Although Caissie Levy and Nikki M. James have known the Tony Award-winning musical Les Misérables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg since a young age, their Les Miz co-star Keala Settle came into the show with fresh eyes and got acquainted with the "Madame of the House" prior to her first audition.
"It's so pressuring to me," admitted Settle, a Tony nominee for her show-stopping performance in last season's Hands on a Hardbody, who plays Les Miz's Madame Thenardier. "It's so daunting, and I didn't realize just how massive the show was until I got into rehearsal, and I felt — and still, at times, do feel — out of my element because I came from a different background, and this music is so classical, and to be able to be part of it scares me half to death! But, at the same time, you owe it the respect that it's garnered… Even having it reimagined — [although] I've never seen it before… But, being able to have this new blood — all of us, being a part of it… and for the first time, being able to do it the way we see this story — each character being portrayed is magic. It's absolute magic!"
Magic happens nightly at the Imperial Theatre, where the 2014, reimagined revival opened March 23 and where the original Les Miz was housed for nearly 13 years and 5,244 performances. Audiences begin applauding at the top of the show, when the orchestra strikes its first notes and theatregoers are transported to 1800s France.
"It's so exciting," Levy told Playbill.com when the cast met members of the press prior to the show's opening. "It feels like a present we're all sharing in — like a gift, you know — because we all love Les Miz. Anyone in the theatre world and beyond knows and loves this show… And, what's exciting about this production is that it's so reinvented while still retaining all the original heart and soul of the piece, and I think it's going to surprise people. I think it's going to move people in a way that the previous versions haven't because it's really all about the reality of the situation, not the theatricality of a Broadway show." Levy plays the musical's ill-fated Fantine, and — although the 2014 revival nixes the turntable staging and features fresh orchestrations — the heart of each character remains and is evident in powerful classics such as Levy's "I Dreamed a Dream" and James' "On My Own."
"What's been great about our directors, Laurence [Connor] and James [Powell], is that they've encouraged us to come into this process with fresh eyes, so the number one thing I've avoided is this sort of 'diva moment' [when] singing 'I Dreamed a Dream,' the first big ballad of the show," explains Levy, who tries not to think of the legendary actresses, such as Patti LuPone (in the original London cast) and Randy Graff (who originated the role on Broadway) who have performed the part before. "I just sort of went step by step," she continued. "I had read the novel, of course, and in the rehearsal room, we started at the top of the show and sort of worked our way through slowly, and I tried to sort of remove my pre-existing ideas of what this role was and what Les Miz was and try to look at it with fresh eyes, but it's a beast! It's a big-ole role, and it's such an honor to be playing it."
James agrees. "It's so exciting just to be added to that list of names of people who have tackled this role and played this girl, and that's new for me." The Book of Mormon Tony winner plays street urchin Eponine, a role she never envisioned taking on.
"[It's] kind of stupid because I'm pretty right for Eponine! I'm a tough chick!" she said. "I'm a little kid, but I'm a tough girl, but I wanted to play Fantine, so when I was a girl, and we performed Les Miz in the playground — because I'm a musical theatre nerd, [so] that's what I did: sing through shows and choreograph our own productions at lunch — I always wanted to play Fantine. For whatever reason, that spoke to me, so when it came up to do this show, and they asked me to read for Eponine, [I thought], 'Oh!' I had to rethink that, but I think that's a benefit because it means that I haven't spent the last 25 years of my life practicing it in my shower. As I've been finding her, it seems totally right. Now, I think back, and my 12-year-old self was not right about choosing Fantine over Eponine, so the universe has straightened me out."
James first experienced the musical with her mother, at a Wednesday matinee when Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Shanice was the first African American actress to play the role of Eponine.
"It was pretty epic for me, beyond just seeing the most incredible musical I've seen in my life at that point, but also seeing someone who looks like me up there on the stage playing a role that wasn't traditionally meant to be played that way, or written to be played that way," said James. "So it's big for me, and I think now I'll hopefully get to be that kind of inspiration for someone else in the audience who's a young girl who wants to do this for a living." Being a part of the 2014 Broadway revival of Les Misérables is also a huge deal for Settle.
"Every time I break down into tears or start screaming — because I do it on a daily — [is] because I'm in Les Miz! I'm sure the cast is sick of me, and I feel bad about it, but oh well! The creative team will come and give me a big ole hug because I just can't get myself together at all. [They] look at me and go, 'Every time we think we forget what this show's about, we look at your face and the boxes of empty tissues around you and realize… That's why we've stayed…"
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)