This is Rich DiMaggio from didyouweekend.com. I have the distinct pleasure today of talking with two of America’s finest actors, Craig Schulman and Gary Lynch.
We are here today at the Schacht Fine Arts Center of Sage Colleges in Troy, NY to discuss one of the greatest musicals of all time, Les Miserables. Seen by tens of millions of people worldwide, Les Mis tracks the redemption of Jean Valjean and the relentless tension between him and his pursuer Javert. The musical is coming to Sage Theater Institute Sept. 28 – October 11th, 2013.
For ticket and program information visit: http://www.sage.edu/theatre
Mr. Schulman has played Jean Valjean more than 2,000 times including for the Broadway Co. (six times), the 1st National Tour (US), Canadian Nat’l Tour and the 2nd National Tour (US) in Singapore. Mr. Lynch spent six years on the barricade as Jean Prouvaire and Javert, playing over 2,300 perfortmances
Gentlemen, nice to meet you.
Background and Characters
Q: Les Mis seems to be gaining momentum worldwide. This play is not losing traction. It’s not a new play by any means, and it has to do with the June Rebellion in France, from 1815 to 1832.
Now, admittedly, this is a period of time skipped over by most history books—so why the fascination with Les Mis? What is it about this play that grabs us and keeps us in our seat? My wife wears her ’24601′ shirt, and people out of no where come up and high-five her. Yet it’s about a period of the world we know very little about.
Gary Lynch and Craig Schulman
Craig Schulman: There are numerous themes in Les Mis that have universal appeal: Salvation, redemption, the struggle against seemingly impossible odds, man’s inhumanity to man and more.
Gary Lynch: There are three distinct themes that underscore Les Mis. Jean Valjean represents the loving, forgiving God—he’s the New Testament.
Javert represents the Old Testament: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; Once you have sinned there is no possibility of redemption. And then we have the idea that there is no God— represented by Thenardier, the Inn Keeper.
As a sideline, the French Revolution actually lasted 80 years and was a series of rebellions. This was just one rebellion.
Q. Thenardier is an atheist?
Gary Lynch: He tells us that in Dog Eat Dog. He sings:
“It’s a world where the dog eats the dog Where they kill for bones in the street And God in His Heaven
He don’t interfere
‘Cause he’s dead as the stiffs at my feet”
And speaking of the shirt 24601, the cast of the Broadway and National touring companies would have T shirts made from time to time with different sayings that pertained to the show; one of my favorites : “All This Over a Loaf of Bread”.
Craig Schulman: This musical is really about the Trinity—and the conflict that occurs within the Trinity. Philosophies of life collide here. Throw in a love story and you can see why this play grips the audience. But in the end, it’s New Testament, Old Testament and atheism, portrayed by their characters.
Q. The character that grabs me most, effects me the most, is Young Cosette. I see her picture and she could be anyone’s daughter.
Craig Schulman: She’s certainly the most vulnerable in this story. The one you need to protect. But you’re right—her image gets you. (The Les Mis show logo is from a woodcut print that was an illustration in an early printing of the novel.)
Q. Has playing these characters changed you? If you play a character for twenty years, thousands of times, do you as a person change?
What about you, Gary—has playing Javert the bad guy changed you?
Gary Lynch: Well, first—Javert is not a bad guy. He is devoutly religious and believes he is right and just. As a professional actor you have to have the ability to step into the characters shoes. That’s my job. I feel blessed to have been part of this show’s history.
Q. Not a bad guy?? We need to return to that. What about you Craig, do you relate to Jean Valjean? Has playing him 2,000 times changed you?
Craig Schulman: I don’t think so. But if it changed me, it was gradual. I relate to Jean Valjean, so I don’t have to step that far into my shoes. In many ways, I see my father in him. He has faith in himself, he knows what he needs to do to accomplish his mission. He understands and identifies his struggles, and realizes he must not need to be dogged down by his history.
Q. Getting back to Javert not being the bad guy—explain. I always thought of him as the bad guy!
Gary Lynch: Javert isn’t evil. He just thinks he’s always right and on the side of what is right. He believes in right and wrong, black and white, and he’s extremely passionate about it. He is a little OCD. He needs to find and capture Val Jean, the criminal must be brought to justice. He is a truly tragic figure. His world unravels when he thinks his reality is not valid. The idea of redemption is not in his dogma. His foundation is not there. His truth is wrong. This is why, in the end, he finds himself conflicted; His whole life is a lie and he kills himself. “There is no way to go on”
Craig Schulman: Think how tragic it is when anyone ever kills themselves. What kind of life is that? Javert believes in God, the Old Testament God. His life is about order, and he has an OCD quality about it. He cannot deal with chaos: There’s black or white, but no gray.
At the end of the prologue, both Jean Valjean and Javert have basically the same lyrics. Jean Valjean says “Another story must begin” and changes his life. Javert, on the other hand, is dark and cold and ends his life.
Gary Lynch: I was told: If the audience does not applaud when Javert kills himself, you’ve done your job. As an actor, you have to try and get across some kind empathy, not evil. You should feel sorry for him that he just didn’t get it. For a mere 28 minutes of this play, Javert is a powerful character.
Jean Valjean and Javert Tension, and the Fatal Leap
Craig Schulman: When Jean Valjean hits bottom, he says, “ I am reaching, but I fall… I’ll escape now from that world [his real identity as Valjean].” Jean Valjean knows he needs to change his life. He needs to escape from a world that only treated him as an ex-con. He is inspired by a kindly bishop who gives him silver, and instructs him to use it to change the direction of his life. At the end of the Prologue, Valjean’s final words are, “… another story must begin.” Valjean assumes a new identity and endeavors to do good works for his fellow man.
Jean Valjean reminds me of a boulder: Once in motion, he lets nothing stand in his way. Javert is a boulder, too, but Javert eventually cracks when the two collide. Valjean’s assumption of an alias breaks the law, and sets the scene for Javert’s years-long pursuit of Valjean to return him to jail for breaking the terms of his parole. In their final confrontation, Jean Valjean is desperately trying to get the injured Marius medical treatment. Valjean insists that Javert allow him to take Marius to the hospital and promises to willingly return to Javert’s custody. Valjean has always had the physical power (he is described in the novel as the strongest man in France)—to kill Javert at any time—but he doesn’t. It is Valjean’s sense of compassion for his fellow man that finally makes Javert question the foundation of his own beliefs and leads to his suicide.
Gary Lynch: And Javert gives him the permission—he just tells him he will be waiting for him.
Q. So when Jean Valjean during that scene stares Javert down and walks by him with Marius on his shoulder, you don’t think Jean Valjean’s redemption of power is what caused Javert’s suicide? Javert finally realized Jean Valjean has escaped his grasp?
Craig Schulman: No. The suicide comes because Javert finally realized his way was wrong. His entire belief system is proven to be utterly wrong. He says, “There is nowhere I can turn, there is no way to go on.”
But think about it—look at the environment Javert grew up in: Structured, regimented, militaristic.
Gary Lynch: When Jean Valjean walks past Javert with Marius on his shoulders, it’s such a poignant scene. The power shifts and changes, but Jean Valjean still asks for permission. But Javert lets Valjean and Marius pass. This is moment of Javert’s reflection. He realizes his belief system is shaken. He wants order and structure, and now that reality is shattered.
Q. Speaking of ending his life, when Javert jumps off the bridge—any surprises how they’re going to do it? One theater raises the bridge as he falls. Mac-Haydn did something spectacular— they pulled him up an aisle and introduced a spotlight so you just saw his shadow disappear. It was spectacular. Any hints?
David Bunce with Schacht Theater: Honestly, we haven’t figured it out yet! But we have ideas….
Gary Lynch: In the Broadway production the bridge flies up and this creates the illusion of falling….:)
Les Mis, Then and Now (the Book) and Jean Valjean’s Amazing Strength
Craig Schulman: The book takes an effort to read, but is THE essential source of information about our characters. Javert’s father was actually the prison warden. So Javert grew up in an extremely regimented environment. In so many ways, this makes Javert who he is. He grew up in a prison environment, so it is only natural that he goes into the family business of law enforcement. As actors, we know that Jean Valjean and Javert knew each other for the 19 years of Valjean’s imprisonment.
Throughout the book, we learn of Jean Valjean’s amazing feats of strength, and not just when he lifts the runaway push cart off the pinned character. Valjean was imprisoned for 19 years; five years for stealing a loaf of bread; the rest because he made numerous attempts to escape. The novel describes a scene where the convict Valjean climbs the rigging of a ship, in full view of hundreds of prisoners and guards, to rescue another prisoner who has slipped and is hanging by his foot a hundred feet in the air above the deck. Valjean frees the man and then dives in the harbor and escapes—which we all know cost him a lot more prison time.
Challenges to Actors and the Kid at the Baricade
Q. Have the characters changed over the years? Has Javert become kinder? More evil? What about Jean Valjean?
Gary Lynch: No. I think they have basically stayed the same.
Q. One of my readers is making me ask a burning question, but I admit, I don’t know the answer—the little boy at the barricade. Is one of the revolutionaries behind the barricade his brother? In every production, one of the rebels sobs first as if he lost a loved one.
Gary Lynch: Gavroche is the kid who is killed. This is another secret we learn in the book: The boy’s father is Thenardier, the Inn Keeper and Gavroche and Eponine are brother and sister. The one who sobs is Grantaire, the drunk student.
Q. For each of you—What is the most challenging part of playing each of these roles? I can tell you one criticism I have heard many times: Versions of this play are too operatic.
Gary Lynch: We had to sing a pop song when we auditioned back in the day.
Craig Schulman: That’s a good point. When the show opened in London in 1985 it came with a wide-ranging discussion on this issue. Les Mis is essentially operatic in its format. But the directors and producers feared that if the show was described as an opera, it would turn the audience away. So, Les Miserables became, “The Musical Sensation”. In contemporary musical theater the performers need to find a way to bend the tempo and note values to make the text seem conversational.
Gary Lynch: It has to be conversational and not stilted. Every word in Les Mis is there for a reason, there is nothing extraneous. People almost need to forget you’re singing.
Q. Is there one song in particular we sing in the shower at home?
Not really, though I often get stuck with a different tune in my head every day. Gary Lynch
The score from Hairspray , which I’m directing after this show……