May 2009

Les Misérables: “Valjean” and “Javert” Talk

Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett

Jason Kraack, who plays Jean Valjean, the protagonist in the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina’s current production of Les Misérables, remembered the first time he heard the musical. “I remember the first time I listen to it on CD. I was 12, at a friend’s house. I remember saying ‘I want to be that guy (Valjean)!’” Kraack said.
For Doug Jabara, who plays the relentless policeman Javert, Les Misérables is a 20-year dream come true. “When we started rehearsals… it was surreal—to want something for 20 years, and for it to finally happen,” said Jabara.

The musical has that effect on actors—and critics and audiences. When Les Misérables opened on Broadway in 1987, it garnered eight Tony Awards, five Drama Desk Awards, and the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Musical.
Kraack suggested the reason for actors’ admiration. “The show is an ensemble show. Honestly it is. I have a lot of material, but Marius has as much singing material as I do. The show couldn’t live without Enjolras; the show couldn’t live without Gavroche. The show couldn’t exist without Éponine. The show wouldn’t be half what it is without Fantine singing ‘I Dream a Dream.’ The show is not about any individual. That’s kind of the reason the show is such a blessing,” Kraack said.
The appeal is also the story. Based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, colloquially called Les Mis or Les Miz, is set in early 19th Century France. Ex-convict, Jean Valjean, who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and numerous attempted escapes, is paroled and turns his life around, except for the fact he broke his parole. Javert, the policeman, pursues Valjean relentlessly.

Eight years later, Valjean adopts Cosette (the young girl on the new classic poster for the musical), eludes Javert, and successfully raises the girl. The story jumps nine years, to 1832, a time of civil unrest in Paris. Cosette falls in love with a student revolutionary, Marius. Valjean must save Marius and Cosette.
That’s the simple story. But it is much deeper and richer than that. There is the tragic story of Fantine, Cosette’s mother. And the unscrupulous Thénardiers, innkeepers and thieves. Plots and subplots are beautifully woven around a cast that numbers 30 plus. There are few spoken lines, all is set to music.

Jabara said, “??Les Mis?? is kind of like the fusion of opera and musical theater. It’s simply huge, sweeping. It has to be to tell the story.”

Kraack said his greatest challenge in the role was given to him by his wife, who is in graduate school, studying directing. “She said that people don’t go to the theatre to listen to you sing. They go to the theatre to watch you have this experience. To see you go through this process. That means I have to be a prisoner; I have to be an animal; I have to be redeemed; I have to live the good life and aspire to make one person’s life better. I have to sacrifice myself for the boy that she loves, and I have to grow old … and die. I have to do this. I owe this to the people who come to the theater.”

Kraack has been in three productions of Les Mis, including a national tour where he was understudy for the Jean Valjean character. “This is the first time I get to call Jean my Jean,” he said. The is Kraack’s first time as a performer at the Arts Center.Les Mis will be Jabara’s fourth appearance at the Arts Center. Most recently, he was one of the featured singers at the “Gala Cabaret” Fundraising Evening, staged by director Casey Colgan, who is also directing Les Mis. Jabara played the wise Old Deuteronomy in the Center’s production of Cats.

Jabara said he had been into music since he was in kindergarten, but had his sights on medicine. That changed. “I switched from biochemistry my senior year in college, trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life. So I’m playing through the Le Mis selections at home, having had to leave my house at Thanksgiving because everyone was hounding me saying, ‘Have you lost your mind; did you have a breakdown?’ So, I’m done with science. So, I opened up the cover and I saw ‘musical supervision, Robert Billig.’ I wonder what the heck he does? Doesn’t seem like he has to be a great pianist. Maybe he doesn’t have to be a great singer. I could probably do that,” Jabara recalled, smiling.

Jabara tried to contact Billig. “I called him, and three months later he picks up the phone and I asked him, ‘Could I interview you?’ And he said, ‘Come see the show, a matinee. I’ll get you a ticket for eighth row center. Then we’ll go out to dinner and you can interview me. Bring your blacks (dark clothes) and I’ll show you what I do.’ He sat me in the (orchestra) pit, three feet from where he was. That was a major turning point in my life,” Jabara said.

Since then, he has gone full circle musically, from traditional musicals to rock-and-roll-style musicals to opera to oratorio, then back to musicals. He said he thoroughly enjoys the Arts Center and Hilton Head Island. “The theater is terrific. The production values are of the highest order. That’s one of the reasons I come back.” The other reason, he laughed, is golf. He just took up the game a year ago.
Kraack, new father of a four-month-old daughter, had some advice for those who want to get into acting: “Goal-making isn’t something we really do. There’s nothing that I wanted like that (his role as Jean Valjean), except for a few parts. That is why they say if you just can be an actor, don’t. You have to have to be an actor in order to make it work. That’s what I tell kids when we have a Q & A. ‘Don’t just want to do it. Make damn sure you have to do it.’”

Jabara remembered what one of his acting teachers said the first day of class. “If you can do anything else, leave now. Theater, it’s too full of ups and downs. If you don’t love it, set yourself free.”

Fortunately, for Les Mis, the Arts Center and the island, Kraack and Jabara can’t think of anything better to do.

Les Misérables runs through May 24th at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. For more information, visit artshhi.com.

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