From Burroughs to Broadway? Local young actor has big dreams beyond 'Les Miz'
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When Alex Prakken was a youngster, his favorite Broadway tune was “Bigger Isn’t Better” from the musical “Barnum.” But now, bigger is awesome.
Prakken’s largest-ever role, as Marius in The Muny’s upcoming “Les Miserables,” is a proud accomplishment for the former Muny Kid from Ladue. Including school productions, it’s his fourth time to participate in the popular musical about 19th-century French peasant Jean Valjean, who seeks salvation after nearly two decades in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for a hungry niece. It’s his second go-round of “Les Miz” at The Muny.
In 2007, the John Burroughs High School graduate and University of Michigan student was in the The Muny’s “Les Miz” chorus. In The Muny's July 15-21 presentation this year, Prakken has moved up.
“Before, I was in the ensemble, and now I’m leading the revolution,” Prakken quipped.
Awakened by ‘Sleeping Beauty’
Early on, Robin Prakken of Ladue was the kind of parent who let her child lead the way. When it became apparent that Alex was’t a napper, she filled their afternoons with other activities he enjoyed.
“We would dance and sing to music, and I could tell he just loved it, even as an infant and a toddler,” Robin Prakken said.
Seeing The Muny’s “Sleeping Beauty” at 4 first awakened Prakken’s theatrical passions. “I want to be on that stage one day,” the preschooler told his mother, in a foreshadowing proclamation.
At 6, he auditioned for a role in a “Charlie Brown” production with the now-defunct Characters & Company. When there was a snafu with the piano, his mother urged her tearful son to sing his audition piece acapella.
“If you want this, you can do it,” she told him.
Winning the role of Rerun in that show was a turning point. Only four years later, he made it to The Muny stage as a member of the youth chorus in the 2003 production of "Sleeping Beauty."
With this budding actor as their only child until he was 12, Robin and Joel Prakken dedicated themselves to his theatrial pursuits. Private lessons in dance, piano and voice filled any spare time.
Today, as his “Les Miz” character Marius struggles onstage with the legacy of his father, Prakken recalls his own dad as a solid presence throughout his childhood.
“I have the most supportive parents, ever,” Alex Prakken said.
But while his parents never wavered, some of Prakken's elementary-school classmates were less than supportive.
“When I was in a show, I’d bring the script to school and say, ‘Let’s do this scene, and this scene,’” Prakken remembered. “Some kids liked it and some thought it was really weird.”
‘He became the character’
Prakken was a young teenager when Muny regular and Webster University professor Lara Teeter became his dance instructor. When Teeter saw Prakken in the role of Jean Valjean in a Burroughs presentation of “Les Miz,” he knew his student was glory-bound.
“I saw the opening production,” Teeter said. “And when I went to the closing performance, his voice was actually stronger. That’s when it hit home that this kid was really exceptional.”
Earlier this year, Teeter was blown away when Prakken auditioned for The Muny’s 2013 season “Les Miz.”
“He wasn’t Alex anymore, he became the character. It was as if the entire set rose up behind him,” Teeter said. “That’s the magic, and that got him the part.”
Making the magic isn’t wizardry -- it’s the result of forging ahead through difficulty. This past year, a demanding drama professor wore Prakken down to the point where he questioned whether he should be an actor at all.
“Where Do You Start?” is the name of a song that Prakken thought might never end. For an hour, in front of his equally talented classmates, Prakken struggled though the verses as the professor challenged him again and again to find the motivation for questions posed by the song, such as “How do you deal with all the things you thought would last?”
“He just kept pushing me, saying, ‘That’s not specific enough,’” Prakken recalled. “No one’s every pushed me that far before.”
Discouraged, Prakken asked himself, “Do I really want to do this anymore?” But in the end, he persevered through the class and his sophomore year.
“It’s still a rebuilding process, figuring out what kind of actor you are, what kind of person you are,” Prakken said. “You have to push through that, and it makes you stronger.”
As he rehearses for Monday’s opening night under the stars, Prakken luxuriates in working with two of the brightest. Jean Valjean is played by actor Hugh Parano, who also played the role on Broadway. The part of Javert is played by Norm Lewis, who starred in Broadway’s “Porgy and Bess.”
“I can’t even tell you how excited I am to be on stage with them,” Prakken said.
The excitement won’t end when “Les Miz” does. Prakken’s already begun his stint as assistant director for The Muny’s “Mary Poppins.” In August, it’s back to Ann Arbor and his junior year in the University of Michigan's musical theater program. He’ll complete his BFA in two more years.
“Then, our department takes us up to New York and we have a showcase for agents and casting directors,” Prakken explained.
Prakken’s ultimate goal? Broadway. “Any role I can get,” he said. He hopes the relationships he’s formed and sustained through the Muny will be of value in realizing his dream.
“Every single connection you make is going to help you so much,” Prakken said.
Fellow Muny actor Teeter, who was nominated for a Tony Award for his role in the 1983 Broadway revival of “On Your Toes,” has no doubt that he’ll one day see Prakken hit the big time.
“I”d bet my weekly paycheck on it,” Teeter said. “This kid is really something exceptional.”