There’s no question, says actor Nick Cartell, that Jean Valjean is the juiciest role he’s ever played.
If you were fortunate enough to see the touring production of “Les Misérables” when it came to Dayton in 2019, you’re likely to remember Cartell’s outstanding performance as the hero of the iconic musical. The good news is that he and 100 other members of the cast and crew will be back on the Schuster stage Jan. 24-29 as part of Dayton Live’s Broadway Series.
The sung-through musical phenomenon, one of the world’s longest running productions of all time, has been labeled “a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit.” Based on an 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, it features famous songs including “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” “Bring Him Home,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “One Day More.” This new production was created to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary in 2009. The music is by Claude-Michel Schonberg who wrote the book with lyricist Alain Boublil.
The plot of “Les Miz” centers around the character of Jean Valjean who has served a lengthy prison term for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. He is relentlessly pursued by Javert, a cruel police inspector determined to return him to prison for violating the terms of his parole.
In his quest for a new life, Valjean becomes involved in the revolutionary events of early 19th-century France and also with a number of other characters including a poor prostitute, Fantine, and her daughter, Cosette. When Cosette is orphaned Valjean becomes her guardian.
The mega-musical’s universal themes range from justice and redemption to the power of love to overcome adversity. Valjean’s journey from prisoner to redeemed hero is considered an allegory for the transformative power of grace and forgiveness.
Becoming Jean Valjean
You’d be hard pressed to find more glowing accolades than those Cartell has garnered in three years of taking on his most challenging role. “No review would be complete without a mention of Cartell’s undeniably magnetic performance as Jean Valjean,” wrote Kat Boogaard for USA Network-Wisconsin. “He’s flawless throughout the entire show, but it’s his haunting rendition of ‘Bring Him Home’ that will have your jaw on the floor.”
Cartell made his Broadway debut in the Tony-nominated 2012 revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” where he understudied and performed the role of Jesus Christ. He has also toured the U.S. and Canada in “The Phantom of the Opera.”
But Valjean is obviously his favorite role. “I think it’s because of the story,” Cartell says. “This is a story that is so epic in scale and it’s not only a character that is beloved in literature, but is beloved in musical theater as well. To be able to dig into a role like this with source material written by Victor Hugo…there’s always something new that keeps it fresh. "
Though he’d heard the music on a CD, his real introduction to the musical came when he watched the 10th anniversary concert on PBS as a 12-year-old child. “My mind was blown,” he remembers. " I think it was the music and the story and how everything was connected and interwoven with all these characters. If I had been told that I would play the role that Colm Wilkinson originated, I would have laughed. Now I’m privileged and honored to sing it every night.”
He connects personally, he says, with Valjean’s spirit. “He wants to save his family and to make other’s lives better,” he explains. “I see a lot of what I value in people and in myself.”
In 2017, before his final call-back for the role, Cartell’s mother passed away from ovarian cancer and never had the opportunity to see him do the show. As a tribute to her, he and his wife created a benefit concert, “Broadway Fights Ovarian Cancer,” to raise funds and awareness and to help find a cure for the disease.
Now that he has a child of his own, Cartell says he can also relate to Valjean’s sense of duty and fatherly instincts. He’s currently on the road with his wife and young daughter. ”I can only imagine what Valjean was feeling for his daughter, Cosette,” he says. “Now that I’m a dad, that bond and protection resonates ever deeper. It’s the same protection I feel for my little girl.”
To become Jean Valjean, Cartell tries to get as much sleep as he can. He also does vocal training, works out at the gym, uses a streamer for his vocal cords and does the proper warm-ups before every performance.
Not surprisingly, Cartell’s favorite song in the show is “Bring Him Home,” often called “the prayer.” Valjean offers his own life to God to save the life of Cosette’s love, Marius. “After I lost my mom, I thought of the sacrifices she had made to see me perform when she was going through chemo. She would have her chemo on a Wednesday and then get on a plane Thursday to come to see me on my ‘Phantom’ tour. Valjean makes a sacrifice for Fantine and takes up the mantle of finding her daughter.”
“One Day More” is another favorite. Cartell says the epic end of the musical’s first act with the entire cast onstage is the best-written ending of any Act I musical he’s ever seen. If you saw the original production, you’ll remember the huge turntable in the scene. Instead, this new production opts for backdrop projections inspired by Victor Hugo’s art, some of it animated.
Cartell says the response to this tour, which began in Cleveland in October, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“After this pandemic the entire world went through, with everything on hold for two years, audiences are so ready to come back to the theater. To see a show about sacrifice and redemption and the survival of the human spirit – that is what audiences are craving. They walk away feeling love and inspiration.”
HOW TO GO:
What: The Broadway tour of “Les Misérables” presented by Dayton Live.
When: Tuesday, Jan. 24 through Sunday, Jan. 29. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center, 1 West Second Street, Dayton
Tickets: $69-$189. Call the Dayton Live Ticket Office at 937-228-3630 or visit www.daytonlive.org.
- Background on Broadway: One hour before each performance of “Les Misérables,” this free event covers information about the development, history and artistry of the show. Held in the fourth floor lobby. You must have a ticket to that day’s performance.
- Bagels & Broadway: You’ll find out what’s involved in preparing the stage for a big production at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24 at the Schuster Center. This is a free event and coffee and bagels are served. Visit www.daytonlive.org/events/, scroll to “Les Misérables” to register.
Did you know?
- The original Broadway production of “Les Misérables” opened on March 12, 1987. Along with the Oscar‐winning movie, “Les Misérables” has been seen by over 130 million people worldwide in 53 countries and in 22 languages. More than 100 professional companies have opened the show worldwide.
- “Les Misérables” has won over 140 major theater awards including eight Tony Awards and five Drama Desk Awards. The show also won the 2017 Whatsonstage Award for Best West End show.
- The show uses approximately 1,200 costumes and they take up one entire tractor trailer. There are eight wedding ball gowns on stage for less than 5 minutes. Each dress requires 15 yards of fabric and 50 hours to construct.