Fort Wayne Civic Theatre will open its season Saturday with the longest-running musical in the world, “Les Misérables.”
It’s a rare opportunity for the theater, according to Civic Executive Director Phillip Colglazier.
Colglazier received a call a year ago from the production’s licensing company asking if the community theater would be interested in presenting a local production of “Les Misérables,” he says. With the 2012 Oscar-winning film adaptation a cinematic success, and the touring company on hiatus, Colglazier says the musical’s company decided to release the licensed material to handpicked community theaters.
“This has never happened before,” he says. “It was a small window of opportunity to do this, so I wanted to do it the first opportunity we had.”
“Les Misérables” has been a theater mainstay for more than 25 years. Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, author Alain Boublil and songwriter Claude-Michel Schönberg opened the musical in Paris in 1980. The production has been translated in 22 languages and has performed in 42 countries with professional companies having more than 100 cast and crew.
The Civic Theatre cast is made up of 46 cast members.
Colglazier says the large undertaking required an experienced director. Gregory Steiber, who has directed “Romance, Romance,” “1776,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Into the Woods” for Fort Wayne Civic Theatre, has also worked on artistic productions for IPFW’s theater department, Arena Dinner Theater and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.
“He has directed many shows for us, and to do this production, I needed someone who has worked on large musicals before,” he says. “He’s done that. He has proved himself with many productions at the Civic Theatre.”
Steiber says the musical has been on his bucket list of shows he has wanted to be involved in.
“It feels like a gigantic responsibility, but I have been listening to ‘Les Mis’ for 25 years, and to finally be the one to set it on its feet with my vision has just been really exciting,” he says. “I almost consider it an epic drama with music. No one breaks out in dance – it’s about civil unjust and revolution along with religion and redemption. It’s not a toe-tapper. It grabs you and leaves you really inspired.”
Steiber says the cast has been rehearsing for five weeks, a healthy amount of time for a large production. Working with schedules has been a little bit of a challenge, but he says the cast came prepared to clear the calendars to be in the production. Since most of the cast was familiar with the production and its music, it took little time to introduce the play.
“It’s a theater-person’s dream to be in this production. So they came so well-prepared because it’s so well-loved,” he says. “We had nearly 180 people audition and they were well aware that if they came in with a number of scheduling conflicts, it would be tough. There was a massive amount of talent.”
At the helm of production are the two characters, Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, who represent two opposing forces throughout the play. Valjean, played by Todd Frymier, is looking to redeem himself from his criminal past, while Javert, played by Stuart Hepler, is a by-the-book officer who wants to arrest him. Hepler says he had found out about auditions only a week before he tried out.
“It has been a dream to be in this production, and I thought, ‘I can make this work for eight weeks,’ ” he says. “It’s too good to pass up. They’re pretty seismic roles and when you cross them, you have to take it.”
On the other end stands Frymier, who says he came into the production with the least amount of experience with the material.
“I didn’t know a whole lot about ‘Les Mis’ before rehearsals. I knew ‘Les Mis’ from being in the theater, but I never really listened to much of the music,” he says. “Everything is new to me, so I can make the character my own.”
Steiber says when he first heard the two men sing in auditions, he could feel the characters come to the surface in their voices.
“Stuart has this very well-trained voice. He has this rare gift. Todd has an earthy quality about his voice, almost folk-sounding,” he says. “Both qualities lend well to the characters they play.”
Hepler says he and Frymier have become fast friends, often watching each other’s performances to better understand the challenging chemistry their characters have. Although there is some pressure that comes along with playing a lead role, Hepler says he’s ready to take on the audience’s expectations.
“It’s almost like seeing the Rolling Stones; you don’t want to hear the new Rolling Stones – you want to hear the classics,” he says. “People are going to know the songs, and they want to hear them the way they have always heard them.”
Steiber hopes last year’s film will encourage audiences to experience the stage production. He says they will be surprised to find out how much the stage can offer.
“I’m a fan of the film, but I do not think it had the original intent of the production. The film played to the individual’s ability or lack of ability – entire arrangements were changed to suit actors,” he says. “If you saw the movie, and liked the movie, you’ll see the precision and realization of the musical in its pure form.”