It’s tempting — too tempting, really — to dismiss “Les Misérables” as a musical so perennially popular and fiscally dependable it could pass as the crutch of choice for theater companies with nothing better to do.
There’s more than a little truth to that nasty allegation.
But in the case of Pioneer Theatre Company’s upcoming production of the Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil musical juggernaut, you’d be horribly, terribly wrong.
Never mind that this musical has been ever so kind to Utah’s premier professional theater, eliminating the company’s debt in the wake of its 2007 production. Cash flow aside, PTC was the first regional theater company in the nation to earnestly court rights to the work and assemble its own production. Little did then-artistic director Charles Morey and renowned New York City theater professional Karen Azenberg, who provided choreography, know they were about to unleash a monster on Utah theater lovers.
The memories, momentum and monumental effect of the 2007 production were so great — with scalpers offering extended-run tickets for up to four times their original value — that producing the show a second time was fate. That Morey resurfaced from retirement to join Azenberg for this upcoming production lends it the sheen of destiny.
“There will be much reminiscing,” Azenberg said last year, when it was announced the musical would be resurrected for her first season as PTC’s artistic director. “There’s always a higher power influencing things. I’m thrilled it’s something we can do once more.”
So is the Equity principal cast PTC called on to bring the production to life. The musical is, after all, so famous that it’s seeped into the list of favorite repertoire among professional actors.
“Living and working in musical theater like we do, we’re all so close to this piece, whether you watch it done by others or hope to perform in it one day yourself,” said Melissa Mitchell, who will play her first-ever Cosette.
Josh Davis, who plays Javert, said it was the first Broadway musical he ever saw. As a sophomore in high school, he played the soundtrack in his car while learning to drive. He also understudied his current role six years ago for PTC’s first production.
“Is there a certain relish I have for playing [the role of Javert] now?” he asks. “It goes even beyond that. It blew me away the first time I saw it.”
Then there’s Joe Cassidy in the lead role of Jean Valjean. He performed the role at the tail-end of the original Broadway production that ended in spring 2003 at the Imperial Theatre.
“It’s the monster musical role that spans decades,” Cassidy said. “The emotional and musical range of the role — it spans two-plus octaves — is extreme.
“I was 19 or 20 when the show first came out. I knew immediately, right then, that I wanted to play that role.”
The story of Valjean, a man wrongfully imprisoned, but who nonetheless wrongs the first man who helps him, is arguably Utah’s favorite musical.
After the bishop shows him mercy, Valjean then makes it his life’s endeavor to show others mercy. That includes policeman Javert, who showed him none. Throughout this sung-through musical, as Valjean releases his life from past wrongs, he keeps his promise to a dying prostitute that he will protect her daughter, Cosette. The music, including “I Dreamed a Dream,” matches the energy and journey of the musical’s hero almost note-for-note.
Much has happened since PTC’s ground-breaking 2007 production, including a film version late last year that provoked spirited critical push-back that called the musical’s very foundation into question. Similar to “Hamlet,” when you approach a work as familiar as “Les Misérables,” an actor’s first task is deciding what to preserve and what to add to the character that’s uniquely yours.
Mitchell said she hopes to convey the past hardships of Cosette’s childhood in her portrayal, so that the dimensions of her future freedom become clearer and more powerful by show’s end. “I’ve really tried to bring that sense of struggle and color into her,” Mitchell said.
Cassidy said he’s far from the kind of actor who calls on experience to trump everyone else in rehearsal. At the same time, he said he learned volumes about Valjean watching and studying J. Mark McVey’s version on Broadway. Enough, in fact, to make Valjean his own.
“You just do your best to make [Valjean] yours, and for a short period of time he is yours.”
Cassidy said he listens intently to fans’ long explications of why the story behind this favorite musical is so moving. After all these years, he believes the power of its story is its heartfelt simplicity.
“I don’t know that I can credit anyone with that insight, it’s just that the simplest answers are always my favorite,” he said. “To me the whole show is about one act of kindness that reverberates across the entire stage.”
When • Tonight-June 1. Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $42-$65. Call 801-581-6961 or visit www.pioneerthatre.org for more information.