Saturday, 20 August 2011

David Charles Abell Interview - Part Two

The following interview was published in Issue #21 (Winter/Spring 1998) of “The Barricade” – the international newsletter of Les Misérables.

The Maestro Behind Les Misérables

by Michael Oh

In addition to his work with the stage productions, David Charles Abell also has extensive recording experience. He has served as musical director, musical supervisor and co-producer of numerous Les Mis cast albums, as well as conductor of the Complete Symphonic Recording of Miss Saigon and the original musical director of Martin Guerre.

“Recording a cast album is a very different experience from conducting a live performance,” he says. “It’s a [more] technical process [than] performing, which is more about being inspirational. You have to create the impression for the listener at home that you’re flowing with the drama of what’s going on, so you have to use a technical means to reach a theatrical ends.”

Without audience response and musical staging, a conductor must recreate the atmosphere of a live performance in a recording studio. “The ideal way of recording each track for a cast album is to have all instruments in the orchestra at once so that you get a better performance,” he says. “But if you need to add or change any of the instruments later, you can do so, to some extent. An experienced producer will know what can be fixed during the mixing process and what can’t.

“First, the orchestral tracks without singers are recorded, usually in several sessions. Sometimes you have the singers in the recording booth for a guide track, but they generally won’t give their best performances then because the environment is so unfamiliar to them. They are in a booth, they have headphones on, they are trying to watch the conductor, they are not hearing the orchestra and each other as they normally do, so these tracks are generally almost never used for the album.

“The singers will return to the studio and, at their leisure, listen to the pre-recorded tracks a couple of times, practice singing with the tracks until they are used to them, and then they get the chance to do a few takes. Sometimes they get it right on the first take, but generally they need two, three or four takes. After the fourth take, you generally won’t get the best results because they will be tired. As a producer, your job is to have them peak on their second or third take, and you make comments between takes. For instance, you might make a technical comment, like ‘You’re early or late on that note,’ or express an artistic viewpoint, like ‘I’m not getting the sense that Valjean really cares about what happens to Fantine.’ It depends on which singer you’re working with, and you use a different approach with every singer.”

How do the different members of the creative team collaborate during the recording process? “As a musical director,” he says, “you conduct the orchestra during the recording sessions, but you might also be present during the singers’ recording sessions and help them through their numbers if they’re having trouble staying with the track. You may need to draw the emotion out from them. Some singers need that; others don’t. You also go back to the booth between takes, listen to them, and try to determine which aspects could be further improved on the next take.

“As a musical supervisor, you listen to the orchestra to get the sound balance right, and you make suggestions and keep doing a track again and again until you get a take that can be used for the recording. You also determine in advance which excerpts and musical numbers will be included in the album, and you decide in consultation with the musical director, producer and composer which takes will be used for the recording.”

Abell is particularly satisfied with his first cast album, for which he was both musical supervisor and musical director: the 1991 Paris Revival Cast album (TREMA 710369/370). This recording offers vocally stunning performances by Robert Marien, Louise Pitre, Stephanie Martin and Jérome Pradon and brilliantly recreates the atmosphere of a live performance. Abell also served as musical supervisor of the Prague cast recording (BONTON 71 0096-2 311), which he co-produced with Zdenek Merta.

Abell’s multilingual skills have helped him tremendously with his Les Mis engagements. “I made it a point to learn French, German and Italian in college because I knew that I would need these languages as a conductor,” he says, “but I never expected to need them in Les Mis and Miss Saigon. I also never expected to need Czech – which I didn’t learn, but I asked for a word-by-word translation of the libretto. I wanted to know what every word meant. I went through the English-Czech translation carefully, and I noticed that they changed a lot of the lyrics.”

One change was the phrase “I love him, I love him” from ‘On My Own.’ Abell says, “There is no way of saying that in three syllables in Czech, so the translator used an approximation – something like ‘I really like him’ or ‘He’s really a sweetheart.’ I objected strongly to that phrase, because the whole point of the number is to show that Eponine is admitting that not only does she admire Marius, but she loves him deeply, and she would die for him – which she does. The audience has to know that. We finally came up with another phrase, something like ‘My love,’ which gets the message across to the audience, but it’s not exactly the same as the English phrase.”

The lyrics are not the only aspect of a production affected when Les Mis is staged in a different language. The conductor also faces changes in the tempo and phrasing of the music. “What might have been a stretched note in English may not be so in a different language, depending on the lyrics,” he says. “If the translator has done his job well, then the translated version will be very close to the English musical structure, but it will never be exactly the same, so sometimes Claude-Michel will change the length of the notes because it’s worth the compromise. If you can get a more exact or poetic meaning to the lyrics by having one syllable extra or less, then it’s usually more desirable to do so.”

There are certain restrictions to the adaptations, however. “If the tune has to have a certain melodic shape, then you have to translate the lyrics to the exact number of syllables that are required,” he says.

Each of Abell’s companies has left a distinctive mark in Les Mis history. “The Montreal company was the first bilingual production,” he points out. “The Paris company was the only other French production, and it was staged in the birthplace of Hugo’s novel. The Czech company was the first commercial theater production in that country, and the Tenth Anniversary Concert in London is the highest-profile engagement that any Les Mis conductor could ever hope for.”

The US Third National Tour gave Abell a feel for the road show experience and allowed him brief sojourns in many cities across the United States. “It was exciting but also physically and mentally demanding – not to mention the fact that at the end of every week you pack your suitcase and move to a new hotel, and you’re away from family and friends,” Abell says.

Despite numerous Les Mis engagements and his commitments to other Boublil-Schönberg musicals, Abell has successfully maintained a career in classical music. His achievements in the orchestral and operatic realms may have been overshadowed by his significant contributions to musical theater, but his work has not gone unnoticed. In the Prince George’s Civic Opera production of Tosca, The Washington Post observed that “Musical Director David Charles Abell inflected and balanced the phrases with great sensitivity and supported the voices superbly. The orchestral sound was rich but transparent; the words could be heard, and the theatrical effect of this highly theatrical work was greatly enhanced.” The Birmingham News summed up his musical abilities in the Western Opera Theater production of Carmen: “Conductor David Charles Abell has the right concept, the right communication and the right discipline.”

Abell was born and raised in Winnetka, Illinois. He studied with the acclaimed French composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger at Chicago’s Conservatoire American. He was one of the youngest conductors to make his American debut with the Washington Opera in 1982, replacing John Mauceri in The Turn of the Screw on 16 hours’ notice. He debuted with the New York City Opera three years later.

The 38-year-old maestro has worked with many leading figures in classical music, including the late Leonard Bernstein. He assisted the great conductor and composer in A Quiet Place at La Scala and conducted his composition Mass in Berlin. The latter engagement marked Abell’s professional conducting debut. Even a cursory glance at his career highlights confirms that Abell has firmly established himself in the opera world – yet such credentials are hardly surprising, given his educational background and his natural musical talent.

Abell graduated from Yale College with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, then earned his Master of Music in Conducting (Orchestral) at Juilliard. He received the prestigious Julius Rudel Award, an accolade bestowed upon a promising young conductor in the New York City Opera, and was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award in 1993 for his musical leadership of Miss Saigon in Toronto.

Despite his accomplishments, Abell remains modest and unassuming, preferring to let his musical achievements speak for themselves. He insists in a self-deprecating manner that “as a conductor, you’re only as good as your last performance.” He admits, however, that he has work hard to build a successful career.

Abell strongly believes in playing an active part in the creative process and making a significant contribution to each artistic project. This axiom probably explains why he has never taken over from another musical director in any musical and why he has yet to make his West End or Broadway debut in Les Mis.

This policy also extends into the world of classical music. Abell served as musical director of the Prince George’s Civic Opera in Maryland from 1983 to 1988, and under his leadership, the relatively young company grew to local prominence. Every production was met with critical acclaim. When the opera company staged Don Giovanni, The Washington Post commented that “the ingredient that made the difference for this production (besides the genius of Mozart) was undoubtedly the work of conductor David Charles Abell ... This was his first opportunity to conduct one of the great classics (perhaps the greatest of them all), and he rose to the occasion magnificently ... Prince George’s County should enjoy him while it can; he is probably destined to move quickly out of its economic reach.”

Pausing to take a retrospective look at his career, Abell reflects on his major influences. “I’m very thankful to Cameron, Claude-Michel and Alain for giving me the opportunity to develop as conductor,” he says. “They believed in me, they gave me work, and it has enabled me to survive financially as well, which is not an easy thing for a young musician to do. I’ve grown so much since I conducted my first Les Mis production, and the experience and knowledge that I have gained will serve me in good stead when I conduct operas.”

Abell also attributed his success to the contribution of Seann Alderking, his partner for 14 years. Abell and Alderking met at Juilliard. They have worked together in various Les Mis productions, Miss Saigon in Toronto and London’s Martin Guerre.

“Seann and I work well together, and we’re very much a team,” Abell says. “I’m very grateful to Cameron and Claude-Michel because they recognize the value of our partnership, and they have is working together often.”

Alderking also served as Abell’s assistant and rehearsal pianist for the Tenth Anniversary Concert. “David has one of the best stick techniques I’ve seen,” Alderking says. “Orchestras love him because he doesn’t have to waste a lot of time talking. He can show it in his beat instead. Actors seem to get along very well with David, as the theatrical elements of a production are as important to him as the musical elements. I’ve always had a great time working with David, as our musical sensibilities are so similar.”

And what effects do Abell’s musical abilities have on his work? “I think David’s interpretive skills have brought a larger sweep to his Les Mis productions, as well as an emotional depth which isn’t always heard in Broadway or West End musicals,” Alderking replies.

With the West End production of Martin Guerre winding down at the Prince Edward Theatre and the Tenth Anniversary Concert fading into a distant memory, Abell looks set to soar to even greater heights in his conquest of the opera world. In the hearts of Les Mis enthusiasts, however, he remains the most prominent conductor of the world’s most popular musical.

Meanwhile, the opera world is holding its collective breath, waiting to be enthralled by an orchestra at the whim of his baton. Maestro ... 

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

David Charles Abell Interview - Part One

The following interview was published in Issue #20 (Autumn 1997) of “The Barricade” – the international newsletter of Les Misérables.

The Maestro Behind Les Misérables  

by Michael Oh

When David Charles Abell took his bow during the Tenth Anniversary Concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1995, he had reached the apotheosis of a musical theater career which spanned seven years and four international productions of Les Miserables. The audience greeted him with a wave of ecstatic applause befitting the premier conductor of the musical that has swept the world. It was one of those rare moments in contemporary musical theater where commensurate recognition was given to the musician who brought a composer’s music to life in a concert-style performance.

How did Abell become acquainted with the world’s most popular musical? “I happened to be talking to a colleague one day, a conductor in the US who has also done musicals and opera,” Abell says. “I was asking him what sort of work there was, what advice he could give me, and he mentioned a few opera projects that he knew were going on. At the end of the conversation, he asked me, ‘Have you spoken to [Robert] Billig, the Musical Supervisor of Les Mis? You should give him a call, because he’s always looking for conductors.’

“So I called Bob up, and he said, ‘Well, yes. In fact, there is a tour going out, and I need a conductor for it. How can I see you conduct?’ I told him that I was doing La Boheme at the Prince George’s Civic Opera, and I asked him to come and see the production. So Bob took a train down to suburban Maryland. He saw me conduct the performance, and he gave me the job.”

That audition marked the beginning of Abell’s long-running association with Les Mis. In 1988, he became the first conductor of the US Third National Tour. He led the bus-and-truck company through 27 major cities across the country for two years and garnered rave reviews from the American theater critics for his “impassioned conducting” (Memphis Commercial Appeal). The Pittsburgh Press commented that “no small credit for the triumph of this company was the conducting of David Charles Abell. This was an intelligent, profound, sensitive reading of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score.”

Abell’s success with the touring company led to an invitation to lead the Montreal bilingual production in 1991, then the Paris production later that year. He assumed the post of musical supervisor with the Prague production the following year.

Abell’s involvement with Les Mis culminated in the Tenth Anniversary Concert, where he led a company of highly accomplished musical theater performers and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the historic one-night event.

When asked how conducting differs from other disciplines of music, Abell says, “As a conductor, you’re performing, but you’re not actually creating any sounds that the audience hears. It’s through your gestures, your body language and facial expressions. You coordinate the acting and singing of the performers on stage with the music from the orchestra in the pit.”

The duties of a musical director encompass many different aspects of a musical theater production. “Conducting is only the ‘visible’ part of the job,” Abell says. “There’s a lot of administrative work. You have to be in on decisions like when people take holidays, and substitutes and deputies are huge issues you have to deal with. You have to make rules, like how many deputies are allowed at a time, who can deputize [and] who can’t, because the quality of the orchestra starts to go down once you have a lot of deputies in it.”

“On the other hand, if you insist that members of the orchestra are present every night, then they get ‘stale,’ so you have to let them go out and do other things. Most of them are accomplished classical musicians as well. They perform in concerts, operas and ballets, and they also do recordings.”

A musical director is also involved in casting and singing. “Brush-up rehearsals with the cast members and understudy rehearsals are also the musical director’s responsibility,” he says.

Some of Abell’s favourite moments in Les Mis are inevitably linked to the performers involved in the scenes. “I loved conducting ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ with Louise Pitre because she is such a powerful performer and she gives the number such heart,” he says. “I also enjoyed conducting ‘Bring Him Home’ with Robert Marien – but even more so, the confession scene in the second act, where Jean Valjean takes leave of Marius. I must admit that it’s rather strange, because it’s not a big musical moment, but the way Robert did it was so moving. You could really feel the sense of sacrifice that Valjean was making at that moment. The pacing of that scene wouldn’t seem like something that the conductor would have a lot to do with, but he actually does. ‘One Day More’ is always thrilling – it’s the big conductor moment in the show.”

Abell also enjoys conducting the “sewer walk” scene after ‘Dog Eats Dog.’ It’s really fun to conduct because you can drive the music right through, and it builds to a climax as he walks through the sewers. Valjean is walking through those lights and getting more and more fatigued with Marius on his shoulders, and the music evokes the sense of danger that Valjean is facing at that moment and also a sense of urgency, in that Marius’ injury could be fatal. Then suddenly there is a big chord from the orchestra and Javert is standing in the spotlight, and they confront each other. The music rises to an even higher intensity at that point; you get the same music as the confrontation scene in the hospital, but it’s in a higher key, which makes it more intense; it continues to build until Javert finally makes the decision to let Vajean go, which then leads into ‘Javert’s Suicide,’ with the offbeat accents and big, brassy chords, where the audience gets the impression that Javert is losing his sanity, and he cannot deal with it anymore.”

Abell also cites ‘The Finale’ as one of his favourite parts to conduct. He sees the change of key in the epilogue as “a musical depiction of the characters passing from earth into spirit world. As the conductor, you’re responsible for making sure that the ‘transition’ runs smoothly, and as the last note in ‘To love another person is to see the face of God ...’ fades into nothingness, you have to bring the chorus in very softly. You want to let that note stretch out a little bit, but if you stretch it too long, then singers will run out of breath, so it’s a matter of control and timing, but if you get it right, it’s a thrilling moment, and you have to build it all the way to the very end. Les Mis is a great show for a conductor, because he really gets to demonstrate his skills.”

Abell’s musical talent is well supported by his unstinting commitment to his work, and he imposes exacting standards on himself. “You have to find something within yourself to make your performance fresh every night, because most of the audience will be seeing the show for the first time, and you have to make it a special performance for them,” he says. “If you’re doing it routinely, then you’re not doing your job; you’ve been in the show for too long, and you should leave.”

How does he maintain the enthusiasm and concentration required for his job? “Before I started my engagement with the touring company, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to do it.: physically, you’re moving your arms in the air for three hours during each performance, eight times a week,” he says. “Not to mention the mental aspect of keeping yourself interested in the musical. There isn’t any answer to it. [You] just do one performance at a time, that’s the only way to do it.”

Abell found that the duties of a musical supervisor in Prague differed from those of a musical director in the other venues. “As musical supervisor, you can’t have any impact on a live performance. You watch a performance, you take notes and then you see the performers and deliver the notes to them. It’s important to know the right kind of notes to give and which notes will have the best results on a performer, so it’s a matter of tact and diplomacy. You may also want to talk to the sound department to get the balance right for the orchestra and the performers, and you have to set certain standards that can be achieved by the company, then you have to maintain the quality of the production.”

Abell successfully captures the nuances and subtleties of Schönberg’s epic score with varied moods and shadings, crisp phrasing and intelligent, imaginative interpretations. His graceful, flowing gestures are often punctuated by displays of remarkable power and gusto as he generates tremendous emotional force from the orchestra, sustaining the intensity of the music from the first resounding chords to the blazing ‘Finale.’ His virtuoso performance in the Tenth Anniversary Concert led Gramophone magazine to note that “despite the potentially hazardous nature of this semi-staged concert performance, the conductor David Charles Abell deserves special mention for his assured direction of the huge forces on the Royal Albert Hall platform.”

Abell’s musical interpretation of Les Mis is reinforced by a thorough understanding of the story which inspired the musical. “For the first two months on tour, I was reading the novel,” he says. “I have to admit that I didn’t finish all 1,000-plus pages before the tour started, but I did so eventually. We were in Miami at that time. As I was reaching the end of the novel one night, I stayed up until three in the morning. When I finally got to the last words, I dissolved into a flood of tears because I was so moved by it. It was like being in the show.”

Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that Abell was the French composer’s personal choice for the Tenth Anniversary Concert. Abell describes the concert as “a truly unforgettable evening,” and he has fond memories of the week of rehearsals at the Shaftesbury Theatre leading up the concert.

“Despite a hectic rehearsal schedule, we managed to run through individual calls with the principals, the chorus calls, the orchestra rehearsals, and we put them all together in the end,” he says.

One of the principals was Colm Wilkinson, who created the role of Valjean in London and on Broadway. “[Colm] can be a bit idiosyncratic when he sings, so as conductor, you really have to be on your toes,” Abell says. “At every rehearsal I would do the last note at the end of ‘Bring Him Home’ slower and slower, thinking that Colm was going to run out of breath, but he never did. So during the concert, I thought to myself ‘How slow can I go?’”

The momentous occasion also involved one of the most distinguished concert orchestras in the world. “I was really nervous about the rehearsals with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra,” he says, “but my fears were soon laid to rest during the first rehearsal. The orchestra was wonderful, and who should be sitting in the [first violin] leader’s chair but Jonathan Carney, whom I went to Juilliard with. He was fantastic and very supportive.”

Abell fondly remembers one rehearsal with all the Gavroches who had been chosen to carry the flags of the various countries. “After all the international Valjeans had rehearsed their part for the concert,” he says, “I sat them in the stalls of the theater, and I had all the Gavroches up on the stage. I asked them to sing ‘How do you do, my name’s Gavroche ...” all together. It was deafening, but they were really happy to be given a chance to prove their singing talents. On a more serious note, I thought that it was important for the Valjeans, who had flown into London from all over the world, to know who were carrying the flags of the countries they represented in the lineup, and how talented the boys were.”

The collaborative efforts of the company and the creative team paid off handsomely. The event was hailed as a resounding success by both the British theater critics and the audience, which consisted of Les Mis enthusiasts from around the world. The concert has been preserved for posterity on cassette, compact disc, video tape and laser disc.

[TO BE CONTINUED. In Issue #21, David Charles Abell discusses the recording process, lyric changes in foreign language productions and his career beyond Boublil- Schönberg musicals.]

Monday, 1 August 2011

Robert Marien Interview

The following interview was published in Issue #19 (Summer 1997) of “The Barricade” – the international newsletter of Les Misérables.

Storming the Barricades from Montreal to Broadway
by Michael Oh

Jean Valjean is one of the most difficult and demanding roles in contemporary musical theater. Few actors possess both the vocal prowess and the acting skills to undertake such a challenge even once in their lifetimes. Of course, there are notable exceptions to this convention, and Robert Marien is one of them. The multi-talented French-Canadian musical theater performer has played this heroic figure in major cities across the world: Paris, Montreal, London and New York. He is also a gifted composer, director and producer with an extensive list of stage, television and composing credits. Marien, 42, was born in Montreal and he trained as an actor in Quebec from 1974 to 1977.

Marien’s involvement with Les Mis began in 1990 when he first auditioned for the role of Valjean in the Montreal bilingual production. “The Montreal company was unique, as it was the first production where Les Mis was performed in two different languages: English and French,” Marien says. He had to audition only twice for the part, but he calls getting that first audition “truly a ‘quest’.”

“I was extremely busy when the auditions for Les Mis were being held. I was shooting a TV series, rehearsing a play and doing some voice-overs,” Marien remembers. He was initially denied a chance to audition for the role due to unforeseen circumstances. “I was totally upset and angry, not to mention extremely disappointed and discouraged, as I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t given a chance to prove my talents to the production team,” he says. Fortunately, Marien managed to get a “reprieve,” and he was granted an audition the next evening.

“We had to prepare two songs for the audition – one in English and the other in French,” he says. “I was about to sing ‘The Blues of the Businessman’ from Starmania [in French] when I was asked to sing the English song instead, so I sang 16 bars of ‘High Flying, Adored’ from Evita. I was then given the score and lyrics for ‘Valjean’s Soliloquy,’ and after I finished this song, I was told to come back for the recall.”

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg were both present during Marien’s second audition. He sang ‘Who Am I?’ and ‘Bring Him Home’ in English. “Alain then gave me the lyrics for ‘Comme un home,’ and when I finished singing the song, they were all crying,” Marien remembers. The result of his audition was a foregone conclusion: He became the first actor to play Valjean in English and French.

Marien’s first Les Mis engagement also bears a personal significance, as he was offered the role on his 35th birthday. The Montreal production ran for six months, and after a short break, he led a new Canadian company on a three-month summer tour in Winnipeg and Ottawa.

Marien was then schedule to make his Broadway debut in the same role, but there was a greater need for his talents in the birthplace of Victor Hugo’s 19th century epic novel. “I was at [Les Mis associate director and executive producer] Richard-Jay Alexander’s home because he wanted me to reprise the role of Valjean on Broadway, when I received a phone call from Cameron Mackintosh, asking me if I was available to lead the Paris production,” Marien says. “I agreed to take part, so I flew back to Montreal, packed my bags, returned to New York and took the Concorde to Paris.” Marien got acquainted with the rest of the company then joined them for the remaining four days of rehearsals, followed by the dress rehearsal, the previews and the opening night. “I attended rehearsals in the daytime and spent the nights learning the new lyrics,” he says.

The French production carries a sentimental meaning for Marien because it reunited him with musical director David Charles Abell and two other cast members, Louise Pitre and Stephanie Martin, who were reprising their roles of Fantine and Eponine, respectively. Marien fondly recalls a poignant moment during his first performance in Paris: “As I took my place beside Louise and Stephanie in ‘The Finale,’ I looked at Louise and she was crying. I then turned to look at Stephanie; she was also crying, and I was crying too. I will never forget that moment. It is one of my most treasured memories.” Despite the reluctance of the French public to embrace Broadway-style musicals, the Paris production settled in for a healthy seven-month run at the Theatre Mogador and received the prestigious Moliere Award for Best Musical in 1991.

After a four-year hiatus from Les Mis, Marien made his West End debut in the same role last August, bringing British audiences to their feet with his tour de force performance. Two months later, he was approached by Mackintosh to reprise the role of Valjean for the Tenth Anniversary of Les Mis on Broadway. It was a difficult decision for Marien, but this chance to go to Broadway was one he couldn’t refuse, even though it meant spending another six months away from his wife, Johanne, and his two children, Vincent-Gabriel and Laurence. (The Marien family currently resides in Terrebonne, in the suburbs of Montreal.)

“What’s so exciting,” Marien says, “is that Trevor Nunn and John Caird are directing again – it’s been a long time since those two have been together.”

Marien’s decision to accept the offer also meant he had to shorten his six-month stay in London by three weeks. He returned to Montreal for a brief respite before heading to the Great White Way for five weeks of intensive rehearsals with the newly assembled New York cast. He made his eagerly anticipated Broadway debut with the Broadway Tenth Anniversary Company on March 12, 1997, where he was rapturously received by the opening night audience and the American theater critics.

Marien’s distinctive portrayal of Valjean is based on an integrated, well-researched and detailed characterization of the role. “When Jean Valjean is first released from prison, he is a hardened criminal who is shunned by society,” Marien says. “He has to change, to adapt to his new surroundings, to become a member of society once more – but how? He doesn’t know how to change. It’s one thing to crave your own freedom, but once you have secured that freedom, what do you do with it? How does Valjean handle his newfound freedom?”

“Technically he wasn’t a free man because of his yellow ticket of leave, but at least he was free from incarceration. However, he wasn’t free from himself. His jail was his body, his name, the yellow ticket of leave and the brand on his chest. Still, he had to change, so he assumed a new identity and became someone else.”

This analytical viewpoint adds gratifying depth to Marien’s interpretation of the role, as he traces the character’s transition from convict and a beast who is redeemed by his conversion to Christianity to an intelligent man who works hard to become a successful businessman and a respected mayor – and, later, Cosette’s guardian and Marius’ savior. Throughout his performance, the continuous personality transformation is reflected by subtle changes in Marien’s voice and body language.

“I consider Valjean the antihero of the musical,” he says, “because he always maintains a low profile, he is relentlessly pursued by Javert and he doesn’t even have a wife. In fact, he’s almost a hermit.”

Marien’s imposing stage presence is matched by his dramatic tenor, a powerful and unique instrument of tremendous versatility, ranging from a resonant chest voice to an ethereal falsetto, which he uses to great effect. When asked to comment on the raw-edged desperation that he brings to his rendition of ‘Bring Him Home’, Marien says, “when Valjean first discovers that Cosette has a ‘romantic rendezvous’ with Marius, he is angry because he still thinks of Cosette as ‘a child who is lost in the woods,’ but he soon realizes that she is now a woman and that she is in love with Marius, so he sets out to rescue Marius because of his love for Cosette. At the barricades, Valjean knows that the students don’t stand a chance against the army, but in order to save Marius, he has to make sure that he survives the attack. This sense of desperation underlines his concern for Marius’ safety and welfare.”

Does his approach to ‘Bring Him Home’ vary with the language of the lyrics? “Whether you sing the song in English or French,” he responds, “you have to evoke the same emotion.” Marien demonstrated this point clearly during his final London performance: He started ‘Bring Him Home’ in English, then switched spontaneously to French after the first verse, maintaining the emotional intensity right to the end and holding the last note for what seemed like eternity, complete with his trademark crescendo. The audience remained silent for a moment, then burst into sustained applause.

“I didn’t tell anyone I was going to do it,” he says. “You should have heard the quality of the silence in the audience. It was amazing.”

He does not have a specific preference for either language. “Sometimes I prefer French for some of the meaningful lyrics,” he says. “I like English because of the consonants, but the former is technically more difficult because of the pronunciation.”

Marien also believes that every scene has its own special element. Musically, however, he concedes that he has favorite moments.

“’Bring Him Home’ reminds me of a solemn prayer to God,” he says. “I like ‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’ because it enables me to show the audience the kind of person Valjean was and who he wants to be, and how difficult it was for him to change. ‘The Finale’ is very special because it shows Valjean has finally reached the end of his journey in life and that he can finally rest in peace, knowing that he has fulfilled God’s purpose in his life.”

Marien’s personal interpretation of the character has gradually changed through the years, especially in his increasing emphasis on Valjean’s darker side. “Javert is usually seen as the villain, and Valjean is often depicted as the hero,” he says. “But you have to remember that Valjean was a convict before he turned over a new leaf; even a noble and righteous person is not exempt from his own weaknesses and shortcomings.”

Although Marien has played the role hundreds of times, he remains focused during each performance “by being mentally alert and concentrating on the story,” he says. Whenever he gets tired of the role or lacks intrinsic motivation, he returns to Hugo’s novel, which he describes as “the Bible” of the musical. He has read the French version twice from cover to cover and contends that the novel contains a wealth of description, citing one example where “a three minute song is derived from a fifty-page description in the novel.”

As an accomplished musical theater performer, Marien maintains a deep and profound respect for his audience. “When I’m on stage, it doesn’t matter who is in the audience. Whether it is the opening night audience or not, I don’t mind.” His appreciation for the audience is embodied in a simple yet heartfelt gesture during his curtain call: When he takes his bow, he always clasps both hands firmly to his heart – a symbol of his gratitude for the applause and the standing ovations. The applause gives him both encouragement and motivation, he says, and he “carries this applause ... into the next performance.” Marien also pays homage to Lucette Tremblay, his voice coach since 1990, for showing him how to convey emotions through his voice.

Marien’s numerous Les Mis engagements have given him the opportunity to work with a variety of talented musical theater performers. He is quick to praise Michael McCarthy, his on-stage nemesis in London; Louise Pitre, Stephanie Martin and David Charles Abell. In return, Marien’s overriding dedication to his craft has earned him the respect and admiration of his peers. During an evening performance in London last November, Marien developed a throat infection halfway through the first act, but he insisted on continuing after the intermission, even though he was out for the next few days.

Although Marien has long been regarded as Canada’s preeminent musical theater performer, he often laments about the lack of a strong musical theater tradition in Montreal. He has gone to great lengths to instill an awareness of musicals among the Canadian public, especially in the younger generation – an effort he describes as “sowing the seeds of musical theater” in his native Quebec. His biggest achievement to date has been Broadway-Montreal, a musical revue featuring selections from classic musicals such as Les Mis, The Phantom of the Opera, Nelligan, Gala, Miss Saigon, Hair, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Sunday in the Park with George, Evita and Starmania. Marien, who produced and directed the show, was accompanied by Stephanie Martin, Brigitte Marchand and five musicians under the direction of Simon Leclerc, who played first keyboard and served as Assistant Musical Director in the Montreal production of Les Mis.

Both musical theater aficionados and the Canadian public embraced Broadway-Montreal, which ran for 40 performances in the summer of 1994. The show played to full houses, and by the end of its run, at least 25,000 people had attended. The concert-style performance wsa also hailed a critical success by the Canadian media. Pat Donnelly of The Gazette observed that “the revue has won over the hearts of the Canadian public.” Jacques Lemieux of CGFL declared: “Broadway-Montreal is a show where one is conquered by a sweeping passion.” Serge Bélair of CKVL commented that “the show is simply ravishing from start to end.” Highlights from the revue have been immortalized on Marien’s debut solo album, also titled Broadway-Montreal (FIRMA FM 2 0001), which he co-produced with Leclerc.

Despite his work commitments, Marien is actively involved in social work. He has served as a spokesperson for various charitable organizations including Le Centre Pierre-Henault (supporting AIDS patients, their family and friends), Missing Children’s Network and Badly Burnt Persons (a firemen’s foundation).

What does he see himself doing in the near future? “I would like to play the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, especially in its native language, since there has yet to be a French production,” he replies. Marien already holds the competitive edge over his rivals, due to his affinity with the score and the language: He performed ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Music of the Night’ in Broadway-Montreal with his own French translations.

What the Critics Said ...

“Robert Marien, a Canadian actor who is making his Broadway debut, sets the solemn tone for the evening. His Valjean begins as Caliban and grows less earthbound as his goodness is revealed. His benedictory ‘Bring Him Home’ is lifted to the rafters on angel’s wings.”

Peter Marks, The New York Times, March 13, 1997

“As Jean Valjean, Robert Marien begins as a rough peasant but, when he has reached the score’s most affecting number, ‘Bring Him Home,’ he has attained a genuinely spiritual quality. In his exquisite tenor, the moment is ravishing.”

Howard Kissel
New York Daily News, March 13, 1997

“Robert Marien is not the overwhelming Valjean Colm Wilkinson was. Instead, he grows on us: an ordinary fellow whose evolving humanity attains the sublime. Of modest stature but great intensity, Marien acts well, and sings with steadily mounting prowess. By the time he intones his big area, ‘Bring Him Home,’ he brings down the house with mesmerizing head voice and masterly tonal shading. This man's musicianship truly acts.”

John Simon, New York Magazine, March 31, 1997

“Robert Marien, a Canadian actor making his Broadway debut, plays the exiled fugitive Jean Valjean with palpable guilt. His voice can exude desperation and, in turn, offer the gentlest of falsetto caresses.”

Lisa Coleman Bradlow
Time Out New York, March 10-27, 1997

“[Robert] Marien, in his best voice with the falsetto hymn of ‘Bring Him Home,’ convincingly traces Valjean’s life from angry young rouchneck to saintly old man.”

Robert Christiansen
Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1997

“Robert Marien’s Valjean is a dignified, heroic, satisfying creation.”

Ken Mandelbaum
Playbill Online, March 16, 1997