There’s a first time—and a last time—for everything, and at MCT Community Theatre this week, firsts and lasts meet in the middle with the opening of a “school edition” of the musical Les Misérables. This production, which casts only actors of high-school age and younger, marks the first time that Les Misérables will be performed in Missoula. It also marks the likely last time that MCT Project Coordinator Joe Martinez will direct a show for MCT. After 13 years with MCT, Martinez is moving on to the Arizona Broadway Theatre in Phoenix. When MCT chose its shows for this season Martinez didn’t yet have the new job, and so he didn’t know that Les Misérables—in which he directs a cast of teens rather than the adults with whom he’s worked for years—would be his last show.
“It’s bittersweet, because I enjoy working with the adults,” Martinez says, “but it’s been really nice to work with the kids and hopefully instill something in them that they’re going to keep doing, and [to think] that I will be able to help bring them back to MCT and keep doing shows.”
This week, though, Martinez isn’t thinking that far into the future. Standing on MCT’s stage at the beginning of a recent rehearsal, he reads aloud a multi-page list of detailed notes and step-by-step stage directions for the 56-member cast to incorporate into the night’s run-through. “Don’t lift the cart up,” he says to one actor. “Go directly to the sewer,” he says to another. “Little boys don’t stand like that,” he demonstrates to a young girl playing a young boy. And to the boys: “Your voices are going to crack, don’t worry about it. Keep going.”
In fact, no voices crack during rehearsal, and at least one boy who’s been told to annunciate the “t” in “saint” remembers to do so perfectly. A couple of songs into the rehearsal, the cast’s competence—along with Les Misérables’ powerful, familiar score—makes you forget that this version of Les Misérables has the unusual caveat: “school edition.”
Martinez wants to emphasize that the show is being put on by the MCT Community Theatre, not the MCT Children’s Theatre, “so people don’t think they’re going to come see a children’s show.” He explains that Les Misérables, written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg and based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, is one of the most popular musicals ever written; until recently, it could be performed only on Broadway or on national tours with professional actors. But in just the last year or so, the royalty house Musical Theatre International (MTI), which owns the rights to the musical, decided to create the Les Misérables School Edition as “a great learning tool for students,” Martinez says. “And that’s the only way you can perform the show right now as a community theater.” MTI’s contract stipulates that all the actors must be 19 or younger and must be in high school, not college.
As for adjustments from the original production, there are few. “The original show is about three-and-a-half hours long,” says Martinez, “and all they’ve really done is make a few cuts here and there in the music, making the songs shorter, but…it still runs probably two-and-a-half hours.” In other words, the story is the same:
In Paris, circa early 1800s, the hero Jean Valjean is released from the prison where he served 19 years for stealing bread and commits one more small robbery before changing his name to Monsieur Madeleine and becoming a factory owner and mayor of a town in northern France. He later returns to prison in order to spare an innocent man incarceration for Valjean’s earlier crime, but then he escapes and adopts one of his factory worker’s daughters, Cosette.
Martinez says that Les Misérables is “probably one of the most difficult musicals to sing” because “the ranges for the boys is just amazing,” and so he and assistant musical directors Lucas and Jessica Graf were at first wary about what kind of turnout they’d have for auditions—until 201 students showed up to try out for the 56 parts. The cast is composed of students from Hellgate, Sentinel, Big Sky and Loyola high schools in Missoula, as well as one cast member each from Stevensville, Hamilton and Alberton high schools, and students from St. Joesph’s and Chief Charlo elementary schools and Meadow Hill Middle School. Add to that cast about 20 members of the orchestra, who are also all local students, and another 15 or so students working backstage (with professional mentors), and you’ve got about 80 moving teenage parts working toward one goal.
So what happens when 80 teens get together for three hours every night? Well, the Green Room gets noisy. The gun props get distracting. And, thanks to a combination of Martinez’s energy and the students’ commitment, real work gets done.
“I don’t want to be their teacher,” Martinez says. “I want to treat them differently than they get treated at school. It’s not a classroom, and we try to run as much of a professional setting here at MCT when we do a show, so that’s what we’re trying to instill in these kids.”
But notice Martinez says “we.” When he first envisioned the show, Martinez was thinking, “I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to watch and help all these kids and give them their motivations, give them their suggestions, and so I recruited six people from the community that I’ve worked with in the past in shows that I’ve directed, and that are all great actors and great musicians…to come in and be mentors to the leads.” These mentors, he says, take specific notes about each lead during rehearsals and then work with them one-on-one.
Which leaves Martinez with just 46 actors to look after. One night, he says, he asked the cast, “Did you realize it was going to be this much work?” and one student told him that their school-play rehearsals are normally 45 minutes a day—not three hours a night. “I think the biggest challenge is [Les Misérables] is a two-and-a-half hour all-sung musical,” Martinez says. “They’re trying to tell a story, and be able to use their diction so people can follow.” And the lead role, Jean Valjean (played by Sentinel High School student Thomas Baty), “has to carry the show, and he literally is in every number, and again the vocal range for that character is just enormous.”
To vary the cast’s rehearsals, Martinez also brought in MCT tour liaison Kim Kempfert to work with the kids for three hours on just one scene. “I thought maybe a different voice would be good for them to hear, because they’ve been hearing me for so long,” he says. “She made them sit down and write down who their character was and…who their [character’s] best friend on stage was and why they were standing by that person, just to make them start thinking about that.”
The cast has been rehearsing since Jan. 9, and for many of them it will be their first time performing on the MCT stage. Seeing that excitement, Martinez says, is one of the best parts of this production—and it reminds him of his own “first” at MCT, which was directing Guys and Dolls in 1993. “I’ve been here for so long,” he says. “I’ve directed so many shows and been in so many shows that it’s kind of odd to think that I’m going to be in a new place and not know anybody, not know the cast. But it’s also very exciting.”
Les Misérables School Edition runs March 3–6 and 9–13 at the Missoula Community Theatre, 200 N. Adams St. Wednesday through Sunday performances are at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets $14–$18. Call 728-PLAY.