Warm up with Les Miserables at Stratford ArtsHouse this weekend

In rehearsal for Les Mis: Tristan Barford playing Marius and Jon Luke Goodman playing Mr Thenardier

THE Stratford Musical Theatre company bring a mega heart-warming production of Les Miserable Schools Edition to the Stratford ArtsHouse from 8th to 10th March. Director Judi Walton tells Herald arts all about it… 

Director Judi Walton

Why Les Mis, why now?

With Les Mis we’re launching Stratford Musical Theatre Company’s Youth Ensemble to give opportunities to young people in the area who want to perform. As parents ourselves we’re only too aware of the difficulties faced by schools in funding for the arts at the minute and we’ve been so impressed with the interest shown by our younger members who have been with us for our recent shows like Oliver! and The King and I that we wanted to start with something big for them and for new members. Fortunately as a youth group it’s possible to get the performance rights for shows that aren’t available for adults so Les Miserables School Edition seemed a perfect place to start.

What’s working well at the moment, or what have the kids been particularly relishing?

The cast has been relishing the fun of the rehearsal process. Rehearsals are improvisation-based workshops full of laughter and music with plenty of opportunities to try new ideas out — and what’s great about working with kids is the number of ideas they come up with! As part of the ensemble concept we’re also involving the young people in shadowing the production team, so much of the finished product comes directly from them.

I understand you want to make this the biggest musical performance Stratford has seen, tell us about the logistics of that? How many involved, age ranges? Also who is directing etc?

With 82 in the cast it’s the biggest show we’ve seen in Stratford! The cast comes from a huge range of schools across south Warwickshire and into other counties with ages ranging from eight to 18. Despite the numbers it’s been easy to manage them as they’re really focused on what they want to achieve. We’re also really well supported by parents and the wider production team who have to consider the complexities around chaperoning and child protection.

The youth concept even stretches to the production team. Our musical director is 18-year-old Sam Young, who recently led Warwick School’s Les Mis, there is also a shadow production team including two young assistant directors, lighting technicians and stage management — we are very keen to give as many opportunities to learn as possible.

What are the particular challenges?

Meeting the audience expectations of the world’s most popular and long-running musical! Many of the audience will arrive having loved the show in the West End and will have high expectations because of the quality of the music; it could be in our favour that they then have lower expectations of our cast because young people and their skills and abilities could not possibly be as good as adults performing, right? We can’t wait to prove people wrong.

The roles are demanding, emotions high, how are the young performers coping/or will cope?

The young principal line up is phenomenal, not just in talent or performance skills but in their mature emotional intelligence and understanding. Many of the cast especially the principals already have an excellent foundation in dance, drama and music. This production is an opportunity for many of them to learn about the more challenging aspects of musical theatre. Through the use of exercises, dramatic games and fun, an ensemble is emerging that is quite simply a joy to work with. The enthusiasm and commitment of the cast has been consistent and at no point has there been any worry that it was too much for them.

It is, of course, all about the music, how is that shaping up?

Very nicely and the company has really got to grips with the complex timings and harmonies as well as the stamina needed to deliver the songs. We’re so lucky to have Sam, having been our musical director for Into The Woods last year, we couldn’t wait to have him work with our young people. Sam is nationally recognised as a ferocious musical talent and spends his holidays sitting in the orchestra pits on Broadway shows so we couldn’t be in better hands!

What about design, look and feel, what are you aiming at?

Many rehearsals have drawn on the historical, political and social context of the original time setting, and we have worked hard to also reflect current social and political climate to provide a resonance for today.

For example, when you consider that homelessness in today’s society is at a peak, discussions on this have really helped the cast understand and relate to the plight of the beggars in Les Miserables. The downfall of Fantine from young educated mother losing her job, becoming a prostitute to protect and support her daughter is still resonant for today. The students fighting for their revolutionary cause reflects the passion of students and young people today fighting for human, social and political causes and justices.

Most productions of Les Mis are set on a proscenium arch stage but this production is different — it is set in a thrust configuration with the band and the barricades occupying the stage space. The cast are on stage virtually the whole time, starting as convicts, switching to beggars and workers, and then switching to guests at the Thenardier Inn. When not involved the cast watch and through their reactions support the story that is being told on the thrust stage. Lighting will play a huge part in the look of the show using colour and special effects to enhance the telling of the story.

What will be unique about your production and why should the audience come and see it?

The uniqueness of this production is that this is a youth show, prepared by the young people themselves. My job as director has been to encourage all of them to have an input into this rehearsal. Some of the scenes have been directed by the assistant directors and all I have had to do is tweak or point out further opportunities.

This production also does not romanticise the story — it tries to tell it in the most honest and truthful way as possible: the beggars will be dirty, the prostitutes will be daring, Jean Valjean is not a hero and it will make the audience think about today’s climate and how we are all responsible for each other.

Have you been taking inspiration from previous shows or the film, and if so who stands out or what productions have you, the team, and the cast seen that stays with you?

I have never seen the film and don’t intend to! The film is very different from the show, having seen the show four times before the only thing I aspire to have for the company is the sense of a job really well done!

Finally after this extravaganza, what’s next for SMTC?

So much! We’re really excited to be bringing the brilliant 1960s show Hairspray to the ArtsHouse in November [this interview was conducted before the news of the ArtsHouse closure – more news about this when the Herald has it]. While an adult company production, it’ll have plenty of opportunities for younger actors over 16. Tim Willis will be directing with Sam Young as musical director once again. Auditions will be in the next few weeks.

Following that, we’re looking to put on another youth production in spring 2019, so we’ll keep you posted with details.

Buy tickets to the show here.