Hoopla

Coming to Hancher: Jean Valjean's fighting spirit strikes close to lead actor's heart

MATTHEW MURPHY PHOTOS

ABOVE: In one of the emotional high points of “Les Miserables,” Valjean (Nick Cartell) sings the haunting, prayerful “Bring Him Home.” The new national tour of this popular musical is coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City for eight performances from Dec. 4 to 9. LEFT: Inspector Javert (Josh Davis, left) hands a parole ticket to prisoner Valjean (Nick Cartell) in “Les Miserables.”
MATTHEW MURPHY PHOTOS ABOVE: In one of the emotional high points of “Les Miserables,” Valjean (Nick Cartell) sings the haunting, prayerful “Bring Him Home.” The new national tour of this popular musical is coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City for eight performances from Dec. 4 to 9. LEFT: Inspector Javert (Josh Davis, left) hands a parole ticket to prisoner Valjean (Nick Cartell) in “Les Miserables.”
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Nick Cartell dreamed a dream of playing Jean Valjean, and now that dream has come true.

The Phoenix native who played student rebel Marius about 10 years ago in his hometown, has jumped to the signature role in “Les Miserables.” The new national tour of the Tony-winning musical is coming to Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City for eight performances Tuesday (12/4) to Dec. 9.

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel set in 19th century France, the musical without spoken dialogue tells the saga of Valjean, imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving son, then trying to escape.

After he’s released on parole, “he is an outcast from society,” Cartell, 39, now based in Manhattan, said by phone from a tour stop in Cleveland.

“He is shown one glimmer of hope from the bishop — even after he wrongs the bishop by stealing silver, the bishop gives him a second chance. And it’s that second chance that puts Jean Valjean on a lifelong quest to do good,” Cartell said.

But behind Valjean every step of the way is Javert, a police inspector obsessed with sending him back to prison.

Illness, death and grief also follow the people Valjean comes to love and admire in his life, including his former factory worker Fantine, who dies in poverty as a prostitute, leaving behind her daughter, Cosette. Valjean rescues the suffering child from a life of servitude by paying off her unscrupulous guardians, the Thenardiers. He then raises Cosette as his own daughter.

Cartell admires Valjean’s fighting spirit.

“He fights in the beginning of the show to hold onto his name. He’s been given a number for 19 years in prison. He’s only been known as 24601, and the one thing he says right at the beginning of the show is, ‘My name is Jean Valjean.’ He fights,” Cartell said, “and he continues to fight through the entire show.

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“He fights to give Fantine a voice, he fights to save her, he fights for Cosette, he fights to protect Cosette. He then goes to the barricade to fight with the students, for Marius — to protect this boy that is in love with his daughter. His daughter is in love with this boy he’s never met, and yet he takes up arms to protect him.

“At the end, he just fights to forgive himself. There’s a fight (in which) I connect with Valjean, and that is the part of the character that I love so much.”

The connection is very personal. Cartell wasn’t even sure he should attempt to embark on this tour, since his mother was dying.

His first audition was in April 2017, and after five callbacks, in early July, he learned he had won the role.

“The week leading up to my final callback, my dad had called me, because my mom had been battling ovarian cancer for six years, and he said, ‘Listen, it will not be much longer, but you know that we both support you. We want you to do this callback. We know that this could be life-changing. This is your dream, and you know how much we support you.’”

His mother died the night before his final callback, so he carried all of that emotion into the room.

“I knew that I had to do it for her. I had to do it, and I had to just go in there and do what I believed Valjean was, who that man was,” he said.

“That is what is exciting. Our directors really let us take the lead as far as where we felt the characters were. We’re not carbon-copies of those who have come before us, even though there are so many amazing men who have played this role before, I am able to make it my own. My Valjean is different from Hugh Jackman’s Valjean and Colm Wilkinson’s Valjean, and yet they all encapsulate each other in a weird kind of way, and it’s really hearkening back to the book and diving into the amazing work that Victor Hugo wrote, to help really inform our characters.”

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With all the beautiful music in the show, not surprisingly, Cartell’s favorite number is the soul-piercing prayer, “Bring Him Home,” which Valjean sings as Marius sleeps before the battle at the barricade.

The song resonates with him not only because of Valjean’s character, but because “he knows he won’t be around forever, and this boy will protect his daughter,” Cartell said.

“But then I also think about my mom and all the fighting she went through during her chemo treatments to see me in different shows around the country, and the sacrifices she made for me. It gives me a moment to not only connect with the character, but really to bring this whole experience, this whole journey I’ve been on, full circle.”

The tour, which launched Sept. 21, 2017, in Providence, R.I., reflects the changes made for the show’s Tony-nominated 2014 Broadway revival.

Gone is the turntable, which was new technology 33 years ago, Cartell said, adding, “but let me tell you, you will not miss it.”

“What you may have seen with the turntable, we’ve actually put projections into our show,” he said. “Victor Hugo was an incredible artist. He hid his artwork away, because he wanted to be known as an author first and foremost.

“Our designer, Matt Kinley, has dug through the archives and pulled his artwork, and made it into projections in our show. They also created more projections based off his artwork, so when we are marching down streets of Paris, you are going to feel like you are marching with us. When I am carrying Marius through the sewers, you’re going to feel like you’re on the journey with Valjean.

“When you walk into the theater, there is a drop that is pretty much our grand drape, and right at the bottom on the right-hand corner, you’re going to see Victor Hugo’s signature. That’s actually his artwork — it’s what he envisioned Paris to look like.

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“This version of ‘Les Mis’ is much more cinematic, and it flows from scene to scene with the way that the setting and the lights work. You will not miss the turntable — and you will fall in love with (the show) again.”

Get Out!

WHAT: “Les Miserables”

WHERE: Hancher Auditorium, 131 E. Park Rd., Iowa City

WHEN: Tuesday (12/4) to Dec. 9; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 4 to 7; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Dec. 8 and 9

RUN TIME: 2 hours 57 minutes, with one 18-minute intermission

TICKETS: $45 to $110, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu/2018-19/LesMiz

EXTRA: 1 p.m. Dec. 9 show will have ASL interpretation and live audio description; contact the box office to use either of these services

ONLINE: Lesmis.com/us-tour

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