Jean Valjean

All posts tagged Jean Valjean

Alfie Boe is Jean Val Jean, a quote from a previous feature and interview (2015, no less!) as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations of Les Miserables, Club 24601 (forever indebted to Peter Lockyer for that title).  I was lucky enough to see the all star Les Mis concert at the Gielgud theatre this week and, although my last blog for Alfie and thoughtsofjustafan was five months ago, my reaction was so strong that I simply had to review the show.

Seven years ago, I discovered the voice of Alfie Boe through, like a lot of fans, the 25th anniversary concert of Les Mis which was sadly far too late to see him in the role of Jean Val Jean (JVJ). Roll forward to 2015 and the next part of his journey in Les Mis was on Broadway and I wasn’t able to attend.  Convinced that my chance had gone and seeing Alfie as JVJ would be filed under ‘what ifs’, you can imagine how thrilled I was to know that Alfie would again reprise the role that catapulted him to fame, and this time in London.  Seven years waiting…and it was everything I expected and a whole lot more.

From the moment that Alfie first appears, he commands the stage; you feel the mixture of anger and fear from the off.  The voice was never in doubt and is as rich as you would expect but Alfie’s characterisation takes his vocal performance to a whole new level.  In the Club 24601 interview, Alfie singled out the soliloquy as his favourite song to sing because “It’s a real embracing of emotion, expressing the emotion to the audience.  I put a lot into those moments, anxiety, fear, passion to reach an understanding of who he is as a character, so I really like that moment in particular.” This is the moment when you first see the possibility of redemption in JVJ and Alfie’s acting skills come to the fore and he transforms from the angry parolee weighed down by life into someone moving onto a new life.

Alfie’s vocal skills aside, I felt that from the beginning to the end, Alfie inhabited the role of JVJ.  We watch as his demeanour changes from world weary prisoner and parolee to upstanding member of society before discovering love through parenting Cosette and the descent once more into pain and loss. Throughout the show we see that fear never leaves the character, underlying everything is the fear that he will be found and he will lose Cosette. The physical change in Alfie from the barricade toughness to the loss of the only thing he ever loved is heartrending to witness.  In that one scene he is defeated and reverts to the JVJ we met in scene one; his whole body becomes that of an old man with nothing and no one to live for.

Another song that Alfie referenced as being one he enjoyed singing was the epilogue, where again, JVJ is moving towards redemption, at least in his own mind, this time in death and the glory of life everlasting.  This poignant scene was played to perfection, with Alfie  portraying the swirl of emotions from peace, expectation of being lifted to glory and the palpable relief when Cosette returns to him one last time.  Audible tears were heard throughout the theatre.  The only other stage role I’ve seen Alfie in was Billy Bigelow in Carousel and he was most convincing in that character’s move towards redemption; perhaps the exploration of redemption is the hook that keeps Alfie returning to the role.

Michael Ball as Javert is outstanding.  He plays the part extremely well and, for me, is the best portrayal of Javert’s inner conflict over JVJ’s redemption I’ve ever seen.  Javert’s anguish is awful to watch and rightly causes the audience to genuinely mourn his death through suicide.  Carrie Hope-Fletcher and Rob Houchen were splendid and of course Matt Lucas and Katy Secombe as the Thenardiers were brilliant.  Matt’s voice was always wonderful but it’s gained an extra depth since he first took the role whilst his partnership with Katy is sublime – these roles are made for them.

However, of the rest of the cast, the actors that most impressed me were Bradley Jaden as Enjolras and Shan Ako as Eponine.  Eponine has always been my favourite character (she has two of my favourite songs) and Shan brought just the right touch of bravado and vulnerability to the role whilst also possessing a really lovely voice.  Bradley not only looks the part of Enjolras but has a wonderfully rich voice that should hopefully see him become much more well known in the world of theatre.

Photo: Seamus Ryan

Overall, the show more than surpassed my expectations and I’m hard pressed to think how it could be bettered; this is one of those rare moments in theatre which is perfect.  Everyone is magnificent, from the lighting becoming part of the set, to the orchestra and emsemble cast.  Do whatever you have to do to see this show – it’s the best I’ve ever seen.

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He did it and so did all of you who voted for Alfie to win Favourite Replacement in the Broadway.com Audience Choice Awards!

Way to go Alfie and fans!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Of course, the award is for his role as Jean Valjean in Les Mis and so here is Alfie singing his most famous song:

To see more about the winners of the awards, click here although it won’t surprise anyone that Hamilton was a big winner.

Don’t forget to enter the competition to win 3 signed Finding Neverland playbills – competition closes tomorrow:

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So, with news of Alfie’s next move (I understand the final agreements are being ironed out this week) in our minds, today it’s time to think about Les Mis.  There are just a handful of performances left to catch Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean, so it’s competition time!

The prize is a signed Les Mis playbill, a Les Mis programme (featuring Alfie), a New York City Guide featuring Alfie on the cover and a signed photo.  I’ll even throw in a stick of Classic Quadrophenia rock!

To be in with a chance of winning all you need to do is answer the following question:

How many productions of Les Mis has Alfie Boe appeared in?

Competition now closed

To be in with a chance of winning you will need to be subscribed to this blog – so do it now!

A winner will be picked at random on Saturday 27 February – good luck!

alfie les mis

To help you think, here is the next Broadway Jean Valjean, John Owen-Jones (thanks to Linda for sharing):

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When you book to see a musical do you book to see the show or the cast?  Personally, I do both – if I want to see a particular show I book it regardless of the cast but on the other hand, I do sometimes book a show just to see a particular actor or singer.  Having said that, I have passed up the chance to see actors I like if the show they’re in is not really my cup of tea.  I recently booked to see Phantom of the Opera for the first time on the strength of John Owen-Jones’ return and while John was fabulous, I now know why I waited 29 years to see the show.  Needless to say I’m not fussed about seeing it again.  I would much rather wait to see him in a show I love.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, in recent months, ever since Alfie Boe has been in Les Mis on Broadway, this topic has become a bit of a hot potato so after much thought, this blog post is my take on the issue.

When you book a musical what are you booking to see?  What does that booking guarantee you?  A theatre ticket guarantees that you will have a seat (some better than others) to see that particular show at that particular performance.  That is all it guarantees you, nothing else.  Unlike a ticket for a concert, it does not guarantee that your favourite cast member will be performing either, even if you have checked all the information available every minute until you get to the theatre.  It does not guarantee that you will enjoy the performance of every actor or even the show itself and it also does not guarantee that you will have the chance to thank the cast for their performance afterwards.

Of course, we all want to see our favourite actors and singers in a show and it can be devastating to find out, often at short notice where illness is concerned, that we won’t see them perform.  Considering the price of theatre tickets (especially the better seats) last minute cancellations can be particularly annoying.  Factor in travel costs as well as the cost of seeing a show can be incredibly high.  However, it isn’t the star that we are paying to see, it’s the whole show and there’s the difference.  The show will go on, to coin a phrase, and all the other cast members and musicians will still give the best performance they can.  In my view, it is insulting to those performers to be told that their performance does not matter to a considerable number of the audience, which is the implication every time someone says their evening or even their entire trip has been ruined because the star is not there.

Obviously, as this is a fan site for Alfie Boe, I’m mostly talking about Les Mis in New York; to my mind, some of the enjoyment at hearing reports from New York and of seeing audiences react to the might and power of Alfie’s JVJ has been lessened by the comments from disappointed theatre goers at not seeing him perform on occasions.  With a few exceptions, Alfie’s rest days have been posted online well in advance and are largely no different to the number of rest days / performances enjoyed by the previous JVJ, Ramin Karimloo.

Of course, this discussion is old hat to those fans who were fans when Alfie played JVJ in the West End – there were a number of unplanned absences due to illness in that run and feelings ran quite high amongst disgruntled fans at the time.  During that run, many fans came from far afield to see Alfie in Les Mis and for them, it was devastating to find out that Alfie could not perform due to illness.  The same applies now with many UK fans travelling to New York to see Alfie.   If you are travelling a short distance to see the show, it’s not so much of a problem as you can probably arrange to go again and hope for better luck next time.  However, when you are travelling a very long way and the trip amounts to a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience then you would undoubtedly feel very differently about short notice cast changes.  In that case, perhaps the discussion should focus on the following question: Are you booking that ‘once in a lifetime’ trip for the trip or for the possibility of seeing your favourite star perform?  One of these answers certainly lends itself to a greater possibility of disappointment.

Reading this back again, I think it’s clear what my opinion of this thorny subject is! I should also make it clear that I have not been to see Les Mis in New York and so have not had to face any disappointment.  If anyone has had this happen and saw the understudy instead of Alfie, I’d love to know how that influenced your whole experience of the show.  Also, this gives us the perfect opportunity to talk about stage door experiences; should we expect the star of the show to come out after every performance?

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Week five in our study of Jean Valjean over the last thirty years and we come to our earliest and only original cast member, Dave Willetts.  Willetts was in the ensemble at the Barbican and also understudied Colm Wilkinson, taking over the role when Wikinson went off to the Broadway production.

Although I enjoyed interviewing all the JVJ’s for this series of posts, one of the most fascinating was with Willetts due to his extraordinary back story.  I was completely unaware that until a chance meeting with the artistic director of the Belgrade Theatre, Willetts was happily enjoying life as an engineer, only performing in amateur productions.  As he tells it, he had no ambitions to be a professional actor or singer, he just relaxed by performing in amateur dramatics and singing with  a jazz trio, in a dance band and in folk clubs.  However, that changed when he was offered an audition for a professional production of Annie which was successful and he was then cast in the chorus.  Twelve months on from that, he attended an open audition for Les Mis, was called back for a second audition, which was lucky for Willetts as he only went to the first one in the hope of seeing Trevor Nunn who wasn’t there.  Happily, he was there for the second audition, as were the writers, who upon hearing him sing Lucky Be A Lady, then handed him the music to the soliloquy and said ‘away you go with that’.  He was of course cast and went on to play amongst other West End roles, the Phantom.  Since then, he has appeared in the the 10th anniversary Sydney production and directed many schools productions.

Willetts remembers the whole experience, from the rehearsals to the performances themselves, as being the best bits of the show.  Creating the show from the ground up was exciting, meeting Pavarotti backstage was even more so.  Singing Bring Him Home was again special, as Willetts says “those bottle moments, those moments you put away in a bottle and every now and again you take the cork out and look at them”.  All these moments ensured that the rest of his career happened, singing with Tony Bennett for example would never have happened without Les Mis.

As with all the other interviewees, I asked Willetts about the worst aspects of JVJ or any disasters that has befallen him.  His response was “how long have you got?  In the early days there were loads” which I suppose is typical of a new production, especially one that used a revolving stage.  One of Willetts’ most memorable disasters was the stage getting stuck at the end of the barricade scene and all the dead actors who were supposed to get off stage without being seen had to get up and walk off in full view of the audience.  Far from ruining the show though, these experiences enhanced the entire evening for the audience.  As Willetts says, it’s the “beauty of live theatre”.

Along with Alfie Boe, Dan Koek, Peter Karrie and Geronimo Rauch, Willetts’ favourite song to sing in the show is the soliloquy and broadly for the same reason: the journey of the character within the song.  Willetts said “there’s not many roles written like that”.  Uniquely, Willetts’ favourite song by another character is Master of the House because of where it comes in the show and it’s a “barnstormer” in Willetts’ words.

Willetts has recently played God in the tour of Love Beyond, the complete story of the bible and as he said to me “there’s nowhere to go from there”!  However, he has also co-written a couple of musicals, J’accuse, (the life of Emile Zola) and The Man Inside, an adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde.   His most recent album, Once in A Lifetime, features songs from both these.

Next week’s Club 24601 JVJ is Hans Peter Janssen.

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Week three of the Club 24601 Jean Valjean series and this week’s focus is the youngest JVJ, John Owen-Jones.  (Try writing lots of JOJ as JVJ and see how hard it is!)  As well as being the youngest JVJ, John also played the role in the 25th anniversary touring production of Les Mis (he is the JVJ featured in the cast recording) and on Broadway.  In addition, he of course formed one quarter of the Valjean Quartet along with Alfie Boe, Colm Wilkinson and Simon Bowman at the 25th concert.  Also, very memorably and obviously unexpectedly, John was called up on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in April 2013 to sing Bring Him Home with Alfie  – what a great moment that was for the audience!

In a previous interview, I asked John if he had plans to work with Alfie again after that night and he said that he’d had no plans to work with him then either!

He is currently playing the title role in Phantom of the Opera in the West End and is tremendously good (I saw him just over a week ago).  In the course of the interview, I asked if he would ever be tempted back to Broadway and his answer was in the affirmative, saying “I would quite like to have a crack at Phantom in the Majestic one day”.

Back to Les Mis and as he is the youngest person to play JVJ, I wanted to know what was different about the way he approached the role when he was older? John said “Well, I had a more rounded outlook on life and more life experience to draw on when I was older. I had two children in the intervening years and suffered some loss in my family and had grown up a lot. I therefore was naturally able to give the character more depth and I like to think my approach to interpreting the role was more mature than when I was 26”.  The natural next question was about the differences in playing the role in the West End, on Broadway and the touring company.  It turned out that there were considerable differences – the touring version (now the Broadway show) was re-imagined from the ground up and John was given a lot of freedom to inject ideas into the show.  Some of the new bits of staging – the hint of Valjean meeting with Petit Gervais in the prologue (a very important part of Valjean’s story in the book), the chain in the hospital fight, the bishop returning at the end of the show – all came from ideas he had in rehearsal.  John says that one idea was rejected (no beard and a shaved head – can’t think why John!).  John went on to say that “these of course all informed how I approached the role. I also worked hard to age my voice and physicality as the show moves along and tried to make Valjean rougher vocally in the beginning.”  Of course I then wanted to know if he would play the role again if asked? The answer was “yes of course but I think the time would have to be right for me to do it again and I’m not quite ready at the moment.”

Throughout the interviews with the JVJ’s there has been a consistent theme of how amazing it is to sing such an incredible score night after night and John is no exception.  When asked about the best aspect of the role, he said “when you are 100% on top of it playing the role can feel like flying”; conversely, the best part is also the worst, “sometimes the role is like climbing a mountain every night if you aren’t feeling physically or vocally up to it.”  As Geronimo Rauch memorably said, at least they don’t have to dance!

Unsurprisingly, along with most of the other JVJ’s, John chose Bring Him Home as his favourite song as a singer, and uniquely in these interviews, Who Am I as an actor.  Oneof his most memorable JVJ moments concerned a rehearsal of Bring Him Home with Claude Michel Schoenberg: John said “I was rehearsing Bring Him Home with Claude-Michel in a room backstage at the Barbican. We were running through the song when he suddenly stopped playing the piano and looked slowly around the room with a quizzical look on his face. Then he looked at me and said in that wonderful French accent of his: “Wait…zis room…it is where I wrote zis song!”  What a fabulous memory to have!  I was also interested in which non JVJ songs our JVJ’s liked (or wish they could sing in the show) and John’s choice was Fantine’s I Dreamed A Dream, saying “I think it’s the best song in the show”.

As mentioned earlier, John is currently playing the Phantom in the West End and he will shortly (this week) be appearing at Bryn Terfel’s 50th birthday celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall and in Broadway to the Bay in Cardiff (click here).   His latest album, Rise, is available here:

JOJ Rise

I had the great pleasure of reviewing it earlier this year – click here to read.

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Les Mis has passed it’s 30th anniversary date and we are continuing to celebrate Club 24601 with our series of interviews with former Jean Valjeans.  This week, it’s the turn of Australian Dan Koek who played the role in 2013-2014.

Dan first heard about the possibility of playing JVJ in early 2013 when he was back in Australia getting ready to reprise his South Pacific role in Melbourne and Sydney.  After an initial meet and greet audition, he then went through a total of nine auditions before he finally landed the role.  However, he first served his JVJ apprenticeship as he calls it, starting in the ensemble for twelve weeks before the creative team were sure he would be ok in the role.  Dan says that there were “a lot of notes after each performance” but after the first month or so he relaxed into the role more and that he just had to “make my own decisions about how to play the role”.  Fans have their favourite JVJ but Dan found he couldn’t think about that although he was sometimes conscious of following on from other stars.

In common with all the other JVJ actors I spoke to, Dan said that the best thing about the role was the “sheer exhilaration of singing that amazing score everyday.  I never tired of it.”  However, also in common with the other actors, the amazing score was also the worst thing about the role.  Dan comments “the pressure is always to be amazing, especially if you’re tired…it can start to eat away at you”.

When I started this series of interviews I wanted to know how similar the experiences of being JVJ would be, in particular, would they all choose the same song as their favourite?  Apart from Bring Him Home, of course, named as the “pressure song” by Dan, the most popular favourite song was the soliloquy.  In Dan’s case he chose it as it was “very satisfying from both an acting and singing point of view”.  On one occasion, however, the soliloquy was definitely not a good moment; in his first couple of weeks as JVJ, Dan was pretending to eat the bread before the soliloquy when a crumb shot up his nose and lodged in the back of his throat.  To his horror, the crumb stayed there and audience members may have been impressed by the emotion apparently shown by the tears streaming down his face when in fact, it was just that piece of bread!

In terms of favourite songs by other characters, Dan chose Eponine’s On My Own, mainly because of the incredible voice of his Eponine, Carrie Hope Fletcher. That is also my favourite song of the show, and Eponine is my favourite character too.

Earlier this year, Dan released his second album, High, after leaving the show last year.  He would love to go back at some time in the future, Cameron Mackintosh said he “looked forward to bring him home” but left in order to further his recording career.  As mentioned above, JVJ is very demanding, takes all the actor’s energy and it was also Dan’s fifth year of being in a long running musical, so time for a change.

Another reason for the change was the chance to make himself more employable and so the album, High (click here to buy) is what Dan terms popera, pop with a classical twist as opposed to “someone like Alfie Boe who does more classical with a pop twist”.  The tracks work well together, with highlights being Remember Me (duet with Carrie Hope Fletcher) and Always and Forever.  Of course, being a former JVJ, Bring Him Home features on the album – which is a duet with Jonathan Ansell.  Now, on top of being a fabulous singer Dan is also a lovely bloke who has given me a free copy of Bring Him Home to share with thoughtsofjustafan!  To share this with you, I’m partnering with the Angry Baby blog, so to add this free copy of Dan’s Bring Him Home just click here.  This iffer won’t be around forever, so do it now!

In the meantime, here is a video trailer for High:

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Thirty years of Jean Valjean and we’re celebrating the legend that is Les Miserables by looking back at some memorable Valjean’s.  So who better to start with than the best of them all (in the opinion of this blog anyway, and, I suspect in the opinions of one or two readers) than the current Broadway JVJ, Alfie Boe.

I interviewed Alfie before he started on Broadway and asked him what he thought would be the greatest difference in his approach from when he played the role in the West End. The main difference would be the difference in the production: “the production is completely different, it’s not the same show I performed in the West End”.  Alfie went on to say that although the music is the same, the structure and choreography is different, so “I’m excited to embrace the new direction for the role”.  As Alfie had appeared on Broadway before (La Boheme) I wanted to know how and if that experience would differ.  Of course, La Boheme was only three shows a week and now he is fully embracing the show with seven shows.  Did the fact that he is a lot more well known now factor at all?  The answer was definitely not, Alfie said “although I’m a little more well known than I was back then I’m not focused on that.  I’m focused on doing the job, doing it properly, performing each show I’m in to the highest standard”.  Judging by the rave reviews, Alfie is doing a great job in New York.

Talking about the differences and the challenges of returning to the show naturally led us on to Alfie’s time in the West End.  I’d forgotten (no idea how!) that Alfie had been in the show for a couple of weeks prior to the 25th anniversary show at the O2.  Alfie said that he had had a great experience, loved every minute of his new venture into the world of musicals as he’d not really done much in the West End before that.  He made friends immediately amongst the cast which as Alfie says was “a blessing, it stuck with me for a long time.  They helped me, supported me in my interpretation of the role and character.  A wonderful experience”.

Of course, performing an iconic role like Jean Valjean means a lot of pressure to be wonderful every night but also brings the opportunity to sing an incredible score every night which inevitably gets an incredible audience response.  When asked to choose his favourite JVJ song, I felt that Alfie could easily have chosen them all and indeed mentioned the epilogue, the soliloquy and of course his signature tune, Bring Him Home.  Alfie says “Bring Him Home is the song that everyone turns to but for me, one of the greatest moments to express true emotion and strength is towards the beginning of the show in the soliloquy.  It’s a real embracing of emotion, expressing the emotion to the audience.  I put a lot into those moments, anxiety, fear, passion to reach an understanding of who he is as a character, so I really like that moment in particular.  Also, at the end of the show, the epilogue is a beautiful piece , when he’s realising he’s close to death, coming to the end of his life, I really enjoyed singing those moments too”.  Here is Alfie at the Royal Variety Performance 2010:

Although JVJ is our focus here, Les Mis is a show full of outstanding songs so I was interested in asking the JVJ’s I interviewed if they had a favourite song by another character.  Alfie chose Stars by Javert and revealed that he’s actually quite jealous that he doesn’t get to sing that song in the show himself!  He also chose Norm Lewis as his favourite Javert, saying “I’ve heard it sung by so many Javerts but the one that sticks in my mind is Norm Lewis at the 25th anniversary and also Earl Carpenter [which is handy, seeing as he’s in the Broadway show!].  Those are the two guys who stick in ,my mind, their rendition of that song, very talented singers”.

Thanks Alfie for a lovely interview – I’ve quoted most of his answers without editing as I found I didn’t need to add or remove anything, his answers were perfectly eloquent by themselves.

The next JVJ interview is Dan Koek and you can find it on Monday 12th October.

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