Sunday, May 18, 2003
Rocky Hill, Conn. It's the big, first-act finale of "Les Miserables," and director Liz Daigle is urging her cast of young French revolutionaries onward.
"Pick up the pace, pick up the pace," she shouts as pianist Jordan Bailey pounds out the persistent melody of "One Day More" and the performers, singing full out, march back and forth in relative unison.
"Good, good," enthuses the energetic Daigle as her budding actors build to a stirring climax that includes the inevitable waving of a large flag. You can't rehearse a revolution, even in a high school auditorium, without one.
"Les Miserables" may be closing today on Broadway, but the legacy of the long-running musical based on Victor Hugo's epic novel lives on at schools like Rocky Hill High School.
That legacy is courtesy of what is called the "Les Miserables School Edition," a shorter version of the musical put together several years ago by Music Theatre International with the blessings of producer Cameron Mackintosh and the show's creators, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg.
The spring musical is a staple of high schools across America. Nearly 500 productions were presented during this school year and more than 1,000 are expected next year. "Les Miz" has now entered that lucrative market thanks to this adaptation by Tim McDonald for MTI, a theatrical licensing agency that licenses shows for performance by professional, community and school groups.
Just right for high schools
The story of "Les Miserables" is a universal one and perfect for high schools: the battle between good and evil. The contest pits the saintly Jean Valjean, harshly jailed for stealing a loaf of bread, against the relentless Inspector Javert, determined never to let Valjean forget his past. And it's all set against a backdrop of student revolutionaries and assorted low-lifes, including thieves and prostitutes.
Rocky Hill High, a school of some 700 students located in this comfortable community southeast of Hartford, has risen to the challenge. Sports may be big here (the Rocky Hill Terriers were boys' state soccer champions twice in recent years), but the school's drama club has built a considerable reputation, too.
"I knew if we had the voices, we could do it," says veteran English teacher Linda Rahbani, adviser to the drama club for more than 20 years.
The club is performing "Les Miserables" today. Rocky Hill's production closes the same day as its Broadway counterpart, which ends its 16-year run after 6,684 performances, making it the second-longest running show in Broadway history after "Cats."
Through the years, Rahbani, who has taught at Rocky Hill for 33 years, has done a lot of shows -- from "Grease" to "Carousel" to "Godspell" -- but nothing as ambitious as "Les Miserables."
"We were looking for a musical that would be good for a large group of kids -- more of an ensemble cast than a lot of leads," Rahbani says before the start of an evening rehearsal last month. "We have close to 50 in the cast.
"Because of a lot of seniors graduating last year, we've now got a lot of young-looking boys," she explains. "You can't really do a musical that has a serious love interest because the boys look too young for that."
If the entire cast of "Les Miserables" looks young, well, they are. Its two leads weren't even born when "Les Miserables" opened on Broadway in March 1987. Rocky Hill's Jean Valjean is 14-year-old freshman Nick Vargas, while its Inspector Javert, sophomore Tom Kraynak, is a year older. But then Marius is 17-year-old Anthony Fandetti, and an 18-year-old senior, Julie Honan, plays Fantine.
"I'm always singing the score," says Vargas, a drama club veteran (he played Jesus in last fall's production of "Godspell") and a member of the school's chamber choir. "I can never stop." Now he's taking voice lessons, too, and plans to major in theater when he goes to college.
Naturally, Kraynak prefers the character he is playing, even though he is the villain of the piece. "Javert is the power behind the show," Kraynak said. "He sticks to his guns throughout the whole musical. Jean Valjean is kind of wishy-washy."
Auditions were held in January right after Christmas vacation, and rehearsals began in February in the school's auditorium, an antiseptic space with a wood-paneled stage and bluish-gray cinderblock walls. First, they were held twice a week, then three and finally four as opening night drew closer.
"Everybody who tried out got a part -- whether in the chorus or a bigger role," says Daigle, who works in the summer for the Rocky Hill Parks and Recreation Department putting on shows with smaller children. "We have some really good voices, and for those who don't sing as well, their acting is going to have to make up for it."
"Les Miserables" will cost the club about $7,000, its most expensive production ever. Most of that money, upward of $5,000, will go toward paying the 13 or 14 musicians needed, says Rahbani, although some student musicians will be used. Royalties will cost another $1,000, and some of the period costumes will be rented from a costume shop in New Haven.
One of the fathers will operate the lights, and eager parents will help build the sets. Charlie Wisnioski, whose daughter, Emily, is in the show -- "She's the fourth woman in some scene," he says vaguely -- is in charge of the sets.
There won't be a turntable, like there is on Broadway, to spin the sets, says Wisnioski, who is a commercial real-estate consultant. But he and his crew plan to construct street scenes, a bridge, a garden gate and the musical's celebrated barricade, which, during a late April rehearsal, is still just a series of wooden slats that have not yet been covered with debris.
Tickets are $8 and $6 for children and senior citizens, but they don't cover all the expenses. The local school board helps fund the club's two shows each year, augmented by fund-raisers and money from ads in the program and concessions sold at performances. Good old-fashioned donations help, too.
Daigle works from a special director's script of the "Les Miserables School Edition" put together by McDonald. It offers helpful hints on potential staging problems or suggestions on scene changes, lighting and music cues, choreography, even curtain calls. "This script gives you it all," Daigle says. "I usually research a show quite a bit before I direct it, but here you don't have to do as much."
"Maneuvering teenagers around a stage can be difficult," Daigle says. "But I always let the kids know that I take it for granted that they can do it. ... You want to make it the best experience possible for them."