BWW Interview: Terrence Mann on Directing LES MISERABLES
Terrence Mann isn't on stage at the moment; he's sitting down with us in a corner off of a theatre balcony. He's at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, where he's the Carolyn Plemmons Phillips and Ben R. Phillips Distinguished Professor in Musical Theatre. His credentials for that job are hardly in question, nor are his theatrical links to North Carolina, where the North Carolina School of the Arts alumnus has spent substantial time both performing and directing when not on Broadway.
Not on Broadway... but wait, he's currently on Broadway in PIPPIN. So how is it he's also here, for his second ten-day cluster in six weeks? It's a schedule suggesting he's entering competition for the title of "hardest-working man in show biz". Aside from that, it's because he's directing the WCU School of Stage and Screen production of LES MISERABLES. Yes, that LES MISERABLES. It's a show with which the three-time Tony nominee is, perhaps, slightly familiar, having picked up his second nomination for creating the original Broadway Javert. This production opens in four hours, and he's reflecting on how his stage experience with LES MIS has colored his views in directing the show.
After ten days in the Smoky Mountains, the native (born in Kentucky, raised in Florida) drawl that vocal coaching when he first came to New York was designed to deflate sounds as if it's crept slightly more markedly back into Mann's voice. He'll be back in Manhattan the next day, and the voice will adjust once again.
Everyone knows that his isn't exactly his first experience with the show, but his one prior time directing LES MISERABLES was somewhat different than this. "I've directed LES MIS before... but it was the all-county high school version of it in Raleigh. We had fifty people or so on stage in that - it was a lot. This one has, what, thirty-six or thirty-eight. It's still a lot, but it's easier. And that one was for high school students." We note that school versions of musicals tend to be edited down and sometimes lose plot lines in the process; the student version of GREASE, for example, manages to delete the show's pregnancy story line in the process. "And that's crazy. It really hurts Rizzo's story. School administrators think kids don't know about things... editing a musical down is rough. This is the full LES MIS we're doing here."
Mann, of course, was directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird in the original Broadway production of the show. Which if any of their insights into LES MISERABLES has been useful - or at least, most useful - in directing this production? Or is he going off in an entirely different direction? "I'm sure that a lot of what Trevor and John said to me is in there, though I don't remember anything specific. I do remember one thing that Herbert Kretzmer, the translator, said to me. We were teching 'Stars' in Washington, and I came out with my greatcoat and hat, and then they wanted to adjust the lighting. I was standing on stage, and there was this man that ran up to me, in a suit - it was Herbert. And he said, 'Terry, Terry, a man cannot reveal his soul with a hat on.' It's so pertinent to the moment. I certainly passed it on to my Javert here." He pauses. "I don't remember where I got this piece of information from - maybe it was from Trevor Nunn. But it's about the differences between Jean Valjean and Javert. Javert believes in a God of rules, and Valjean believes in a God of love. It's very Old Testament versus New Testament."
Mann has said elsewhere that he's not a technical director. What was his primary focus in this production - the casting? "Well... my primary focus is different in a college setting than in a professional show, because everything's a teaching moment. In a professional setting, I just want the actors to let the audience know what they're feeling. Sometimes they're discovering it themselves in the moment. Here, I'm directing on two levels - those who get that, and those who need the training, the coaching.
"Now, I like the technical aspect of a play when we're designing it, when we're getting things up. But I hate it during the ten-out-of-twelves."
Has his shaping the role of Javert influenced the way he looks at the show as a director? "Good question. I don't think it's influenced me to skew the show - in the way it's designed, it's clearly Valjean's show. I don't think I have a skewed perspective on it - if anything, I tend to leave Javert alone.
"When Cullen [Ries, the student playing Javert] came in, that was it - he's the whole package. When he first auditioned for the program, I knew right away I wanted to see him sing Javert. I've let him run with it."
It's fine that when he found this Javert, he knew it - but is he prone to being more critical in casting Javert than he is regarding the other parts? And is there any chance that the Javert he casts becomes the most terrified performer in America under Mann's scrutiny? "I'm sure I'm more critical in casting Javert. When Cullen came in - I've taught him for a couple of years, and I'd envisioned him in it. But yeah, he's still nervous! It's like... if I went in to audition for CAROUSEL in front of Gordon MacRae. Who wouldn't be nervous auditioning in front of the first guy to do it?"
He pauses, smiles wryly. "And then there are the people who audition for other shows I'm doing by singing 'Stars.' I was listening in at auditions in Raleigh once, and this guy came up to sing 'Stars.' It... well, he wasn't great. And the director tells him, 'That took balls,' and he didn't understand why. So the director points to me and says, 'That's Terrence Mann.' And he says, 'Who?' It turned out that he didn't know LES MIS; he'd heard the cast album, liked the songs, and picked that one to sing." Given that, does he ever get tired of the song? "I never get tired of hearing other people's takes on it. I like listening to other people's interpretations of 'Stars' - I admit it."
We've digressed, but we'll bite - how did he feel about Philip Quast's performance, then, when Quast replaced him on Broadway? "Philip Quast can sing. I've never considered myself a singer. I do musicals, and I love to sing, but - Anthony Warlow? I can't compare myself to someone like that." We avoid commenting on excessive modesty and wait for him to continue. "I think I was lucky that CATS suited my range. Frank Wildhorn, to his credit, likes my singing. I did the workshop for his JEKYLL AND HYDE, and then of course I did his SCARLET PIMPERNEL later. Chauvelin was really great. And the album - that made me sound wonderful. But Anthony Warlow, Robert Cuccioli, who took over on Broadway in JEKYLL AND HYDE - he was just in SPIDER MAN. I think of them, not of me, when I think of singers."
Speaking of Broadway, there's the minor issue that he's currently on Broadway in PIPPIN, and he's directing this in North Carolina at the same time. Isn't that a difficult, if not somewhat impossible, schedule? "You know - I don't know. But sometimes a change is as good as a rest. I get up in New York, I take the kids to school, go back to bed till breakfast, go around and get things done, someone has to get the girls from school - going to do the show in the evenings is almost restful. But you get into that routine, and this becomes a nice change. When I was negotiating my contract, I asked for these days to do this, and they were great about it. And the last show I did here, when they got Christopher Sieber in to replace me in PIPPIN while I was out - that worked out great."
This is a college production, not a professional one, that he's directing - what has the talent pool been like at Western Carolina University? "It's a small program here, but we have juniors and seniors who are ready to step out on Broadway. They're good. This isn't a conservatory program, where an entire school is geared to doing this sort of thing. Everyone in the musical theatre program here auditions to get in -- they have to be good in the first place to get in. I've been here for eight years now, and after my first four years here I had kids graduating who were getting work right away. They still are. I've taught master classes at other schools, and you know, you want everyone to be great. Sometimes people come in that you think are a little weak, and they turn around and surprise you.
"It's not all that hard finding the talent here even for larger shows like this one, because everyone in the program wanted to be here; they all want to participate, to be in the shows. Some of them certainly aren't ready to go out as pros yet -- they're students -- but they're learning. And we have a great acting, singing, and dance faculty to prepare them." His claim is more of a statement of fact than a boast. Karyn Tomczak, head of the dance program and choreographer for this production of LES MIS, will be receiving a national award later this year for her dance instruction. She and Mann are far from the only notable talents who work, or have worked, with the program; in fact, Mann's wife, Astaire Award-winning Broadway dancer Charlotte d'Amboise, has directed A CHORUS LINE at Western Carolina. D'Amboise received a Tony nomination for her performance as Cassie in the 2006 revival of the show. The university's School of Stage and Screen has a history of recognized performers and writers on its faculty.
And what about the facilities at the university? The production is being put on at Western Carolina's Bardo Arts Center. "We have multiple theatres at Western Carolina. We use Bardo for our larger musicals -- it's a fairly new building, a great facility, a lot of space and a good bit of seating. We get a lot of road shows in here as well. This is where we're staging Les Mis. The smaller ones are older; they're used for acting classes and for smaller shows like next to normal. We have a lot of theatre space here, which is fortunate. And the student techs who are involved with it and the pro techs we have here give their life blood to make things happen, and we're very lucky with that." (Among the other theatres on campus is one named for the late former faculty member, playwright and screenwriter Josefina Niggli, who scripted for MGM in its glory days of movie musicals. Niggli was one of the writers on SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, which featured on screen Mann's father-in-law, former New York City Ballet principal dancer Jacques d'Amboise.)
How many weeks was the show in rehearsal? "We started February 24. I was here for ten days and we put the show together in ten days. I cams back down March 24 and we got it on deck. So, six weeks, but only twenty of those days were with me. They've done some great work in the time they've had outside of classes to get this together."
There's this production, among many, but LES MIS is also currently undergoing a new Broadway revival as well. Does he have any thoughts about that? "Oh, you know... we opened it, seventeen years later we closed it; I was there for both. Not that much later, there was the first revival with Norm Lewis as Javert. It didn't run all that long, maybe two years. I haven't seen the new one yet. What do I think? I don't know, but it's right next door to PIPPIN! I'd love to see it, but I'd really rather spend my spare time with my kids after I've just finished doing eight shows a week."
Information on Western Carolina's theatrical productions each year is available at the university's website, here.
[The Western Carolina production of LES MISERABLES, directed by Mann, ran from April 3 through 6, 2014.]
Photo credits: Ashley T. Evans, Western Carolina University Office of Public Relations