The old adage says that misery loves company. The musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" has certainly had plenty of visitors over its nearly three-decade life span. The trials and tribulations of Jean Valjean, Fantine, Marius, and the other Revolution-era Frenchmen have pulled in audiences again and again. People are drawn in by Hugo's characters and plot and the memorable songs by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil ("One Day More," "On My Own," "Castle on a Cloud," to name just a few). The show won a slew of 1987 Tony Awards after it opened on Broadway and has since become the fourth-longest-running show in Broadway history — not bad for a musical that was largely panned when it debuted.
While there is not currently a version of "Les Miserables" playing on Broadway (a revival is planned for 2014), the 25th Anniversary Tour comes to Rochester next week courtesy of the Rochester Broadway Theatre League. The tour itself — launched in 2010 and featuring new staging and scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo — just recently passed a milestone 1000th performance.
Andrew Varela, who plays the role of the relentless antagonist Javert in the tour, spoke to City about the enduring popularity of the show, the complex nature of his character, and how the recently released, Oscar-winning film adaptation has impacted live performances of the musical. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
CITY: With such a long-running show, how do you keep your character fresh and interesting?
Andrew Varela: It's important to realize that, as an actor, you're privileged to do what you're doing. People work really hard in the world. It's an honor to do what I do and be paid for it. Specific to this production, "Les Mis," is it's so good. We're having so much fun. I get to do something that has meaning, has importance. I never feel like I'm doing a puff piece. Every time I'm out there, I'm actually replicating art.
This show is so large. It's about life, it's about God — it's about the meaning of life, how we're supposed to live it. "To love another person is to see the face of God." These are the biggest themes of the human experience. That's what the show is about. Wherever this show is, it lands. China, South America, Europe — it hits every human because it's so universal.
Javert is a complicated character. Some view him as a tragic figure, others as a madman. How do you interpret the character?
I was doing some press in Washington, and a lady brought up the fact that Javert is just doing his job. He's a cop, doing his job as he sees it. At the end he's actually wrong, and he realizes that he has been the bad guy. It's sort of like the end of "The Sixth Sense, "where you realize that Bruce Willis is a ghost. Javert is doing everything that he can to do the right thing. I play him very honestly. Because up until the point where he realizes he is wrong about Valjean, he's just a good cop, doing his job. It is tragic, what happens, and how he chooses to deal with it.
The movie version of the musical was released last year to huge success. Has that had any impact on how stage productions have approach the show?
In the movie they switch two of the numbers. They move "I Dreamed a Dream" to a slightly later part of the story. I've heard rumbling they may do that with the stage. The show has had such a following for so many years, I'm not certain the numbers have bumped up at all. Moving forward after the movie, we're getting a different audience member. We've had a lot of great feedback.
What is it about this show that has kept it so consistently popular over multiple decades?
The themes we're dealing with. It's about love, it's about God, it's about revolution, it's about sex — we're talking about things that, regardless where you are on this earth, you're experiencing the emotions here. So 50 million, 60 million people on, you can see that people are being affected. It's a pan-humanistic, emotional experience.
What have been some of your favorite roles?
On Broadway I played Jean Valjean. It's a huge role, obviously; anyone you see taking on that role deserves a bow. I've played The Phantom. Did "Little Women." I would like to try all of the big men's roles going forward in my career. When you do the work and then you nail it on stage, you feel like a champion. You feel like you got the gold medal.
It never gets, old because it's a choice to not let it get old. You find something new in each scene. As an actor you are doing the same thing every day, but you find the subtle differences and you focus on those.