Staging a Revolution
AS the curtain falls at the end of Les Miserables, the stage is full of the ghosts of those who died on the barricades, fighting against oppression. Only two characters left on the stage are actually alive, which gives the musical one of the highest body counts of all time.
And yet, as they all sing of fighting for a new bright future for the ones left behind, there is a muted sense of triumph that, on a good night, sweeps contagiously through the audience.
Last week, at Singapore's Kallang Theatre, an entirely new cast of Les Miserables gave their fighting talk in front of an audience for the first time.
And, afterwards, backstage, the mood was one of quiet, exhausted triumph for the members of this company which was formed specifically for the Asian tour, that will be coming to Hong Kong for the first time next month.
When a show runs and runs, as Les Miserables has in London (11 years) Japan (nine years) New York (eight years) and many other places, casts live together for a very long time.
Singers and crew arrive as newcomers, become absorbed in the piece, accustomed to it, and then they leave.
But it is rare for any cast to find themselves all new together, to have to rehearse from the beginning.
The theory - which was in part borne out by that first night performance - is that the enthusiasm generated will pull the story up to become something fresh.
They started rehearsing in January in Sydney, and since then it has been non-stop; for some of the actors the toughest schedules in their careers.
'It has been exhausting,' said Dale Burridge, who plays Enjolras, the brave if foolhardy student leader.
'We've been doing the equivalent of 12 shows a week. After this preparation, eight shows a week is going to be a holiday.' He has played Enjolras in the past, in Melbourne, but said this fresh casting was helping him to understand what the role was about.
'I've only seen the show once before,' admitted Ma-Anne Dionisio, who played a perky Eponine, the young woman who fights with the students on the barricades. 'That was six years ago, with a $16 ticket; I hardly remembered what she was like.
'It took me a whole year to realise properly who Kim (the main character in Miss Saigon, whom Dionisio played in Toronto and Australia) was. But with Eponine I am learning more quickly.' Brendan Nokes, as the street urchin Gavroche, is just one of the six children performing in the Singapore run. His mother was wiping down his make-up streaked legs and arms in the dressing room after the show.
'He wanted to go home dirty.' 'Shhhh,' he begged in a whisper, pointing conspiratorially to a bit she'd missed. 'Don't tell her.' He said he was less nervous than he'd expected, and admitted he could hardly see the audience, except the front few rows. 'Were there people further back?' he asked cheekily.
The theatre had been full; the first of a series of sold-out performances.
If last year's 11-week run in Singapore is anything to go by, there won't be many tickets available.
In the green room afterwards, the 31-year-old director, Matthew Ryan, was all pep-talking enthusiasm.
He had summoned the cast for a post-performance 'chat', some of them, including Susan Gilmour who plays the role of the doomed prostitute with a heart of gold, Fantine, looked ready to drop with exhaustion.
'I told you this evening to take a big leap forward: I didn't expect you to reach the top of Everest,' he beamed. 'The response in the house was more than I could have dreamed of: you went out there like gladiators.' Everyone took it at face value, and left on a (fatigued) high.
Later Ryan took some time out to talk about his own role.
This is his first time to direct a new company from scratch, although he has 'looked after' the West End production as resident director from 1989 to 1991, when he was in his mid 20s.
'It's a masterpiece. And the older you get the power of the play is greater; it seems to affect me more deeply the more experience I have.' The message of Les Miserables, for Ryan, is that we need to love, and to see the greater good.
'And a group of actors saying, directly, at the end of the play, to the audience 'Will you join in our crusade? Is there a world you long to see?' . . . I don't think there could be anything more important to say on stage.
'But it only counts for something because there are a million other things that come before it.' Of course, the play has been directed many times before (by 27 companies in 14 languages and 22 countries - Hong Kong will be the 23rd) and the set and costumes are identical to those in the London production; albeit a little newer.
But the position of director is a valid one, Ryan claimed. It is not just a matter of following the textbook and watching the steps.
'It is my job to make a roomful of actors liberated and able to re-interpret what has been done before. No production is exactly the same: how could the audience react emotionally to a team of actors who have been robotically worked? 'The actors were on a tightrope a lot of the time during the rehearsals. But I hope they never felt they weren't allowed to fall off.
'That was my job to make sure the temperature in the room was dangerous but kind of with a safety net.' Portraying the slums of last century Paris needs a degree of courage, he claimed 'because you are portraying the most terrible squalor and if (the actors) really dig deep enough to find how horrifying that is, then the whole revolutionary theme of the play takes a completely different line.' There had been a lot of improvisational work through the rehearsal period in Sydney, 'and we will continue improvising right through the tour, to keep it alive.
'We spend a long time discussing what happens before the curtain comes up: how those convicted men end up in Toulon and what it would be like for them to travel cross-country to the city.
'We looked back at Hugo's original text, and where the information about the characters wasn't there we improvised it. Because if they haven't got a past you're never going to believe their present.' At the end of the first night there was no champagne. Just, for many, a Tiger Beer, a cigarette, and a swim in the Peninsula Hotel pool.
Like any other tour, except that the people involved express that strange certainty that they are doing something special on stage which they haven't ever done in other musicals.
'It should never just be another show,' said Stig Rossen, who is playing the role of Jean Valjean, the man at the epicentre of the action.
'The stakes are much, much higher,' he added, echoing the comments of many people involved in the production.
He first saw the show in 1986 in London. 'I felt the immensity of the piece. At the risk of sounding corny, it changed my life. And it changes other people's lives. It made me less prepared to accept prejudice.' He said the part of the story that most moves him is not the enormous glorious battle scenes, or the final scene of death and acceptance - which are the bits that tend to bring out the tissues in the stalls.
'It is a scene where Valjean steals the silver from the Bishop and the Bishop forgives him and gives him some more candlesticks, to save him from the police. Each night I can feel the power of that rare act of kindness.' Rossen describes himself as a 'pop singer who trained as an actor. So when I was given the chance to play Valjean in Copenhagen, it was a godsend.
'There is such an incredible range of emotions in this role. Valjean lives this life of extremes; he goes from darkness into light and from revenge to forgiveness.
'In the prologue (as a convict of 19 years, after stealing a loaf of bread) I announce that I have come to hate the world; by the end I can honestly say that I can die in peace.' After Hong Kong the company will perform in South Korea - the 24th country in which the musical will be performed. But it is the possible 25th country that is causing that most excitement among the cast.
It is not Beijing, although that is an aim for the future (those student deaths are perhaps too reminiscent of recent events in Tiananmen Square for the authorities to welcome the images wholeheartedly) but South Africa, a land where the oppressed and the poor have indeed struggled for an idea. And won.
The South African dates are not yet fully confirmed, according to managing director of Cameron Mackintosh Worldwide, Martin McCallum, but the booking is looking likely for late this summer. 'That would be the ultimate dream,' Rossen said.
'To sing that line 'Freedom is mine' in Cape Town with Nelson Mandela in the audience.' He shivered appreciatively. 'Now that really would be a lifetime thing.' Les Miserables opens at the the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand theatre next month. Tickets from Urbtix.