Packemin Productions will next month take audiences back to nineteenth century Paris, when it presents one of the greatest musicals of all time, Les Misérables. In recent years, the pro-am company has wowed audiences with its impressive productions at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, which have included Jesus Christ Superstar, Shrek, Wicked, Legally Blonde and The Phantom of the Opera.
Leading the cast of Packemin’s Les Misérables is Rob McDougall as Javert and Daniel Belle as Jean Valjean, both actors who understudied their respective roles in the most recent Australian tour of the Boublil and Schönberg classic, which played a 19-month run from 2014 – 2016, stopping in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Brisbane. Along the way, it picked up five Helpmann Awards, including Best Musical.
Hayden Tee, who played Javert on the Australian tour before taking his award-winning performance to international stages, just completed a run of Les Mis in a new Auckland production. He tells Theatre People it was a time he thoroughly enjoyed.
“To be honest, I felt like I returned home to where I started my love of theatre and fell back in love with what I do,” Tee says.
But he also says he was more nervous to perform in Auckland than ever before, even more so than when he first appeared as Javert on Broadway and the West End.
“Imagine if I’d travelled the world and had amazing reviews, and then went home and they slated it”, Tee explains.
“They loved it, thankfully, and it was just the most beautiful experience.”
Alongside Tamlyn Henderson, McDougall covered Javert throughout the entire Australian tour. When he first performed in the role in Melbourne, he was only 23 years old.
“Our company manager got an email saying that they were pretty sure that I was the youngest to ever go on [as Javert], which was very cool,” says McDougall.
McDougall is both a musical theatre actor and conductor. He studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and has had vocal tuition at New York’s world-renowned Juilliard School. McDougall was a finalist in the 2015 Rob Guest Endowment and was last seen on stage in Sydney in Hayes Theatre Co’s Sydney Theatre Award-winning production of Assassins.
As a conductor, McDougall has worked on several musicals, including Beauty and the Beast, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Little Shop of Horrors. He’s also conducted and served as a vocal tutor on choir tours around the world, even having had the opportunity to conduct at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
McDougall considers his time performing in the Les Mis tour a major learning experience.
“I knew quite a bit about singing but I was very inexperienced in acting,” he says. “I spent a lot of time sitting with people and talking about how they did what they did. That role and that experience basically created me as a professional actor, who views himself as a professional actor.”
While Tee didn’t think Javert was a role he’d ever play, McDougall, trained as an opera singer, long had the role and Les Mis in his sights.
“I actually said to myself that if I was going to get into professional music theatre, it would be through Les Mis,”McDougall says. “I didn’t expect to get to [play Javert] in my twenties.”
Initially auditioning for Enjolras, the student leader, McDougall was then bought back to audition for the straight-shooting inspector.
Tee says, from the start of the process, he, McDougall and Henderson became good friends.
“I feel like we all built that experience together and, therefore, I owe some of my Javert to them,” he says.
McDougall is very grateful to have had that experience.
“You don’t always get the kind of relationship between a principal and their understudy that we had,” he says. “We became friends very quickly. Hayden was one of my best friends in the show; we spent an inordinate amount of time together and it made understudying much easier … There wasn’t even a hint of [tension]. It was the most lovely working environment to be in, and Hayden was the most supportive person when you wanted to have conversations about the role.”
Tee had an opportunity to see McDougall cover him, in a performance during the Brisbane season (a situation that rarely arises in musical theatre). At the same show, Henderson was on to cover the role of Thénardier.
“[There was] a little room at the back … it was a private room, and [the company manager] snuck me in so I could watch, without telling either of them,” Tee says. “I was so proud of both of them. They are both amazing, and great friends.”
Tee says to McDougall: “I felt it was completely your own performance and I want to see you at Riverside because I think you have such a unique point of view … I feel like I know you as such an instinctive actor and singer.”
Packemin Productions’ Les Misérables kicks off its limited season on Friday 14 February. McDougall recalls how the opportunity to play Javert with the company came about.
“Neil Gooding came to me at a Hayes Christmas concert and said, ‘We want to do Les Mis and we want you and Daniel [Belle] to play the leads’,” McDougall says. “And I said, ‘I can’t speak for Daniel, but I’m going to speak for him and say, yes, we’ll do it’.
“I called Daniel and he immediately said, ‘Hell yes!’”
McDougall and Belle are close friends.
“We have very similar backgrounds; we did the same degree at the Conservatorium, [and] we both came into Les Mis feeling very insecure as actors and left it feeling much less insecure,” he says. “And we get along like a house on fire.”
Packemin’s Les Mis also reunites McDougall and Belle with Luke Joslin, who played Grantaire on the Australian tour. Joslin (who is also currently Resident Director of the Australian professional premiere production of Shrek) has taken on directorial duties for Les Mis at Riverside.
In preparing to play Javert with Packemin, McDougall says he has to try to “shake the ‘Hayden-isms’ out” of himself.
“I’m trying to make it my own and make it a different thing, but it’s very difficult when you’ve seen it and listened to it done so brilliantly … every day for years on end,” he says. “I used to watch Hayden like a hawk … It was like, ‘Right, that’s what I’m doing! Great!’
“I’m finding it really interesting to try to make new choices because a lot of them are baked into the way you sing it and the way that you choose to phrase things and the way that you move … I’m finding it a very interesting process trying to … make choices that are not just carbon copies of the greats.”
Asked about his approach to the role, Tee says it was important to him to ensure he didn’t approach Javert as being the villain of Les Mis.
“I wanted to find a way in so the audience understood that he’s doing bad things for a good reason, that he’s not privy to all of the things that Valjean does to redeem himself, that he doesn’t see any of that,” he explains. “He’s just doing what he believes is right.”
McDougall agrees that Javert isn’t the bad guy in the show.
“He really isn’t. Thernadier’s the bad guy, if you want a bad guy,” he says.
“One of the things that we were talking about is when it gets personal in the story, when it changes from being a job [for Javert] to being personal. We’ve tried to make that moment as late as possible so, basically, up until almost just after the court scene, he’s still really just doing his job. That’s the interpretation we’ve chosen to go with. It doesn’t become a real personal vendetta until he gets humiliated in court. But, even then, it’s still justifiable as a job.”
As discussion turns to what lies ahead for McDougall beyond the barricade, he reveals there may be more chances to see he and Belle performing together in the not too distant future.
“Daniel and I just did a joint cabaret,” McDougall says. “We’ve done our own individual cabarets – we each did one at Claire’s Kitchen [in Surry Hills] – and then mined them for [a] cruise [show], and it was extremely successful. It’s got legs, so we want to try to do that.”
McDougall is also keen to produce further charity concerts. In 2017, McDougall and Belle, together with Les Mis co-star Kerrie Anne Greenland, staged two sold-out concerts in Tamworth. Entitled Epiphanies, the trio were accompanied by an 18-piece orchestra and a number of special guests, raising $20,000 for Australian Rotary Health’s research grant program, for a study aimed at evaluating the efficacy of treatments for young people suffering from mental illness.
McDougall also has plenty ahead on the conducting front.
“He’s an extraordinary conductor,” Tee says of his friend.
And, while McDougall credits Tee with having taught him a great deal throughout the Les Mis tour, Tee says the learning went both ways.
“I learned so much from him,” he says. “Rob’s such a technician with the voice. I feel like I learnt just as much, if not more, from him.”
LES MISÉRABLES – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: 14 – 29 February 2020
Venue: Riverside Theatres, Parramatta
Tickets: $30 – $65
Bookings: Online at riversideparramatta.com.au or by phone on (02) 8839 3399
Hayden Tee’s album Face to Face is now available at online musical outlets and at www.haydentee.com