”The man otherwise known as Jean Valjean takes a look into the past and recalls the time he took the role that earned him a Tony nomination over the title role in The Phantom of the Opera. Plus, he shares his dream of collaborating with Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Think you know the original Jean Valjean? Think again. In honor of his Dec. 11 holiday concert Broadway, Christmas & Beyond at the Living Arts Centre in Ontario, Canada, we chatted with the actor who “can carry a man on his back and sing like an angel.” Consider this our holiday gift to you.
1. Concerts are his thing.
“The one thing that concerts have done for me is given me the opportunity to get back to sort of do songs that I want to do. It’s about enjoying yourself. The concert is a real a sing-along. I like people to sing along with me. The mix is always Broadway, some rock ‘n’ roll, some blues. We go from Phantom of the Opera [song] ‘Music of the Night’ to ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night,’ actually. We do a Beatles selection. Obviously, I do the ‘Bring Him Home’ thing, and I do ‘Somewhere’ and stuff like that to keep the Broadway side of it there. It’s just a mix of good songs that people enjoy and I enjoy singing.”
2. Different stories percolate in his mind when he sings “Bring Him Home.”
“We lost Michael Burgess — he did Valjean here in the Canadian version — about six months ago. I’m thinking a bit [about] him and thinking of Kyle Jean Baptiste, the young African American who died quite tragically in New York. I was really upset that I didn’t get to see him because that was an absolute landmark situation for an African American to play Valjean. I do dedicate the song now. I also think as Valjean: the barricade in your head, Marius — all that stuff comes back a bit. It’s like a movie in your head.”
3. The Les Misérables 30th-anniversary Gala Performance wins for most special reunion.
“I was talking to Cameron [Mackintosh], and I was saying how special that night was — the 30th. One of the main reasons was that I saw a lot of the original London cast, which was really emotional to see them. I’ve seen them on a few of these anniversary things on and off, but this was in a small theatre. It was in the Queens Theatre, where they do Les Miz. It was just the intimate atmosphere. They had a Welsh choir of children sing, from [age] seven up to about 15 or 16. To see kids singing and then to see these young people doing the show… It brought me right back to the start when I was starting [to] do it.”
4. He wants to come back to Les Miz on Broadway.
“I came in to play the Bishop for one night [in Toronto]. Cameron Mackintosh asked me to do this, where I played the Bishop for charity and donated to [the] charity of my choice. We raised $100,000, and it was for five of my charities. I would like to do that in New York. I’ve suggested it before, but it’s never been — between one thing and another we’ve never been able to do it. I think it’d be great for the charity; I’m thinking of the Syrian refugees, but I might add a few more in. Do the Bishop on say Saturday (or Friday) and then do [an additional] concert on Monday [for charity] because the theatre would be dark.”
5. He wants to join forces with Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“I don’t tweet or do anything like that — I don’t even have a cell phone — but people tell me that this man is sort of obsessed with Les Misérables, and he’s sort of a fan of mine as well. He’s created an awful lot of buzz around Les Misérables and around myself and the different people in Les Misérables. It might be an opportunity…and maybe we could get a lot more money for the charities. I think he’s an amazing guy. People say to me, ‘Have you seen what this guy tweeted?,’ and they send me still shots of his tweets. I just feel he’s so intelligent. So bright. I couldn’t believe it. I saw something at the backstage door where he answered questions on Les Miz in Les Miz lyrics. He’s incredible with what he has done. He’s a real force of life, isn’t he?”
6. His days of eight shows a week are behind him — probably.
“I absolutely had a dream of doing Man of La Mancha one day; that’s a long time ago. [Doing a show] is even a larger commitment now at this stage in my life. I’m sort of weighing up concerts and weighing up control of my life and what I can do and what I can’t. Once you sign on the dotted line, in terms of a contract with a musical, it’s a huge commitment. When you’re younger, that’s fine; you can take it on, and I still go out and I still sing 15-20 songs — and I can do that — a night. But, socially, the commitment away from my family — the emotional commitment — I think it would be a big decision. I don’t see any material out there that I could really get involved with. I’m not knocking it, but I’m of an age now that I’m difficult to cast. I’m up for doing a part if I thought the part was right and the people want to consider me for a part. If I thought the part was absolutely exciting…I would go for it.”
7. He really loves “Music of the Night” — and singing it higher than written.
“I really loved ‘Music of the Night.’ When Andrew Lloyd Webber played me that for the first time, I started to cry. When I started to sing, I started to cry. I thought it was so beautiful. I really did. I actually asked him to take it up, [laughs] as I asked [Claude-Michel Schönberg] to take up ‘Bring Him Home.’ (Actually I asked Schönberg [when they] got me back into rehearsals for the Oct. 8 [concert] in London. He gave a talk how I’d call him [and say], ‘Higher higher higher.’) So I asked Andrew to take the song up, and he said no, he’d like to keep it in D flat, but I always did it higher. I always did it in D.”
8. In fact, he loved that song so much we almost had a different original Phantom.
“I was completely taken by that song. Incredible. For me to hear it for the first time — [Andrew] playing it on piano and me singing — was something else. I just got very very emotional.
“The way I got the job of Les Misérables was Tim Rice got me that job. [They were looking for] the guy that could carry a man on his back and sing like an angel, [and Tim named me]. I was going back in a car after doing the workshop of Phantom, and Cameron Mackintosh was driving me. [At the time] I hadn’t really got into Les Misérables. We had done some rehearsals for Les Misérables at the time, and we hadn’t pulled it together emotionally. We hadn’t really gotten the full impact of the piece, and it was a long, long show. In those days it was over three hours, three-and-a-half hours, and I was onstage for a solid two hours of that if not more. It was pretty daunting for me, that part. And I said to Cameron Mackintosh, ‘Look, Andrew Lloyd Webber has asked me to play the Phantom, and I said [to Andrew], ‘Look you better talk to Cameron Mackintosh, I’ve already agreed to do Les Misérables.’
”[Director] Trevor Nunn was the key for me. When I heard the words Trevor Nunn, that’s what [initially] locked me into Les Misérables. He was one of the greatest directors in the world; still is. He’s a bit of a genius, and I wanted to work with him really badly. That was one of the driving forces [for me taking the job in the first place]. So I wasn’t talking lightly when I said to Cameron Mackintosh, ‘Look, Andrew has asked me to do the Phantom.’ But I said, ‘I said to Andrew you better ask Cameron Mackintosh, I’m already contracted.’ And Cameron Mackintosh said, ‘I know he’s asked you, but I need you to do Les Misérables.’ He said, ‘If Les Misérables doesn’t work, you can do Phantom.’ That’s my recollection. You know what, everybody has their own version. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.“
9. He holds on to symbols of his time as Valjean.
”[The candlesticks] were the things that the Bishop said to sell, which [Valjean] never did, which was another testament to his will and determination. People have sent me about six sets of candlesticks. I have got loads of candlesticks. Somebody actually — which I hold on to — got me a model clay loaf of bread, and he gave it to me on opening night in New York. A friend of ours, a fan, gave it to me. They had it designed and baked and they painted it like a loaf. I have the original hat. If you look at the original book, you’ll see Valjean with a peaked hat — a leather hat. I had one of those, but then we were having problems with the mics when we put it on.“
10. He wants to write a book.
“I have to write a book at some stage. I’ve met some amazing people and some huge celebrities in my life, from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra to Yehudi Menuhin. I was very fortunate in my life to have a great wife and a great family and a great support system. Really, really blessed, but I have to actually detail all this stuff and put it all down, and I think it would make a good story — a very interesting story. It’s just about getting the time to do it. I have to pull back on the concerts a little bit because I want to start recording more now. I want to start writing more songs. That’s what I used to do. I have to find the time. Just getting back to me is the thing.”