The joy and terror of producing Les Misérables

Ahead of its arrival next May, Les Misérables Director James Powell and Executive Producer Michael Cassel tell us what it takes to bring the legendary show to Singapore

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Video: Foong Mien Shi 
Photos: Denise Ngo
Additional photos: Matthew Murphy

Maybe you grew up with the songs. Maybe you caught the 2012 film adaptation. At the very least, you’re familiar with the illustration of a young girl gazing into the distance as a tattered French flag flutters behind her. After enjoying a successful run in Australia, Cameron Mackintosh’s acclaimed production of Les Misérables is finally making its way to Singapore, giving local audiences a chance to experience the show for themselves.

The story, set in revolution-era France, follows ex-convict Jean Valjean, who strives to redeem while being pursued by the relentless Inspector Javert. While Victor Hugo’s novel has remained a classic for over 200 years, it’s the musical – and the score – that have launched the story into ubiquity.

But there are many things that set this new production apart. For one thing, it’s got modernised staging (you’ll be surprised at the scale of the sets) and scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. Without giving too much away, we can tell you that the background projections give the show a cinematic feel – especially during a certain sewer scene in the second act.

Obviously, that’s a pretty massive feat to take on, and we mean that literally – each performance requires 392 complete costumes consisting of 1,782 items of clothing and 31 wigs. The creative team needed to do a year of pre-production work before even finding their cast, which meant auditioning over 1,500 actors all over Australia for 33 roles.

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So in November, when Toggle sat down with Executive Producer Michael Cassel (pictured above) and Director James Powell at the Brisbane junket for Les Misérables, we asked them what makes the story so timeless, as well as the challenges of bringing the show to life.

 “At the heart of Les Mis is the story of the survival of the human spirit and I think that’s something that connects with us all and that we can relate to,” Michael said during our interview.

James could relate with Jean Valjean’s stuggles. “I think a man getting through his own personal struggle and discovering his spiritual wellbeing and spiritual self, is a journey which, if most men are honest, they will encounter in their lives.”

Keep reading to find out more from Toggle’s interviews with James and Michael.  

Toggle: What does this production of Les Misérables offer that the film version couldn’t? 
James: 
You can’t beat the live experience. You CANNOT beat a single character, with a huge audience, telling their story through song. I just think that’s spine chilling. But also, this is a huge symphonic orchestration. 

Michael: I think what’s special about seeing this show in the theatre, and what’s special about seeing any show in the theatre, is that connection with the audience members and that connection with the actors on stage. You can’t have that experience anywhere else, you can’t have that experience watching a film, watching, television, or watching something on your phone. So to walk into a theatre to have the houselights go down, and to be there in the darkness as this story unfolds on stage, coupled with the most phenomenal score, that is Les Misérables, I think that’s what makes it special, and I think it’s very rare to have that type of experience in the theatre, and that’s why I would encourage everybody in Singapore to see Les Misérables for themselves.

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What are some things that the average person wouldn’t know about putting on a show like this?
James:
 You might not know the pre-production work. You get a phone call from Sir Cameron Mackintosh, our producer, who says, “How do you feel about reimagining the world’s most popular musical?” So once you finish fainting, and you’ve got off the floor, all that pre-production stuff, where you sit in the studio – myself and Lawrence Connor, the other director, and Matt Kinley, the designer – you sit in a studio, you throw ideas around about how you can best serve the story. And that is a very long process. That takes about a year. And each time we then include Cameron, we say, come and have a look, what do you think of this idea, and he gives us his take, and his ideas, and we work with all of that.

That must have been challenging
James: You’re asked to represent probably the world’s most successful musical. That’s sort of terrifying. And it’s a bit like those guys who do those bungee jumps, where just before they leap, they’re both really excited and also terrified. And there have been many challenges because the original production is so dear and so imprinted on audience’s minds that that’s a difficult thing to change or meddle with, and all we hope is that we do it justice.

How do you find actors for roles that are pretty much legendary at this point? 
James: You know, I think you have to be careful. The tail can wag the dog in these things. You can put a square peg in a round hole. They’re multifaceted, these characters, they’re never one-dimensional. They’re full of layers, different idiosyncrasies, so what you have to do is tap into the actors that have a few of those ingredients, not all of them. But some of them. And then you work that actor, and their interpretation of that character that becomes original, and I think it’s important for them to have that.

Read on to learn about favourite characters and the songs that get stuck in your head.

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