the first time. “Everybody in this show loves it so much," Cartell says. "We all kind of grew up listening to it, so we have a certain love for it that we make sure we pour onto the stage every night.”

This production also differs from earlier versions, as it doesn’t use the stage turntable that some viewers associate with the show. In its place, the creative team incorporated several works of art by the novel's author, Victor Hugo. It turned out that in addition to being a great writer, Hugo was also a gifted painter.

“They pulled paintings out of the archives and were able to create projections of Hugo’s images throughout the show, which help the audience come into our world,” says Cartell.

One item that remains unchanged is the music, which continues to stand the test of time. Cartell says it’s remarkable for him to witness how audiences connect to the score. “You can often hear the audience’s reaction when they hear their favorite song or they hear a song in a different way, and they completely fall in love with that again.”

Cartell admits that playing Valjean — and singing for three hours every night — is extremely challenging but says because of the regular vocal workouts, his voice has never been stronger. He revels in making classic songs like "Who am I" and "Bring Him Home" his own every night and describes it as a dream come true.

“It’s one of those dream roles that I never thought I’d be playing now in my career. But I’m so thankful that I get the opportunity to do it.”

Catch Cartell and his Les Mis castmates during the show’s one-week run at Bass Concert Hall September 10-15.