BWW Interview: Jon Robyns Chats LES MISERABLES at the Newly Renovated Sondheim Theatre
Jon Robyns most recently had Hamilton audiences in stitches as King George III. Having played the roles of Marius, Enjoras, and, in his own words, the "definitive role" of Factory Worker #3, he is now the resident Jean Valjean in Les Misérables at the newly renovated Sondheim Theatre. Robyns spoke to BroadwayWorld about returning to the show.
What was a significant early memory for you at the theatre?
It was the UK tour of Jesus Christ Superstar when I was about 15 or 16. I went to see the tour in Cardiff and Fred Johanson was playing Judas. At the end of the show I remember standing up with everyone else and he gave me a little nod to acknowledge me in the crowd.
I just remember thinking "If I can make people feel how I'm feeling right now, that would be a very cool". That's when I decided I should really attempt performing as a career.
And now you're returning to Les Mis for the third time! How does it feel to be playing Jean Valjean?
It's better than I thought it could ever be - and I know that sounds like a very "showbiz" answer, but it's true. Although this is my third time doing the show, every time it feels very different because you're looking at it from a different character's point of view.
I guess the main difference with playing Jean Valjean compared to Marius and Enjolras is that I'm not involved in the revolutionary aspect of the plot. This hadn't occurred to me until we started rehearsing it.
If you think about Les Mis, you think about the revolution, the barricade, the flag etc. Valjean is in his own story. The show has two parallel stories that happen to intertwine, so it's very interesting doing the other half of the plot this time.
Plus, working with this company who are just magnificently talented, committed and positive is just fab. We've also got the newness of a gorgeous new theatre and a beautiful new set. The stage crew and stage management team have just worked their little butts off to make sure that it all runs smoothly, so it's a very happy house.
Is it nice to be back in the renovated theatre?
The new Sondheim Theatre is beautiful, just as much as the show. I worked there when it was the Queen's, and while it was very characterful, there were bits of the wall that you could take out quite easily! Sir Cameron Mackintosh has spent an awful lot of time and money making it look as wonderful as it is now.
Do you have a favourite moment in the show?
The beginning of Paris and "Look Down" is a massively impressive piece of theatre in this production. The two towers at the front of the stage move to bring the arch centre stage. It's filled with people and it looks just like a period tenement in Paris. You have the cast coming out like maggots out of an apple. It just looks amazing. Very, very powerful. I must also say orchestrations of this production are just magnificent. They just make it even more cinematic and massive.
I've discovered that one of my favourite bits to perform is the final scene. It's nothing to do with going home or it being the end of the show, it's just it's the only time he's happy. It's the only time he feels resolve and doesn't have to look over his shoulder.
He's done what he needed to do: lived a good life; brought up his daughter; and made sure she's going to be OK by marrying Marius. That's always lovely to play, especially after running around for three hours.
How have you found the relatively quick move from doing Hamilton, where you have a very impactful 10ish minutes on stage, to the marathon of playing Valjean in Les Mis?
There are definitely fewer laughs as Valjean, I'll be honest! That's certainly been a gear shift for my brain. But no, it's wonderful.
I'd like to say I knew what I was getting myself in for when returning to Les Mis. There have been a lot of surprises, all of which were very welcome, but not all were anticipated.
The contrast is pretty stark, but on the other hand, Lin-Manuel Miranda credits Les Mis for a lot of the things that make Hamilton, Hamilton. So, in some ways, the two shows feel like they're sort of on the same family tree. Vastly different in style, of course, but it has felt more like a sideways step between jobs.
"One Day More" and "Non-Stop" are essentially the same number, in principle: they take everybody's themes and play them over the top of each other. In both shows, there are two leading protagonists over a long period of time, which is the most obvious connection. The shows have similar structures, similar lengths. Either way, it's wonderful to be here doing the show and I absolutely loved doing Hamilton.
Have you had any moments where your brain has gone autopilot for the wrong part?
No, thankfully, although I think it would be funny if in "Bring Him Home", I started doing the King George III "shoulder"! I did the original production as Marius in 2008-2009, then I was in the first company doing the 25th anniversary tour, which was the first version of this production.
I was really lucky to be part of the cast and crew that put this production together. It's not so much that I've done the wrong bits, it's just all been a strange flashback. Being in the same rehearsal room on a different part ten years after doing the same production was really weird.
This production has also had things bolted on to it. Over the past ten years, things have evolved and changed, and it's really interesting to see if things I came up with are still in the show. I've been talking to John Owen-Jones about it a lot and it's very interesting. I've essentially told him that I've stolen everything he did and I'm trying to do it as well as I can!
How does it feel to be joining that list of actors who've played Jean Valjean over the years?
I don't think I've quite earned my place there yet, but I'm working on it. It's quite the list and it's humbling to be remotely anywhere near it.
Why do you think Les Mis has stood the test of time?
I think it's stood the test of time because the story is about the human condition. Like all stories that have been passed on through the generations, it's still relatable.
If you read the book, I know it's massive, but if you attempt to read it, there's an awful lot of stuff about the human psyche in there that still hits home now. Even though it's set in a different era, it's about relationships between people on a basic level. Everyone can relate to that.
I also think the music is seemingly simple until you really listen to it and then, to me, it's incredibly complicated. It's deep, it contrasts itself beautifully in particular moments. The way it brings back character themes, paints pictures for the audience's minds...it's a defining piece of theatre, and those things will always be popular.
As the concerts prove, it doesn't need anything else. What is on the page, just the words and the music, is more than enough. I know they staged bits of it, but it's mostly a "stand and sing out" affair. That was something Matt Lucas said to me when we started rehearsing. He said, "Oh, I've got to look at you now. I've just spent four months looking at the audience while singing and now it seems odd to look at another actor."
That's the reason it's still running: the writing is so good that it doesn't matter what production, what movement, what sets, what costumes there are. Sure, they add massively to it and make it a more enjoyable experience, but if you just take words and the music, that is enough to make it pretty magical for the people watching.
You've also recently released an album. Do you prefer playing yourself in a concert or a character in a show?
Concerts are so much more terrifying. In one weekend, I played the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall to an audience of around 200 people the day after doing Proms in the Park in Hyde Park as King George III to 40,000 people, but I found the concert much scarier. The comparison was mind-boggling!
When you're just being you, you can't hide behind a character. You can't excuse something as "Well, this is what the guy I'm playing would do".
That said, the shows went really well. They were really good fun. I'm so thankful to everyone that came, especially the incredible guests who helped me out. That was good. I was really pleased with how they went.
Will we see you as the Bishop of Digne in the future?
Ha! I don't anyone has ever played all five principal male parts. Maybe I'll get to play Javert and Thénardier later in my life, but I'm taking things one at a time.
How are you looking after yourself while playing Jean Valjean?
It's really not glamorous. My routine involves a lot of sleep, a lot of water, lots of steaming, warming up physically and vocally throughout the day...just generally being as dull as you can possibly be: no drinking or eating late. There's an awful lot of things you just can't do when singing this role.
I'm not 25 anymore, I'm 37, so my body takes a little bit longer to get out of its shell in the morning. I make sure I warm up p physically by going for a run in the morning to wake myself up. I also do lots of stretching and steaming.
It's a lot duller than people expect it to be, but you get the payoff in the evening when you get to be part of this wonderful piece of theatre. People buy into it like no other show I've ever experienced. When you feel the audience coming with you on the journey, you want to please them and they want to be there with you. It's just lovely.
Any advice for aspiring performers?
My advice for aspiring performers is to be on time. Preferably early. Know what you're doing and be kind and polite to everybody.
This really is a team effort. Everyone you know, from front of house right through to the end, makes the show happen. Everybody needs everybody. Giving everyone the respect that their job is as important as yours is one of the most important things to do in a theatre context.
And any advice for your former self?
I would tell myself to chill out! I spent so much time, and still do, overanalysing exactly what I should and shouldn't be doing. I'm learning, but I think relaxing is the best thing you can do in any circumstance.
Out of the characters you've played, who would you go on a road trip with and where would you go?
Ha! That's a great question. I think Emmett Forrest because he'd be very organised, which is good for a road trip. There was a show I did called Dickens Abridged where I played a California surf bum so I'll take him because he was entertaining, and I'll take Marius because he's got a lot of books, which would be useful for passing the time.
A road trip around Australia sounds cool. Post wildfires, of course - isn't it just devastating?
Why should people come to Les Mis?
The version of Les Mis doesn't matter. It's the story which will always carry through. That said, this production that is new to London is wonderful and I'm very, very proud of it.
We have made small changes to what you might have seen on the tour. Some of those things were enforced by the constraints of the stage and some are because we rethought what we wanted it to be.
It's incredibly impactful, very cinematic, and the design is beautiful. The music is wonderful and is worth hearing through the brand new sound system at the Sondheim, which just blows your mind.
If Les Mis speaks to you, it will always speak to you, so come and enjoy it for what it is and let us know what you think.