(Photography by Satin Edge Photographers)

I wish this show opened tomorrow so I could make a "One Day More" joke…

Les Miserables is a huge musical. It’s had huge production runs in the West End and Broadway, it has a huge cast, it is hugely long, requires a huge set and huge costume budgets, and, of course, is based on a book by Victor Huge-o. (That’s “Hugo”. -Ed) It’s also had massive proliferation in amateur theatre scenes all around the world. One would be hard-pressed to name a company in the Melbourne community that hasn’t attempted to stage Les Mis at some point. One of these more successful stagings was by Warragul Theatre Company. According to their website, Neil Goodwin’s 2000 production was massively successful for WTC, and also picked up several Guild and Gippsland Associated Theatre awards. Now in 2010, Michael and Tracy Gaylard are returning to 19th century France. They recently spoke to me about their experiences of creating an original production under the shadow of a massive history, working with actors both familiar and distant from the show, and the exact method one can recreate war-torn Paris in Warragul.

When asked about the history of Les Miserables within the company, directors Tracy and Michael confirmed that they never actually saw the 2000 production, but were well aware of the impact Les Mis had on both the world and their locality. “We felt with Les Miserables being so famous world wide and well remembered in Warragul that people would have very specific expectations. We decided after listening to various people’s opinions that we wanted to bring a new, fresh approach to this 2010 production.” They added that, of the audience surveyed that had seen past productions, that despite the beauty of the music and staging, they found the story extremely difficult to follow. Indeed, Les Mis is host to a labyrinthine plot, one that the Gaylards have made a point to flesh out the subtleties and complexities: “we decided to heighten the storyline by employing non-naturalistic techniques to bring out more meaning and understanding. Eg. Instead of having Javert falling off the bridge to his death onto a concealed mattress, we have Javert falling from the bridge into a sea of humanity (the ensemble with upraised arms carry him through the stage representing a swollen river).” (Spoilers, by the way.) Indeed, the team at WTC seem to have an impressive handle on the musical’s plot. When asked to summarise, they put forward this succinct synopsis:”A convict, Jean Valjean, finds God and redeems himself by loving an abandoned young girl and bringing her dreams of happiness to fruition.” The production team has also been mindful of where to take inspiration for their vision. They’ve returned to Victor Hugo’s novel for characterisation and setting work, rejecting the “traditional” stagings accepted by many companies. “We prefer not to copy other productions, as this results in a ‘karaoke’ form of directing, but rather try to tell the story in an imaginative and original way…There are Les Miserables ‘fanatics’ who have seen the show 18 times and know all the words to all the songs. This can create a lot of pressure to do things in a ‘traditional’ way, and not to deviate from the Les Mis ‘formula’. Our vision for this production has three key ingredients: passion, clear story telling and imagination.”

While their originality is admirable, performers with histories of their own can often be a stumbling block to an inventive production. WTC’s production is in the interesting position of having three actors who have past experience with Les Miserables. John Black, Charles Gruen, and Britt Lewis, Warragul’s Javert, Valjean and Eponine respectively, have all played these key roles in the past. The Gaylards confirm that this has been a blessing and a burden. “All the music and singing is already known to [the three], however new blocking and ideas regarding interpretation have to be embraced … It is confusing when most of the moves are different, you almost need to go through a process of unlearning to learn again. This is sometimes more difficult than learning the role for the first time.” However, despite the difficulties of re-familiarising themselves with the material, the directing team is extremely pleased to have performers who have previously embodied the roles in their production. “In revisiting their characters, the actors, to their credit, wanted to find more than they found in the character the first time. We are extremely blessed to have three performers whose abilities have inspired the whole cast.” They are especially fond of their Valjean, Charles Gruen. “Gruen was a great find for this production, as it is very difficult to find men in their middle age who have a tenor voice and can sing such a physically demanding three hour role!”

On the other end of the spectrum, we have a specific set of actors unfamiliar with the show, and who are also reputedly nightmarish to direct: child actors. Les Miserable is host to several roles for very young actors, most notably the Young Cosette and Eponine, as well as Gavroche. The Gaylards assured me that their child actors are happily acclimating to the production, despite their relative naivety of the themes: “They relate to the story and characters on their own level… we think it is hard for them to understand the neglect, deprivation and despair someone like this would feel living in 1830’s Paris.” However, they believe that the children will benefit from the experience. “They bring their youth, emotions and imagination to the piece and maybe they will better understand what some other children’s lives could be like. History and drama teaches us to have empathy and better appreciate our own lives.” Thematic difficulties aside, the child actors have brought a massive dose of enthusiasm to the production. “Interestingly enough even young performers say- it’s my favourite musical!”

Tackling abstract concepts such as the themes is one main issue in any production of Les Miserables, but arguably a larger difficulty is the actual staging of the piece. Les Miserables takes place over a long stretch of time, in multiple locales. Rather than break the bank and budget, the Gaylards have opted for a more minimalist approach to the staging. “We believe in using imagination and your performers as your most valuable resource rather than flashy, expensive set dressing. The show should be brilliant before it moves into the theatre, before it has costumes and sets, lighting, microphones and all its other decorations. The test is: can the actors carry the story with their hearts, imagination and voices.” A common feature of the traditional Les Miserables productions is revolve in the centre of the stage. The Gaylards recognize the importance of this element but have side-stepped the costly installation of it. “Instead of having a very expensive revolve we have a French flag chalked on the floor in a circle shape which also becomes a much used central arena for the actors. It gives the illusion of a revolve but actually is used just as much and is just as effective.” As for the setting as a whole, the production team has opted for representational over realistic: “because of the speed of the storytelling and the length of the show we have kept the set and pieces simple, useful and effective. We have two permanent ‘monument’ structures on the stage which represent the enormous buildings that were built at the time by the rich and powerful….These monument pieces are in disrepair as France at that time had an uprising almost every decade! We use smaller ‘monument’ pieces and rubble to represent civil war and the destruction it brings.” Not only is this staging cost-effective, it has a vital purpose to the production’s vision: “The opera style was adopted by us because we wanted to have large simple pieces that delivered the message without suffocating the stage with realistic streets and busy city structures.” As for the set pieces such as the run-away cart, and more specific settings such as the factory early in the show, the team has creatively repurposed what the Gaylards call “rubble structures”, allowing one piece to become multiple props and sets. All of the settings for WTC’s production have been created within the company’s means, and the team should be commended for adjusting to their circumstances.

As for the production itself, the Gaylards are optimistic about the piece they and the rest of the team have created. “We believe WTC has tried to produce the best production of this musical possible. One cast member, (who has never participated in musical theatre before) described being a part of Les Miserables as “life changing… life changing!” It doesn’t get better than that.”

Indeed, it doesn’t.

Tickets for Warragul Theatre Company’s Les Miserables are on sale now, and can be booked online at www.wgac.org.au or over the phone on (03) 5624 2456. The production runs from May 14th to May 29th.