This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Many children who grow up watching the story of Jean Valjean, sing and act along as he ducks and dives through French alleyways alluding capture from the relentless Inspector Javert.
Most can only dream of acting these out on stage. Most, not all.
This year’s Muny performance of "Les Miserables," directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, will be fulfilling some of those dreams. Led by Broadway veterans Hugh Panaro and Norm Lewis, playing Jean Valjean and Javert respectively, this year’s cast will also include a host of college students and recent college graduates.
Charlotte Maltby, Alex Prakken and Bobby Conte Thornton from the University of Michigan), Katie Travis from Central Michigan and Lindsey Mader of the University of Oklahoma were some of the lucky ones selected from more than 1,100 performers who auditioned for the Muny’s 95th season.
All were given lead roles: Maltby plays Fantine, Prakken is Marius, Thornton is Enjolras, Travis is Cosette and Mader is Eponine.
“A bunch of us come from Michigan every year for an audition,” said Thornton, a 20-year-old rising junior. “I’d have been content playing an ABC boy all the way to the right, but to be picked to play Enjolras, it’s one of the most incredible experiences of my life.”
Recent college graduate Katie Travis was also stunned when informed of her lead role.
“It’s a dream to be here, I’m a few years out of school and I’ve been waiting for that breakthrough,” said Travis, in an interview with the Beacon. “All those mornings waking up at 5 a.m., working those silly jobs just for these three weeks -- it’s just a dream, that’s all I can say really.”
The Muny has a long tradition of using young talent in its shows with many performers participating in the Muny Kids and Muny Teens programs, a spotlight vehicle for younger actors showcasing exceptional voice and dance talent.
“Richard called me a week before the St. Louis auditions saying he wanted young actors played in their authentic roles,” said Mike Isaacson, executive producer at the Muny. “It’s a great opportunity for them, anyone who performs at the Muny is looked at nationally and internationally. it opens a lot of doors.”
These doors do not open easily; and getting a breakthrough in this industry can be tough. With a lead role in Victor Hugo’s classic, the young guns were given their Actors Equity Association card, the marking of a true, professional actor. New castings will now open up for them on some of the bigger stages up to and including Broadway, as well as increased job and wage security.
So, how are they doing? One of the starkest differences they have noted since rehearsals started is the lightning speed of the production.
“You usually have about three months to finish a production of this type and we’re blowing it out in 10 days, said Maltby. “It’s like theater camp but with legit people.”
With having only limited practical experience, some of the younger performers were concerned about how they’d be seen by the likes of Panero and Lewis, two of broadways biggest award-winning stars. They said they've been pleasantly surprised, and in fact, inspired.
“They’ve been so helpful and reassuring, not just criticizing me but telling me when I’m doing something well,” said Maltby. “I’m not just some college kid who’s blessed to be here with them, I’m a part of the show.”
“Everyone really cares about what they’re doing, it’s just a great working environment,” said Travis. "They’ve done it hundreds of times and could skip rehearsal if they wanted, but it would never happen.”
For tickets and more information, visit the Muny website.