Many theatre devotees have strong memories of the first time they saw Les Miserables. As one of the most popular musicals of all time, and one which has been almost constantly running in various incarnations for over forty years, and the longest-running musical in the West End, it has had a profound effect on the way they view theatre.
For David Tucker, the director of Riverside Lyric Ensemble's new production of the world's beloved Les Mis, he traces his love of the theatre to a production he saw at the Theatre Royal in Sydney with his mother. “My life would not have been the same if I hadn't seen it. I remember having a bit of an anxiety attack when it finished. I just did not want to go back to real life. I was only twelve, and had no pressures or responsibilities, but I wanted to stay in that world that was created in that theatre. I loved it.”
For those who may have inexplicably missed this milestone in your theatrical education, Claude-Michel Schoenberg's music and Herbert Kretzmer's English translation of Alain Boubil's original French lyrics tell the epic story of Jean Valjean, a former convict, as he attempts to start a new life, and his ruthless pursuer, the police inspector Javert. Set against the backdrop of the 1832 Paris uprising, the story is supplemented by a host of dynamic supporting characters, all with their own agendas: from Fantine, a factory worker in Valjean's employment, to her virtuous daughter Cosette, to the comical but brutal Thenardiers and their wretched daughter Eponine, to the revolutionary leader Enjolras. The narrative spans decades and touches on topics as diverse as politics, hope, humanity, adversity and love.
Of course, directing a show which is so well-loved also presents its challenges. Tucker explains, “Contracturally we're not allowed to change any of the music, lyrics, or the setting, so it will still be the Les Miserables everyone knows and loves.” For the first-time director, this must make it difficult to take a new approach, but Tucker is committed to giving the beloved musical a fresh spin. “I guess the only real changes are some of the cliché moments that everyone does because that's the way it's always been done. We're intent on telling the story as best we can, without simply copying other productions.”
For Tucker, this meant going back to the source material: Victor Hugo's verbose and detailed 1862 novel. “All of the cast have been encouraged to read Victor Hugo's accounts of their characters, so that they know where they come from and where they are going. There is so much that can't be shown on stage, but the characters are true to the Victor Hugo accounts of them.” This has also meant reenvisioning the settings for some scenes to bring them more closely in line with the book, with the most notable example being the first scene, depicting the initial confrontation between Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Tucker says, “Typically productions depict the chain gang of convicts in a quarry … in the novel they're actually on a ship. Whilst we thought it would be a bit too extravagant to build a ship for the first three minutes of the show, we have stuck close to the novel by having [the chain gang] come onstage from a ship. What we have tried to do is stick to the text rather than simply doing things because that's the way they've always been done on stage.”
Tucker has toured Australia and New Zealand with the Three Irish Tenors and has many years' experience as a performer onstage and on film, but this will be his directing debut. He is assisted by an all-star cast including a veritable who's who of community theatre: most notably, winner of the Peter Allen Performer of the Year, as well as Male Vocal Performer at the 2012 MO Awards, Adam Scicluna, who plays Javert.
Tucker explains that the pulling power of a show as popular as Les Miserables was both a blessing and a curse when it came to auditions. “We had over two hundred people audition on the Riverside stage. We could have cast the show a couple of times over, with some of the talent who showed up… it's a bittersweet feeling when you have to turn away people who would ordinarily be more than suitable for roles in the show, simply because they weren't the best. It's a great position to be in as a director, of course, but there were plenty of people we had to disappoint… many of the cast have worked professionally, and simply wanted to be part of this wonderful production.” On a personal level, it required a substantial commitment from Tucker and his musical director, David Fitzgerald. “It was four gruelling nights of sitting around listening to a new person every two minutes.” The final cast numbers seventy, which brings with it its own challenges. “Getting seventy people together at any one time is always a hard task, with illness, family commitments, work commitments. We had to try and do it twice a week for four months. But the cast are brilliant and very hard working.”
Seeking the rights to the show, especially with the Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe film adaptation due to open in December this year, was no mean feat. Tucker says, “As it’s been over two years since anyone has staged this in Sydney, and it is a new production, competition was of course very tough. We were fortunate to have a wonderful endorsement from the Director of Riverside Theatres, Robert Love.” Riverside's highly successful 2000 production also provided a strong case for the capabilities of this company in staging the show.
The set, designed by WAAPA graduate Anna Gardiner, will be more minimalist than previous productions. “We’re intent on allowing the actors to tell the story, without cluttering the stage with gratuitous sets,” Tucker explains, but adds, “Patrons will still be impressed with what they see.” For the infamous barricade scenes, Riverside enlisted the assistance of Ross James Entertainment in Rockhampton and were sent the barricades two weeks before Opening Night.
“It was hard to source a barricade big enough to look right on the Riverside stage,” Tucker explains of the theatre which seats 700. “All too often, I’ve seen productions with a barricade that I could see over the top of if I were standing next to it. For such a crucial part of Les Miserables, I needed to be satisfied that we do justice to the work. And building one the size we needed would have been a costly and time consuming task.” Fortunately, the Rockhampton production company were able to assist and sent down their already-assembled barricades.
The musical opens this Friday, with high ticket sales indicating that it will match the success of previous Riverside Lyric Ensemble shows such as Aida, the Hatpin, and Songs For A New World. For Tucker, his hope for the show is both simple and personal. “I'm just really looking forward to everyone's hard work coming to fruition, and the magic of theatre captivating audiences. I hope I hear some twelve-year-olds not wanting to leave the theatre.”
Les Miserables is on at the Riverside Theatre from Friday October 19th to Saturday October 27th. For bookings, visit www.riversideparramatta.com.au or ph (02) 8839 3399.