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Do you hear the people sing (a lot)?
The Civic stages a rare production of Les Miserables
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
How long has Greg Stieber wanted to direct a production of Les Miserables?
To hear him tell it, a couple decades and change. “This musical has been with me for around 25 years,” he says. Years ago, when Greg Stieber was working as a custom framer, the soundtrack to his workdays was Les Miserables, playing constantly on his walkman. “I’d always think, ‘what I would do with it if I was ever able to direct it?’”
So when the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre decided to kick off its ‘13/’14 season with Les Miserables (opening July 27), Stieber stepped forward. Though Stieber’s sensibilities lean more towards non-musicals, Les Miserables is… different. In his director’s notes for the show, he calls Les Miserables “one of the finest pieces of art ever created.”
That’s a bold statement. “I just think it’s genius in its musical construction and the libretto itself,” Stieber says. “The music gives each of the different characters a repeated theme that you hear throughout the entire show. It changes sometimes in tempo and lyricism, sometimes at a very intense level, sometimes with a very somber, quiet theme to it. I’ve never heard anything like it.”
“In rehearsals I rarely have to go to my libretto to reference what is coming next,” Stieber continues. “That’s a very rare thing, to have the opportunity to direct something you know so well.”
Stieber is hardly alone. We could probably give you a summary of the story, based on Victor Hugo’s 19th century doorstop of a novel, but odds are you know it, or you know some who does. Though no one has come up with a system for accurately scoring such things, Les Miserables can probably lay fair claim to being the most popular musical of all time. The show has the kind of fervid fan base — and blockbuster ticket sales — usually reserved for movies featuring space ships and laser guns.
The show’s massive popularity means you don’t see any regional theater productions. “In general, it’s usually playing on Broadway, or on a Broadway production tour at all times,” says Emily Franklin, who plays Fantine. “It’s only because they have closed down to re-work the technical aspects of the Broadway show and the touring show that many regional theaters are able to do the production. This is kind of a big opportunity for everybody.”
And of course, you’d expect the cast and crew of the Civic’s production to know the show — they’re theater people, after all. But they just don’t know they show; they REALLY KNOW THE SHOW! “I’ve been able to double my process because everyone has come so prepared,” says Stieber. “It makes my job easy in a lot of ways.”
Well, easy is a relative term. From the score to the set design, there’s nothing easy about Les Miserables. For one, the music is very sophisticated, with beats and rhythms that speed up or slow down at very specific times. “We are staying absolutely true to that,” explains Stieber. “That’s the great challenge of it, honoring how it’s written musically yet telling a dynamic story with staging and character development.”
And also, Les Miserables isn’t one of those musicals where characters deliver dialogue and then launch into a song. “In this show, everything is sung,” says Stuart Hepler, who plays antagonist Javert. “And vocally, it’s not easy to sing. Either you’re singing really, crazy high notes, or… well, you’re just singing a lot.”
Hepler last appeared on the Civic stage as Tony in West Side Story seven or eight years ago. He auditioned for the part of Jean Valjean (Todd Frymeir nabbed that role). “Les Miserables is definitely on the ‘bucket list’ for a lot of actors,” he says. In order to keep up with the demands on his voice, he’s avoided alcohol and dairy products, and drinks lots of water. “I can’t imagine doing this on Broadway for eight shows a week,” he laughs. “Talk about demanding.”
Franklin, a professional actress based out of New York who happens to find herself in Fort Wayne for a bit (we talked to her for The Drowsy Chaperone back in February) says it’s not just the technical aspects of the singing that makes Les Miserables so demanding for a performer. Her character, Fantine, goes from a dire situation cobbling together a precarious living to the depths of despair and fear. “Trying to balance that with hitting the notes is like walking a tightrope,” Franklin says. “If you don’t go into your character and hit those depths, then the audience knows it. They can smell a fake emotion from a mile away. But if you go too far into it and give yourself over to the character the way you could if you were just speaking the lines, then you can’t do the music justice.”
She continues: “It’s a difficult balance to maintain, and that’s true for most characters in the show. Everyone has some moment where they have to balance on that tightrope.”
Besides the story and the music, there’s another aspect of Les Miserables that made an impression on anyone who has seen the Broadway or the touring production of the show — the staging. In its original production, Les Miserables used an impressive revolving stage (when Stieber saw his first production in Chicago in 1989, he remembers the audience applauding one of the scene changes… “and I was right there with them.”)
Of course, the Civic has worked with a revolving stage before (Cinderella most recently), but this was on an entirely different scale. Stieber estimates he and technical director Robert Shoquist spent about 40 hours of prep work on that element of the show. “We first discussed it as far back as this time last year,” says Shoquist. “Is it feasible? Do we have the technology? If the audience doesn’t see it, are they going to feel as though they lost something?”
It was a challenge, but as Shoquist explains, they felt themes of the play — the cyclical nature of Jean Valjean’s life — warranted it. So, they did their research, found the technology they needed, and Shquist and the crew plunged into the task.
“It’s a large show, and there are large expectations surrounding the show,” says Shoquist. “For me, it’s a new experience to have worked with some of the technical elements we’re putting into the show. But Les Miserables is kind of the ‘holy grail’ of Broadway productions. You want to do it right. It’s many, many people’s favorite show of all time, and you want to honor the production.”
The Fort Wayne Civic Theatre presents Les Miserables
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Saturdays, July 27, August 3 and 10 at 8 PM
Sundays, July 28, August 4 at 2 PM
Fridays, August 2 and 9 at 8 PM
Tickets: $26/adults; $15/age 23 and under; $22/Sunday senior matinees
Box Office: (260) 424.5220 or online: fwcivic.org