Les Miserables, the musical based on the classic Victor Hugo novel, is the world's longest-running musical and one of the most popular of all time. Produced in 42 countries and seen by more than 65 million people, the sung-through drama enjoyed a resurgence after last year's hit movie version, which starred Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe and nabbed Anne Hathaway an Oscar for best supporting actress.
Now it's coming to the Austin stage.
Opening September 25 at ZACH's new Topfer Theatre, Les Mis is sure to take Austinites by storm. With its soaring anthems and larger-than-life scenes, the international phenomenon should achieve a different feeling in the smaller-scale Topfer Theatre.
"Les Mis is a classic of musical theater now, so the opportunity to face its epic challenges was something I just couldn't resist. I'm just trying to tell this beautiful, sprawling, romantic story well and clearly." — Director Matt Lenz
"It's bold and yet very intimate in this theater," says director Matt Lenz. "Because many audience members will have had a previous Les Mis experience, I have tried to fulfill many of the iconic moments while allowing myself to interpret fresh. Les Mis is a true, enduring classic of the musical theater now, so the opportunity to work on it, face its epic challenges and conceive our own version was something I just couldn't resist. Mostly, I'm just trying to tell this beautiful, sprawling, romantic story well and clearly."
Lenz adds that part of the joy of this production for him was finding a dynamic and talented cast that represents the diversity of Austin. Pat McRoberts takes on the role of Jean Valjean, while Nicholas Rodriguez co-stars as Inspector Javert. The production cast and crew yields a touching backstory as well. Lenz and Rodriguez are partners in real life — having met on the ZACH stage 10 years ago.
Backtrack a decade, when Lenz was working on the production of Love! Valour! Compassion! The day before rehearsals were to begin, Lenz received a call from the stage manager informing him that they had lost the actor who was set to play the role of Ramon. "I was instantly panicked, knowing that I had no second choice lined up and nary an idea of anyone to call," Lenz recalls.
But as luck — or fate, Lenz says — would have it, Rodriguez was in town for the weekend. Originally from Austin, Rodriguez was living in New York at the time but was back in Texas after a European tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. Dave Steakley, ZACH's artistic director, was out having brunch with some friends when he spotted Rodriguez and convinced him to come to ZACH and meet with Lenz.
"Obviously, we cast him that night," Lenz says. "The show and the entire process turned out to be meaningful and magical for all involved."
Their personal romance, however, didn't really start until after Love! Valour! Compassion! had closed. "Part of our initial attraction had to do with a mutual respect for our respective talents and approach to the work, and I think that appreciation has just gotten stronger as we've both evolved as artists and people," says Lenz.
Regarding the casting of Rodriguez as Javert in the Les Miserables production, Lenz says that his big, rich baritone voice was part of what made him seem a natural fit for the part.
"Nicholas and I took a few weeks to discuss what the best fit for him would be," says Lenz. "Nicholas wanted something that would be somewhat of a challenge, and I wanted to be sure that whichever direction we went, it made sense with the overall balance of this particular company of actors. I really wanted the two leading men to be vital and strong, both physically and psychically. Nicholas has a real physical presence and command on stage, so the role of Javert was seeming like a good choice. And then I found Pat McRoberts, our Jean Valjean, and I felt they'd be a really good energetic match."
Lenz is clearly excited about bringing the show, which he has admired since first seeing it on Broadway in the 80s, to the Austin stage. "I've always loved the breathtaking music and the sprawling scope of the story. The original staging was so innovative and so smart, it was a little daunting to diverge from that, but I love a good creative challenge. So here we are."
Les Miserables will open September 25 and runs through November 3. Tickets cost $25-105, with $18 student rush tickets available one hour before showtime with valid ID. To purchase tickets or for more information, visit www.zachtheatre.org.