Two Javerts Meet - Hayden Tee And Robert McDougall of LES MISERABLES
As Robert MacDougall prepares to take on the role of Javert in Les Misérables, having previously understudied Hayden Tee in the role, we catch up with both actors for a symbolic handover of the truncheon.
Robert McDougall has one foot firmly in the world of musical theatre and the other in the world of conducting. He graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and undertook vocal tuition at the Juilliard School New York. A finalist and runner up in the 2015 Rob Guest Endowment, he performed the role of the Proprietor in Stephen Sondheim's Assassins at the Hayes Theatre in 2017 and again in 2018 during its Sydney Opera House transfer. Robert toured Australia, understudying Hayden Tee in the role of Javert in Cameron Mackintosh's production of Les Misérables between 2013 and 2016. Hayden Tee is known all around the world for his his award-winning (Melbourne Green Room award, Sydney Theatre award) portrayal of Javert in the Australian, New Zealand, Broadway, West End and Dubai productions of Les Misérables.
Robert first met Hayden at the launch of the Australian tour in 2013 and the two quickly became friends. Performing the role of the Bishop for much of the tour, Robert went on as Javert four times. He remembers his first night clearly. "I definitely didn't feel ready, but what I learnt then was that you never do. It was a good lesson to learn. I remember the curtain coming down and bursting into tears because I was so immensely grateful that I'd had the chance to go on. I've never felt that kind of emotion since," he says.
Unbeknownst to Robert, Hayden was in the audience that night. "I managed to sneak into the back of the theatre and I actually saw him the first time he went on. It was amazing. That's why I know he is going to make an amazing Javert."
Both Robert and Hayden first encountered the role of Javert watching Philip Quast perform on the video of the 10th Anniversary concert of Les Misérables.
"I've followed Philip ever since he appeared in that concert," Hayden says.
"Philip Quast is from Tamworth like me," Robert adds. "We grow our Australian Javerts in Tamworth!"
Since Roger Allam and Terrence Mann created the role of Javert on the West End and Broadway respectively, the tormented inspector has been performed by some of the world's most accomplished performers including Philip Quast, Norm Lewis and, of course, Hayden Tee. Robert McDougall isn't daunted at the prospect of following in their footsteps. "I've gone back to the script and tried to get rid of any preconceptions I have. Obviously, Philip's and Hayden's interpretations are in my head, but I don't want to replicate anything without having thought it through."
Hayden also admits, "I still have Philip in my head at times. I grew up with his interpretation."
Does Hayden have any advice for Robert as he prepares to take on the role?
"I've never given another actor a note in my life, but if it helps Robert I'd say that my approach has been to make Javert an antagonist and not the villain. He does bad things for good reasons and I always try to ensure the audience understands he'd never do anything for the sake of causing pain."
Robert shares this view of the character. "Javert is doing his job. We see him in his professional guise until 'Stars', at which point we finally gain an insight into what drives him. I'd like the audience to understand why he does what he does. It would be great if people left the theatre thinking, "I get his viewpoint. Perhaps he took things a little far, but I understand where he was coming from."
As a conductor as well as performer, Robert has a very musical take on why Les Misérables continues to thrill audiences more than thirty years after it first opened. "Claude-Michel Schönberg makes brilliant use of leitmotif. Each theme is associated with a particular character or emotion. As a result, the show takes Victor Hugo's incredibly dense text and makes it digestible. The music tells you what emotion you should feel at any given moment and which character you should focus on.
Robert is comfortable juggling the two disciplines of conductor and performer. He has conducted the 'West of the Divide Choir' world tours to Germany, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic in 2017, and Italy, Vatican City, Slovenia and Croatia in 2019, including performances in St. Peter's Basilica and the Croatian National Concert Hall. As a vocalist, he has performed in cabaret at New York's most celebrated cabaret venues, Feinsteins, Don't Tell Mama and Birdland Jazz Club. In 2017, Robert also sang the National Anthem during the Rugby League World Cup Opening Ceremony in Melbourne before a capacity crowd and television audience of 1.4 million.
Robert can't wait for the opening of Les Misérables on Valentine's Day at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta.
"I've been trying break the role of Javert down and start again. I'm sure parts of it will be similar to the way we performed the role during the Australian tour. The text is the text and you can't change the character as written. However, I am looking forward to the feeling of it being mine." Following the run, Robert will embark on a tour of his cabaret show, Less Miserable with Daniel Belle, who is playing Jean Valjean alongside him this February.
And what's is store for Hayden Tee?
"I've just finished playing Javert in New Zealand and I know it's not going to be the last time," he says. "Now I'm touring and promoting my new album Face to Face, with more countries to be added to our itinerary very soon."
Les Misérables starring Robert McDougall as Javert plays at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta from 14-29 February. Tickets are available at: https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/les-miserables-2020/