Fourth in our series of Club 24601 interviews is our earliest Jean Valjean so far, Peter Karrie. As well as JVJ, Peter is most associated with the title role of Phantom of the Opera, a distinction he shares with three other JVJ interviewees (John Owen-Jones, Geronimo Rauch and Dave Willetts). He is also the second Welshman in succession to feature in our Club 24601, following John Owen-Jones last week.
Peter first played JVJ from 1986 for three years and returned twice more. He first got the role after auditioning whilst appearing in the first national tour of Evita. The musical director of the show went to see Rebecca Storm in Liverpool (where Evita was at the time) with a view to casting her as Fantine. Upon seeing Peter in Evita, he also asked him to audition and he duly did, around the piano in the foyer of a Liverpool hotel. He then repeated the process on the stage of the Palace theatre in London and was cast a week later. During all this time he had not met Cameron Mackintosh and when he did finally meet him, on his opening night, it was a rather unfortunate meeting to say the least. After the show, Peter was in his dressing room with his family when there was a knock at the door and this man stood there telling Peter how much he had enjoyed the show and invited him to dinner. Peter politely declined…only finding out the next day that the man was Cameron!
As the most experienced JVJ in this series of interviews, I asked Peter how his approach changed each time he revisited the role. He said that it was like “slipping back into a pair of old slippers because I got on so well with the role”. When he first took on the role and was in rehearsals, the role just wouldn’t click; something just wasn’t right until one day he found the inspiration. After a particularly bad journey, in the rain, Peter said that “he walked into rehearsals trudging along” and that’s when he realised that the key to his portrayal would be a heavy footed trudge, “walking as if he was pulling a truck behind him”. That was the key to Valjean’s character.
Obviously, with such a long run as JVJ, there would be many other cast changes and new actors to work closely with. One actor who really sparked with Peter was Philip Quast, who in Peter’s words was “the best Javert I ever worked with”, although if you had been present in their first ever rehearsal, you might be forgiven for wondering how it would turn out. Peter described to me how after a while in the role he had his own way of doing things and Quast came in and made it abundantly clear that he had his own ideas about the relationship between the two characters which led to some interesting rehearsal moments but some fabulous moments for the production. The confrontation in the sewer, where Javert eventually stands to one side to let JVJ and Marius pass, was one such moment: in rehearsal, Quast was adamant that Peter would have to force his way past, whereas Peter was equally adamant that it was not right for the character and the story. Quast eventually came round to Peter’s way of thinking and Javert continued to move aside at the vital moment.
In common with all the actors I interviewed, Peter mentioned the amazing score as the best thing about the role; it was challenging both musically and as an actor, “a very satisfying role”. This is reflected in his choice of favourite song, which (apart from the obligatory Bring Him Home) is the soliloquy. Peter said that “musically, dramatically, everything was in that song”. He went on to say that the role was “always emotional. I never cried during the show even though I could hear the audience sobbing, crying but at the end of the show I would burst into tears, every time.”
Given that Peter is our longest serving JVJ, I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask about any disasters or funny moments that occurred in the show and he obligingly told me about “one Javert who made me corpse”. After one cart scene, just before JVJ launches into Who Am I?, the Javert in question, turned his back in the audience, clicked his heels together and was supposed to then make his exit. He did make his exit but not before he said (knowing full well that only Peter could hear him) “if you don’t have that cart moved, I’ll have it clamped”. Peter said he laughed so much he had to feign a coughing fit and ran off stage to compose himself!
Lastly, Peter’s favourite song by another character was Empty Chairs and Empty Tables as it’s a “very poignant, very emotive song”.
Here is Peter singing in Les Mis Medley from 2011:
Club 24601 returns next week with an original cast member, Dave Willetts.
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