‘Les Miserables’ actors keep head on shoulders, despite subject matter

By Noah Levinson

Forget jellicle cats and emo opera house phantoms — the French Revolution is what bombastic… Forget jellicle cats and emo opera house phantoms — the French Revolution is what bombastic musical theater is all about.

One of the most renowned and well-known Broadway musicals of all time will be making a stop in Pittsburgh next week to present its revolutionary tale of redemption.

The Pittsburgh CLO will present “Les Miserables,” a musical adaptation of the 1862 Victor Hugo novel, July 7 through July 19 at the Benedum Center.

“Les Miserables,” or “Les Mis” as it is commonly referred to by show-buffs, follows Jean Valjean and his quest for atonement amid the French Revolution.

The show began 118 years after the publication of the original novel. In 1980, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil created a two-hour concept album of the music for “Les Miserables.”

The album was then brought to the attention of famed Broadway producer Cameron Mackintosh, the man behind such famous musicals as “Cats,” and the then-unreleased “The Phantom of the Opera.” He decided to turn the two-hour French album into an English musical set to premiere in the heart of London’s theater district.

Since the show’s opening in October 1985, the show has traveled to more than 37 countries and has been seen by more than 56 million people, according to a news release from the Pittsburgh CLO. The original Broadway production, which opened in March 1987, performed a total of 6,680 shows before moving to its current home in Queen’s Theater in London.

Since then, “Les Miserables” has collected more than 50 major theater awards, including eight Tonys, a Grammy and a Triple Platinum Disc for the London cast’s recording of the show.

Now the touring production arrives in Pittsburgh this upcoming week and brings with it a man who has been in Jean Valjean’s shoes many times.

Fred Inkley has portrayed Valjean in Broadway and touring productions of the show since 1993. But even after more than 10 years of performing the same character, Inkley finds new aspects of Valjean at every performance.

“It’s one of those musicals you can’t help but get swept away with,” Inkley said.

To truly embody the character, Inkley has not only diligently studied the musical’s script, but has also read Victor Hugo’s original novel multiple times.

“I knew where my character had been and where he was going,” Inkley said. “I create those goals and obstacles through each scene.”

Of course, Inkley’s personal life sometimes invades the character of Valjean. Since he began touring with “Les Miserables,” Inkley has had two daughters. His oldest daughter is now 14 years old — the same age as Cosette, the abused little girl of “Les Miserables.”

Inkley’s attitudes toward the character of Cosette have greatly evolved during his time with the tour and his daughter. While Inkley’s daughter is similar to Cosette in her innocence, he senses a unique attitude in both his daughter and Cosette’s desire to “experience the world.”

Performing alongside of Inkley is Tim Hartman, a familiar face of the Pittsburgh theater scene. Instead of moving to New York or Los Angeles, Hartman decided to stay in Pittsburgh specifically for flexibility’s sake.

“In Pittsburgh, because I have to make a living, I get to do all kinds of things,” Hartman said.

Besides performing in musicals, Hartman has lent his talents to Shakespeare and plays, symphonies, operas, children’s theater, commercials and movies.

“I get to do more than most actors would get to do,” he said.

In “Les Miserables,” Hartman portrays Thenardier, a ruthless gang leader using the revolution for his own means.

When it comes to Thenardier, “He’s amoral and finds joy in his amorality,” Hartman said.

Hartman just returned from the Broadway production of “A Tale of Two Cities,” but feels the rush of trying to prepare for a classic in less than a week.

“It’s a little scary because I spent six weeks rehearsing [“A Tale of Two Cities.”] That’s a lot of time to let the world and the music and everything sort of soak in to you,” Hartman said.

“Here it is, six days. Considering I’ve never seen the show and only listened to it a couple of times, it’s a little scary.”

But Hartman, having performed in countless shows and productions in the Pittsburgh area, feels ready for next week’s performance and hopes Pittsburghers will come out in the masses for the show.

“People are going to have their souls fed,” Hartman said.

Souls will not be the only thing fed by the performances of “Les Miserables.” The Pittsburgh CLO will be partnering with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank for a food drive during “Les Miserable’s” entire run.

Barrels will be set up in the lobby of the Benedum Center during each performance for collecting non-perishable food items. All theatergoers who donate will be eligible for a $5 discount to another CLO show, “8-TRACK, The Sounds of the ’70s.”