Before it hit theaters on Christmas Day, Les Misérables had already garnered a handful of Golden Globe and Screen Actors’ Guild award nominations. Clearly, Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s pop opera is a critical winner.
But, for a few Vermonters with special connections to the musical, watching the movie version was more than a chance to rave or pan. It brought back memories for Craig Wells, a local actor who toured nationally with the stage version of Les Mis. And it offered inspiration to Sean Leach of Burlington’s Lyric Theatre Company, the stage manager and force behind the production Lyric will stage in April 2014.
“Believe it or not, there are still people out there who have never seen the show,” Leach says. “[The film] will give it great exposure. We think the show will sell out anyway, but this will probably make sure that happens.”
The movie resurrected personal memories for Wells, who was fresh from his Broadway debut in the rock musical Chess when he won a supporting role in the second national touring company of Les Misérables. From 1988 to 1990, when he transferred to the Broadway production, Wells played drunken student Grantaire and the foppish lout Bamatabois, while covering the larger role of fiendish innkeeper Thénardier (played in the film by Sacha Baron Cohen).
Wells left the New York stage behind in 2006 and now works as external relations officer for the dean’s office of the University of Vermont. He occasionally returns to the boards for memorable roles at the St. Michael’s Playhouse, including a 2011 turn as the nostalgic narrator of The Drowsy Chaperone.
For his first viewing of the new film, Wells joined Lyric’s Leach, who has seen the musical multiple times, including a performance in London. Leach says he’ll drive anywhere within six hours of Vermont to bask in the rousing score.
“It’s a little weird. It brings back a lot of memories,” Wells says following the movie. “I spent a lot of time with that group of people. It was really a family.”
Wells remembers that the first week of rehearsals, overseen by original codirector John Caird, consisted of just theater games and improvisation, before singers began learning the complex score.
After watching performances such as Anne Hathaway’s wrenching “I Dreamed a Dream,” Wells admits, “It’s more emotional than I expected.” He notes that film director Hooper achieved a special measure of intimacy with extreme close-ups, often in single shots, for a number of the most dramatic solo moments. “It’s so intimate, I almost feel like I’m intruding,” he says.
Though Leach is a dyed-in-the-wool fan, the director he handpicked for Lyric’s production will be seeing Les Misérables for the first time at the movie theater. Kelly Kendall is familiar with the score and the Victor Hugo novel, but as of this writing had not yet seen the film or the stage musical: “I’m looking forward to being swept away and experiencing the story — to let it wash over me,” she says.
Kendall also hasn’t yet seen the script from which she’ll be directing, which was recently released by its licensing company, Musical Theatre International, for use in amateur, nonschool productions such as Lyric’s. That script may or may not come with a new song, called “Suddenly,” written specifically for the film. But Kendall says she’s far enough along in her research and reading that she expects her vision will not be swayed by Hooper’s. “I fall in love with different sections [of the show] every time,” she says. “There is no subtext. Everyone just says what they feel.”
Whether Les Misérables storms the Oscars or not, the musical’s fans can look forward to plenty of live, local renditions of “On My Own” in the