‘Les Misérables’: Lead actor embraces the struggle of Jean Valjean
There’s a little bit of Jean Valjean in everyone.
That’s one of the takeaways Nick Cartell has garnered through the first 11 months of portraying Valjean in the Broadway show “Les Misérables,” which makes its way to the McAllen Performing Arts Center for a five-day run Sept. 12 to 16.
“I mean, 19 years in prison, always on the run, always running away,” Cartell said. “But I think there’s a level of him in everyone. It’s about the fight inside the human spirit and the need to make the world a better place — a need to do good.”
“Les Misérables,” also known as Les Mis, is a musical based on the 1862 novel of the same name by French poet and novelist Victor Hugo. The musical premiered in Paris in 1980.
The show is the story of Valjean, a French peasant who is looking for redemption after being imprisoned for 19 years for having stolen a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child.
Cartell, who has performed in the national tour of “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Frankenstein” off Broadway, among others, said that the whole struggle Valjean went through became personal when he connected it to a tough moment in his life.
“For me there is a personal moment in the show, during the end,” he said. “I lost my mom to ovarian cancer; she passed away the day before my final call back for the show and there’s one point where we were performing “Bring ’em Home,” and I’m looking down at this boy looking for his adopted daughter and it reminds me of where my own mom would be and come see me on the shows. These moments are important to connect with.”
Valjean decides to break his parole and start his life anew after a kindly bishop inspires him by a tremendous act of mercy, but he is relentlessly tracked down by a police inspector named Javert. Along the way, Valjean and a host of characters are swept away and a group of young idealists make their last stand at a street barricade.
Valjean has been portrayed by many actors around the world. Cartell said it was critical for him to go back to the novel Hugo wrote as well as scour references to see how Valjean is described.
“For me it was about tapping into the fight and the forgiveness — it’s true what the directors say about him, that he is an animal that is broken in the beginning and the only thing he has to hold onto is his name — he won’t let go of his name,” Cartell said. “Then when he is forgiven for stealing, it sets off this whole new set of emotions. Here’s a guy who has been broken and now has a chance to become what he wants to become. But his performance at the beginning dictates the change of him throughout the rest of the show.”
Cartell said the writing and the character are strong — but his goal was to capture the emotions and the character and make it a regular part of him.
“It was important for me to make sure he was understood and people understand what made him mad and what changed him and what he wanted to do,” Cartell said. “It is such a unique story but it’s a story that somewhere along the line everybody can relate to.”
The show is in its 12th and final month of touring and for Cartell, keeping his routine is critical for him in giving 100 percent every night. Playing Valjean has to be one of the most demanding lead roles in all of Broadway.
“It’s important to rest and take care of myself — get eight to nine hours of sleep a night, go to the gym and take my vitamins,” he said.
“What keeps us going through is the audience, playing in a different town every week. We have audiences who have seen the show and some who haven’t been exposed to the show. Sometimes we can feel like rock stars.”
Cartell said he has been surprised most by the responses of the audience, many of them coming to talk to him about how the show — Valjean’s struggles especially — relates to them.
“I’m not much of a fighter but this character has so much fight in him,” Cartell said. “I remember one day during a rehearsal being completely exhausted and broken myself and they said to do it all over again, one more time. I felt broken from such a day and then I feel like I understood it better — the way he is broken at the beginning of the show. He’s tired of the fight and being strong all the time. You don’t realize things like that sometime until the moment is upon you.
“At that point I was like – there it is, I understand.”