What I learned from seeing a High School production of Les Misérables.
So I have a theater. It’s on 45th St. and it’s named after my great grandfather, Delbert Essex Davenport.
Because my name is on the outside of the building, a lot of people think I own the place.
Truth is, I don’t own it. I rent the space.
I’m a guest of a non-profit and charitable organization that fortunately for all of us believes that a theater on 45th St. is an important part of the local heritage and community, instead of another hotel, parking lot or a Starbucks.
So when one of the heads of that organization asked me to come see his son (who played my favorite student, Grantaire, to perfection) in the Jersey City Public School production of Les Misérables, I was happy to Uber out there and check it out (and as most of you know, if I was trapped on a desert island and could only take one thing with me, it would be Les Miz).
And it was awesome.
Was it like seeing the Broadway Les Miz? Or the National Tour Les Miz? No, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still an incredibly inspiring experience that still has me a tinglin’ at the future of the American Theater.
And here are five things I took away from my experience seeing Les Miz.
1. It wasn’t just a high school production, it was a 26 high school and middle school production.
I misspoke. This wasn’t like when my high school did Anything Goes. This was an all district Les Miz. They allowed kids from all of the 26ish Jersey City Public Schools to audition! I heard that over 500 kids were after the only 50 spots. And it wasn’t just high school . . . it was middle school students all the way up to seniors. How cool is that? It reminded me of when I was in the “All District” band back in Massachusetts. Not only does this concept deliver a top notch production, but the kids get to “network” with other kids just as passionate as they are about the theater. Boy oh boy would I have loved that when I was in school (I remember the neighboring town doing Anything Goes the same year we did . . . and all that I wanted to do was meet those kids). If you’re involved in high school theater, look to see how you can connect to the other high schools in your area.
2. Thank God these kids weren’t around when I was in high school.
I never would have been cast as Billy Crocker in Anything Goes if these kids were around. I mean, there was a lot of talent on that stage for their age. What has changed since I was a kid? There are so many more resources available both offline and online for these kids, and they are sure taking advantage of them. These kids were at least a good five years ahead of my generation of performers. Imagine how good they are going to be when they are in college . . . or when they are on Broadway. If you think getting a job as a Performer is hard now . . . just wait. These kids are all going to be quintuple threats (singing-dancing-acting-speaking another language-and playing an instrument). (Special shout outs go to Kyle Velasquez who played saintly Valjean and Ryanne Erin Soriano, who broke my heart as Eponine.)
3. Diversity ain’t gonna be an issue in a decade.
You think Hamilton is diverse? Well you should have seen this multi-race cast. It was incredible. It was America. And it just felt right. Asian Americans, Hispanics, Caucasians, East Indians, all on a stage, telling a story about the French revolution. Historically accurate? Who gives a @#$%. The theater isn’t a realistic art form to begin with. Leave that kind of boring realism to film. We’re starting to make strides with this on Broadway now, but thanks to productions like this that train artists and audiences to just accept what is on stage no matter what it looks like, it’s going to be so much less of an issue in the future . . . and also create even more exciting art. If I have a kid someday, I expect that she (yep, I fully expect it to be a girl) to say, “Dad, in Hamilton, why was having the Founding Fathers played by people of different races such a big deal?”
4. A great show is a great show no matter where it is or who is in it.
When I’m developing a new show, and someone suggests, “Oh the set will address that plot point,” or “We’re going to get a star to play his role to help sell tickets,” I’ll respond with a, “But what happens in the high school production?” Les Miz is a great show. A classic. Twenty years from now that kid of mine (do you like the name Alex for a girl?) will also look at Les Miz as I look upon Show Boat or Oklahoma! And it’s so good, it doesn’t matter if there’s an actual barricade, or if the choreography is different than the original, or if the music is on tracks . . . audiences will want to see it. It’s very easy when you’re developing a show for Broadway to think about that as your final “stage,” but my advice is to think beyond. Because if your show can make an audience tear up when the budget is only $10,000 instead of $10mm, that’s when you know you’ve got a good one.
5. It made me want to see it again . . . now.
Conventional Broadway wisdom (which is also known as “fear”) will tell you to restrict the licensing of productions with XX miles of New York City to prevent pulling sales from the New York production. Well, I got news for you. Guess which show this guy wanted to say the very next day after seeing the Jersey City Public Schools production? You can bet your bippy I’ll be getting a ticky for the Broadway production before it closes in September and guess why? Yep, all because I saw this production (and even if I didn’t buy a ticket – I just wrote about the show and mentioned its fall closing date, so there’s a press value from licensed productions). I even came home, popped in my complete symphonic recording and shower-sung just about all of Act II (sorry, NY water supply). Shows are the best way to advertise shows. Now, would I let Paper Mill do Les Miz right now? Probably not. But high schools? Take advice from Cameron Mackintosh and license away. The only down side from this production? They only had three performances. They had five months of rehearsals, and they had the most extremely limited run of all time.
Super kudos go to Jersey City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Marcia V. Lyles and Les Miz Director Nicole Miller for making this production happen. The future of the theater is in good hands, thanks to people like you.
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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.