“Les Miserables” is one of the most popular musicals in the world. It’s toured 42 countries in 22 languages. The original Broadway production won eight Tony Awards, and the latest film adaptation won three Oscars. The London show, which opened in 1985, is the longest-running West End musical.
The show has inspired countless actors, but roles in productions of “Les Mis” have been hard to find, since the rights have been restricted for regional and community theaters. Schools could license an abbreviated version, but once a prospective Jean Valjean graduated, his options were land a coveted professional role in an official production or sing along in the shower.
That changed this year. Driven by the popularity of the latest movie, licensing company Music Theatre International (MTI) released the rights, and regional productions are popping up across the country.
“Typically, a show will run on Broadway or start on the West End and then come to Broadway, after which there’ll be a national tour of that show. During that time, the rights are restricted so MTI’s customers, which are the regional and community theaters as well as the high schools, won’t be allowed to license and produce the show,” says MTI president Drew Cohen.
When the announcement went out that the rights were open, CenterStage artistic director John Leffert jumped at the opportunity to produce the show at the Jewish Community Center.
“We abandoned everything and applied immediately, because we wanted to be among the first in the area to do it,” says Leffert.
Word got around and more than 300 local performers turned out to audition. Finally, those hopefuls were singing “I Dreamed a Dream” for keeps. Leffert says the show’s epic songs are a big draw for performers.
“I know we joke about [the music] when we hear auditions, like, oh, not another ‘On My Own,’ but in the context of the show they’re absolutely so incredibly powerful,” he says.
The show opened last night, and performances for the three-weekend run are selling out fast. Despite audience demand, Leffert only added one extra show to his usual run schedule. The show is too demanding to ask a moonlighting performer to sing it night after night.
“You might be a teacher talking to kids all day, and we don’t have the luxury of having an understudy that can go on for a matinee,” says Leffert.
Jordan Price, who plays the young revolutionary Marius, is just that sort of performer – he teaches fourth grade in Oldham County by day and performs in CenterStage musicals by night. The New York native studied theater, and once harbored big Broadway dreams.
“Don’t think I didn’t try,” Price says with a smile. “I went and gave it a valiant effort. It was just such a hard life to sustain, going from audition to audition. Even when you were working steadily, you knew that contract was going to end.”
Kentucky “wasn’t even a blip on the radar” for Price at first, who ended up here by way of Nashville when his wife Lenae (now the development director at the JCC) came here for a job. But Price has found Louisville’s arts scene both rich and welcoming. At CenterStage, he lands dream roles in shows he always wanted to do in New York, like “Rent,” “Next to Normal” and now “Les Mis.” He does admit he was skeptical at first of the small company’s ability to pull off such an elaborate show.
“It just seemed like one of those mega-musicals you really needed that big professional stage to pull off, otherwise it would just be a disaster,” he says. “And I think we’re doing a really good job of disproving that. I knew that if anyone could do it, [Leffert], who’s such a big fan, could pull it off.”
It’s not easy. Staging “Les Mis” is a financial gamble for a small nonprofit. The budget is about $40,000, more than double that of Leffert’s last CenterStage show, William Finn’s “A New Brain.”
“It’s the highest we’ve ever spent,” say Leffert. “Our set budget is blown out of the water to get what we needed to make this production the best. There are over 800 costumes we rented from a production company in California. Huge expense.”
That includes a second music director just to work with the community orchestra, and a custom-built rotating stage with three turntables to create all of the different scenes the show demands.
Despite the high demand, this might be the last time Les Mis plays at the center in a while. The same popularity that pushed the rights to be released also inspired a revival on Broadway. It’s slated for next year, and to prevent competition, the regional theatre rights will be pulled in 2015.
“Les Mis” runs through Nov. 10.