BWW Interview: Killian Donnelly On Playing Jean Valjean In LES MISERABLES
Killian Donnelly's stellar musical career includes Kinky Boots, Memphis, The Commitments, Billy Elliot and The Phantom of the Opera. From tonight, he becomes the new West End Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.
Has Jean Valjean been on the wish list for a while?
That's exactly it - top of the bucket list. When you get asked in interviews, you never want to say it out loud in case you wish it away. Then a few months back, my agent called me and said Cameron [Mackintosh]'s office has been on and asked if I was interested in auditioning for Jean Valjean. Just hearing that sentence alone was like "Oh my God, are you kidding me?"
Did it help that you knew the show so well?
It was lovely being so familiar with the material, so I wasn't up all night learning it. It was more trying to sing it back into my voice - I'd been doing Cyndi Lauper pop style for the past 18 months. They were so nice in the audition, "Let's try this bit", very friendly, and I walked out going "Well I've had a lovely sing - let's see what happens." Then my agent called and did that thing of saying "Is Jean Valjean there?".
Have you been able to learn from other Jean Valjeans?
I was very lucky to be in the show for three years as a swing through to playing the role of Enjolras, so I worked with four Jeans, plus covers, and the movie as well. I could see what worked for each person and think "That's a really good idea" or "I love the way they do that".
Our director Sam Hiller actually used to be in the show, and he's been fantastic about letting us explore, mixing old and new. Seeing these different interpretations really inspires you to experiment and put a bit of yourself in. Of course, I'm also looking back to the great Colm Wilkinson - it's a lovely connection, another Irishman, but you do listen to his just otherworldly voice on "Bring Him Home" and think "Oh God. Why did he ever flip those notes up that high?!".
Is it hard to pace yourself through it?
As a part, actually your first 15 minutes are the most energetic, running around, screaming, being hit, getting thrown out of the inn. Then you gradually progress through age until you just have to play old and slow - I pretend to be my dad!
Why do you think people still love the show?
When people ask me what the show's about, I always think of this great element of hope. That never gets old. It came to the West End in 1985, I was born in 1984, so I can't believe what I'm doing now was on stage then, but it just works. I've grown up with it - there's this incredible connection.
My dad actually gave me a Colm CD when I was about 10, and Track 7 was "Bring Him Home". Hearing that passionate falsetto voice changed everything for me - it told me this is musical theatre and it's cool to do it. Les Mis has always been there when I'm feeling down. Or going to parties, you've had a few drinks and it's winding down, someone always puts the Les Mis album on in the background.
Do different aspects resonate for you now, coming back to it?
I went to see the Saturday matinee recently - I hadn't seen it in a few years, and by the way Simon Gleeson is just incredible. I know it like the back of my hand, but this song "Turning", with the female cast, about the boys who died on the barricade - the lyrics of that really struck me: "Where's that new world/Now the fighting's done?". That resonates so much right now.
People always say it's epic, it's timeless, it's always new again, but I've never experienced that before, having a lyric pop out and you go "Oh wow, I've never heard that in that way". I also think it's a show that people can come in with any background, religion and so on and find their own connection with it.
How do you respond to the faith element?
Well, that was the lucky thing growing up Ireland - I was thrown into mass on Sundays, so that's all a part of me. When there are moments in the show you have to bless yourself, I don't have to be taught that!
What number are you most excited to perform?
The big ones you're nervous about, like "Bring Him Home". I'm excited to sing the soliloquy at the start - it's the most famous point of Les Mis, in that jacket, staring up to God. Those notes play and you just sing it. That's one of my pinch yourself moments, going "I'm in Les Mis!". I also like standing side stage during something like "Stars" or "I Dreamed a Dreamed" - I've got the best seat in the house to watch this fantastic cast.
Has it been fun building all those relationships with the core cast?
I worked with Jeremy Secomb, who plays Javert, in Phantom, and we were both in New York at the same time - I was there with Kinky Boots. He called me saying "Are you in Les Mis?" and I said "Are you in Les Mis?". "Are you going to be my Jean Valjean?" "Are you going to be my Javert?"
It's instantly so comfortable, having that connection you can use. That's what you want for the person you're spending so much time on stage with. And offstage too, the crew is all the same as when I was last there, so I was greeted with hugs from everyone and "Welcome home". It really is a family. Backstage, we have a Les Mis family wall - when you leave you sign it, so there's all these incredible names, like Judi Dench. I went back and saw my signature, and it just reminded me I'm part of history being in this show.
Do you remember the first time you saw it?
When I moved to London it was first on my list that I wanted to see. I sat in the audience with my friend from musical theatre college, watching those people on stage and thinking "I would love to do that". They inspired me to keep going and not give up. There's a big cast change this year, so lots of new people coming in doing their first West End job and they're so excited. You need that with a show like Les Mis - that fresh energy, the adrenaline shot.
What's it like leading the company?
I do want to be professional and lead-y, but I don't want to talk too loud! Having met Colm, I know how warm and grounded he is - he's placid and angelic and soft-spoken. Then Simon Bowman was this energetic guy, Alfie Boe was really amazing about learning from scratch. I think I really saw that everyone has their own way of doing things.
They still have the original creators coming in - like we worked with the original fight coordinator Malcolm Ransom, and he's so vital and strong, he'll have you punch and lift and slam him down. Then he'll come out with a story about Colm and we're just drinking it all in. But he'll look at you and work around how you're built, how you move, so it's not just "Stand there and turn on this line". You're chosen because you can sing and you have instincts that are correct for the piece, beyond that they welcome a new take each time.
Do you know how long you might stay in the part?
I'm here for at least a year.
And any other bucket list roles after that?
I like going for contrast in my career. When I tried out for Charlie in Kinky, at the time I would have had a shaved head and a beard, but I still felt "I can play that innocent charm". These amazing casting directors then saw me doing Charlie and thought Jean Valjean! So I put my trust in people who see something in me.
You also look for whatever challenges you - you don't want to be stuck in a job you don't believe in, doing a script or songs you don't trust. So it's that thing of being happy to see what comes along and going from there. Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys is maybe one I've thought about, but bucket list has always been Jean Valjean, so this is just the best time of my life.
Photo credit: Johan Persson