April 14, 2006
After 26 years, Valjean is still on the road
But Javert is not
An unjustly persecuted man. A dedicated cop with the tenacity of a really hungry pit bull. Rain making the flowers grow.
The Fugitive? Not quite. Think older.
Les Misérables? Yes, indeed.
The musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo is swinging through Ohio near the end of its third national tour, 26 years after its debut.
The tale is a classic one, ingrained into the mind of every schoolchild in France, where the original story is required reading.
Following the tribulations of Jean Valjean, a good-hearted man persecuted for stealing a loaf of bread, the musical has given the world decades of enjoyment, not to mention songs which have become part of the international subconscious.
Chasing Valjean is the relentless Inspector Javert, played in the current tour by openly gay actor Robert Hunt.
Hunt, however, refuses to describe his character as the villain of Les Misérables.
“I don’t perceive it that way,” he noted. “He’s the antagonist of the piece, the antithesis of the hero, but I don’t think that makes him the villain.”
He continued, “He’s ultimately a victim of his own beliefs.”
Those beliefs are what set him apart from Valjean and from Thénardier, the unscrupulous innkeeper.
It all boils down to their views on God, Hunt insists--Valjean’s God is forgiving, Javert’s does not forgive, and Thénardier doesn’t believe God exists, leaving him free to be as miserable a human being as he wishes.
Hunt, for his part, relishes the challenge of being the antagonist of the piece, the opposing force against which the hero must struggle.
“I have to say I do enjoy playing those kinds of roles,” he laughed. “I enjoy getting in the mind of people perceived as ‘evil’ or ‘bad.’ ”
As for the lasting popularity of the show, he attributes it to the “universal themes.”
“Everyone is a Valjean, no one is a perfect person. We all try to make the right choices, but sometimes we fail. I think it boils down to very simple themes, good and evil, light and dark, innocence and whatever you want to label the opposite of innocence as being.”
“I think they took a very complicated story and told it in a very simple way,” Hunt continued. “The lyrics are very simplistic, and I mean that in the most positive sense. It uses strong words like always and never.”
“The majority of us grew up with this musical, it’s become a part of our collective subconscious in a way,” he concluded. “It’s just a part of us that we like to reconnect to in a way.”
The actor, who recently played Whizzer in Falsettos and the titular characters in the musical Jekyll and Hyde, has a partner who used to be in “the biz,” and that similarity has helped keep them together for the last three years.
“He used to be in the business and he’s just about to get his master’s in social service administration,” Hunt said. “I think it’s easier than it would be if he was someone who hadn’t done it himself. We both know the challenges of the road and try to compensate for those challenges.”
Part of that compensation involves visiting each other about every three weeks, either Robert flying back to Chicago or his partner coming to visit him on the road.
“There’s just a level of understanding there,” he said.
Another factor that makes traveling easier these days is the internet.
“We can say goodnight face to face every night,” he said, laughing off jokes about being addicted to his webcam.
Back to the musical, Hunt expressed relief that the days of everyone portraying French peasants with broad British accents are over.
“They got rid of the British accents after the tenth anniversary New York City production,” he said.
The 1998 film version of the novel, with Geoffrey Rush as Javert, may have inspired people to think of the intractable inspector as being older than Hunt is; however, as the actor says, he is a “broad figure onstage,” appearing older than he is.
If you want to know how old he is, ask his agent.
“That’s actually an obstacle I’ve fought for a long time to get this role,” he said. “That’s something that they talked about a lot. I also am a lot older than I look. I do wear age makeup and I wear the wigs and it changes my demeanor.”
He finally clinched the role, however, when he told the assistant director that he was older than him, which came as a great surprise.
While the tour is currently in Detroit, Hunt says that Chicago was probably his favorite city to play, “because I just moved to Chicago, so when the show stopped there for six weeks, I was home.”
However, all he needs to really enjoy a city is “a variety of restaurants to choose from, as long as we’re within walking distance of the hotel and shopping, we’re happy.”
Hunt’s touring company of Les Misérables will be in Cleveland at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theater from Tuesday, April 18 to Sunday, April 23, before going on to Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center from April 25 to April 30.
For tickets to the Cleveland performances, call 216-7714444 or go to www.playhousesquare.com or www.tickets.com.
For the Cincinnati show, call 513-2417469 or hit www.ticketmaster.com or www.broadwayacrossamerica.com.