Hit musical: book, stage and movie
More than 70 million people worldwide have seen Les Misérables. The colossal success of the hit musical, based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel, has spanned more than 45 countries.
It’s been translated into more than 20 languages and the movie version scooped an array of Oscars in 2013 – including Best Supporting Actress for Anne Hathaway.
Les Misérables is set in 19th century France, a country which had just experienced a bloody revolution and was still positively brimming with unease, tenson and injustices.
In the book, Hugo conjures up a realistic, but fictitious, example of injustice with his creation of Jean Valjean.
Valjean steals bread for his family. He’s caught. Tried. Imprisoned. He escapes and forms a new life: one where he does nothing but good for others.
Our hero becomes successful. Very successful. And then he sees a man being accused of being him. An innocent man who would be sent to prison in his place.
But, at the same time, he is on a mission to save the life of a young girl whose mother has just died. What should he do? Valjean quickly finds himself on the run from a man who becomes his nemesis: Javert.
And all of this is going on against the backdrop of ongoing revolts against the ever-changing political landscape of France.
Valjean is a Godly and goodly man pitted against Javert, who is cast as the ultimate villain. He may be dressed in the finery of the State but he is a rotter to the core. A man who represents petty bureaucratic maliciousness.
Javert: an emotional side
As such, Javert can be an unsympathetic character, but actor Nic Greenshields hopes his portrayal will show a different aspect to his personality.
‘It’s a great privilege to play Javert,’ says Nic. ‘I first saw the show when I was in my teens, and to be doing it 25-years later is a huge honour.’
‘I try to bring out a different side to Javert, giving him multiple dimensions and making him more than just the baddie, showing a more emotional side to him.’
His opposite male number is Dean Chisnall who takes on the role of Jean Valjean. It’s an extremely demanding performance: not just vocally but also physically as we watch the character’s transition over a 19-year period.
‘I say it to everybody, this is the dream role for anybody in musical theatre,’ says Dean. ‘It’s the pinnacle for any male performer and I just feel very lucky to do it, and to have done it for as long as I have.’
‘I’ve now played over 500 performances as Jean Valjean, and it still feels as magical as it did the first time I stepped on the stage. I pinch myself every day.’
‘I do remember the first time I saw it. I’ve always been a fan, long before I even dreamt of having a career in theatre.’
‘I was in London on my own about the age of 18 and pootled off to get myself a single ticket to see Les Misérables at The Palace Theatre. I sat there and completely fell in love with the show.’
Exploring Valjean’s personality
Nic also recalls the first time he experienced the magic of the show. He bought a cassette when he was 11 and started to play songs from the musical.
‘I remember listening to it and trying to imagine what the show would be like. Eventually I begged my Mum to take me and we queued for returns. I was just blown away.’
‘The show really resonated with me and I thought “I want to be part of this. This is what I want to do.”’
‘I’ve changed since I first covered the role. I’m a dad now, I’m older and more mature and have experienced life a bit more. I’m now able to identify a lot more layers to him.’
‘It’s a great role and there’s no other role in the show I would rather do. I always like to discover more about him as I continue to play him.’
And it’s not just the depth of Valjean’s personality which is explored in the musical but also the motivations and selflessness of our hero, Valjean.
‘I say to people that we always try to strive for perfection, which is not attainable, which means you never stop trying to achieve it,’ explains Dean.
‘With someone like Jean Valjean, he is very complex in many ways but very simple in others, it’s always a challenge to try and work him out and I love that about him.’
‘I think I’ve probably played him a little bit differently every performance. There’s always something new you can find in him and he’s a wonderful person to play.’
‘Bring him home’
There might be some lighter moments of respite in the musical, with Master of the House being a toe tapping favourite, but audiences are invariably haunted by many of the melodies.
They either pull at our heart strings or cause the hairs on the back of the neck to rise.
‘I love Bring Him Home,’ says Dean. ‘I know it’s a song that I sing on my own, but it has always felt like a whole company moment. The rest of the cast are asleep on the barricades, so it always feels quite magical.’
‘I also love the absolutely iconic One Day More, with the whole company there. To be honest, the whole show is two and a half hours of pure magic.’
‘I absolutely agree,’ says Nic. ‘One Day More is such an iconic moment for everyone.’
‘There is no better way to end the first act of a show! I always enjoy listening to Fantine sing I Dreamed a Dream, it’s a great number and I defy anyone to come and see it and not love that moment.’
‘The moments I have with Dean are wonderfully dramatic. I love the opening with the prisoners, and the moment that moves me is the finale with Valjean and Cosette. It’s musically so beautiful and the lyrics are stunning as well.’
Staging the musical isn’t just challenging from the point of view of set design but also from the perspective of the actors who flawlessly transport us from one scene to the next, from being part of a chorus to singing solo numbers.
‘I took up running during lockdown,’ says Nic. ‘I felt I needed to do something, and just before we started rehearsals, I ran a half marathon which was a big achievement.’
‘All the roles are demanding, if you keep delivering at the level we want to, it is tough work. You do have to look after yourself. Dean and I try and take care of our voices and energy to ensure that we’re performing well eight shows a week.’
‘Preparation is key! Trying to stay healthy and get some sleep,’ says Dean. ‘I love my job, so it’s not a chore and I don’t think of it as being exhausting.’
‘It is tiring but I have to say probably more mentally exhausting than it is physically because of who Jean Valjean is and what a marathon journey he goes on.’
‘We are here to give the audience some sort of escape and of course actors like to escape into a role as well.’
‘I undoubtedly feel that I am somewhere else during those two and a half hours, you have to live and breathe these characters. You can’t fake Les Mis.’
The musical hits home as it contains such a broad array of emotional experiences which we will have all share at some point in our lives. From mourning the loss of loved ones, falling in love through to fighting social injustices and protecting the innocent.
‘The messages of Les Mis are still so relevant,’ explains Dean. ‘Everyone has something that they can relate to in the show, something that they have experienced in their lives.’
‘The show now is as fresh as it ever was, it’s a wonderful company that we’ve got here, and we’re delighted to be sharing it with people. There is no show that has a reaction quite like this one. It’s the greatest show on earth.’
‘The music is definitely a huge part of it,’ continues Nic. ‘The score is stunning and has really broken through into popular culture bringing it to a new audience.’
‘Ultimately, I think the show has remained so popular because of the themes. It’s a show about redemption and the human condition and everything that still resonates with us all today.’
‘We connect with the characters and become engrossed in the story and the beautiful music pulls everything together. It’s clearly a magical formula.’
Les Misérables will be at The Theatre Royal Plymouth in May and June 2022.
Photographs supplied by Theatre Royal Plymouth. Credits: The Barricade (Michael Le Poer Trench) and Nic Greenshields as Javert (Matthew Murphy).