In 1800s France, a man steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, serves 19 years in prison and is hounded by a policeman after breaking parole to begin a new life dedicated to helping others.
The man, of course, is Jean Valjean, the main character in Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel “Les Miserables” as well as the stage musical based upon it. The musical, which debuted in Paris in 1980, has been seen by more than 70 million people around the world since.
For Spokane-area fans, the opportunity to once again man the barricades as Paris swirls with revolutionary fervor begins Tuesday when the touring show arrives at the First Interstate Center for the Arts as part of the STCU Best of Broadway series.
Nick Cartell, who has been playing Jean Valjean on tour since 2017, said it was a little terrifying to take on such a lofty role.
“It was a dream role of mine,” Cartell said in a phone interview from a tour stop in Chicago. “A role that I didn’t think I would be playing right now in my career, but I am so thankful that I am. But with it comes a lot of responsibility. … Everybody who has seen the show before or seen the movie, they all have their favorite Valjean, so it’s a responsibility to pay respect to those performers but also to try to make the role my own.”
Directed by Laurence Conner and James Powell, with music and book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, “Les Miserables” begins as Valjean is about to be paroled. The distrustful prison warden, Javert, believes the prisoner is nonredeemable, and society seems to think so, too. As an ex-convict, he can’t find a job, his family is gone, and his future is bleak.
Then a bishop shows him mercy and sets Valjean on a different path with Javert hot on his trail. Eventually, though, he starts a business and gains respectability and offers to help single mother Fantine care for her young daughter, Cosette. Meanwhile, revolution is fomenting in France, and a group of young students attempt to overthrow the government.
(The show is three hours long. This is the Cliffs Notes summary. A lot more happens. And it’s all sung.)
The touring production is based on the 2014 Broadway revival that ran for more than two years. The famous turntable that graced the original Broadway and West End runs is gone. The staging includes more video pieces projected at the back of the stage.
It’s still a singers show, presenting its performers with ample challenges to vanquish – the tragic Fantine’s show-stopping number “I Dreamed a Dream,” Valjean’s defiant “Bring Him Home,” the ensemble’s “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
There have been thousands of productions of “Les Mis” around the world, from Broadway and the West End to high schools and community theater stages. Fans of the show have been listening to the cast recordings for years. It’s beloved and iconic.
And for actors such as Cartell, it’s still a thrill to put on that costume, step onto that stage and sing those legendary lyrics. Because the story continues to harken back to the source material.
“That was one of the things our directors really emphasized, this look at the work that Victor Hugo left that has a legacy, that stands the test of time,” Cartell said. “There are still moments in the show every single week and every performance that I find something new in this character. … And it changes every night because the audience changes.”
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