They knew they had seen that surname before. Then, further scanning the credits, they noticed the show's musical director: Tony-winning Paul Gemignani. Ah, that was it. The actor was the son of one of Broadway's most prolific and celebrated conductors. Like father, son Alex's career has been closely associated with Sondheim. After co-starring in Assassins, he won the role of sinister Beadle Bamford in John Doyle's high concept version of Sweeney Todd, in which the cast doubled as the orchestra. Gemignani showed off his musician's background in that show, playing both piano and trumpet. While the actor received praise for both performances, it still came as a surprise when he was tapped to play the lead role of Jean Valjean in the current return engagement of Les Miserables on Broadway. The actor spoke with Playbill.com about the jump from Sondheim to Boublil and Schonberg, and the leap from character actor to leading man.
PLAYBILL.COM: How did you get cast as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables?
Alexander Gemignani: My agent called me and said they wanted to see me for a work session for Valjean and so they sent me the music and I went in and worked about 45 minutes on the music and talked about the role with [director] John Caird and [producer] Cameron Mackintosh and the creative team. And I got the call the next day.
PLAYBILL.COM: Were you at all surprised that they were interested in you for that role?
AG: Absolutely! [Laughs] I was completely shocked—pleasantly surprised, actually. I was starting to make a name for myself as second bananas, more in character parts. Through this opportunity I'm certainly on a different sort of track than I thought I would be going on.
PLAYBILL.COM: Obviously, you sung in the recent Broadway revivals of Assassins and Sweeney Todd, but Jean Valjean has a considerably heavier vocal load. Did you need any extra vocal training to take on the part?
AG: No. I've been reliant on my technique. I had a fantastic voice teacher in college and kept true to my technique and tried to sing as correctly as possible.
PLAYBILL.COM: You're from a theatre family. When was the first time you ever saw Les Miz?
AG: Oh, God, I was probably 10. Something like that. I remember it. I have certain images. Jalvert jumping off the bridge; "Bring Him Home"; "Lovely Ladies" — those kind of things. But I mostly remember the score. My parents bought me the New York cast album. PLAYBILL.COM: Can you talk about the experience of going from two Sondheim musicals to Les Miz, which is obviously a very different sort of show musically.
AG: Yes, it is. This may sound silly, but I try not to approach music differently just because of the composer. I think that however the score is written, you have to approach things from a character perspective. I think that the main difference between Sweeney and Assassins and Les Miz is Les Miz really is, frankly, an opera. It really is completely sung-through. There is also a real penchant for contemporary pop music [in the score], so it's like a pop opera. Whereas Steve's stuff—not that it doesn't have contemporary music in mind—but I don't think it's written with that sound in mind.
PLAYBILL.COM: How does it feel to finally be a leading man?
AG: Uh, exhausting. I'm more tired.
PLAYBILL.COM: What about Sondheim? Did you know him before you were cast in one of his shows?
AG: Yeah. I remember him coming over when I was a kid. But I really hadn't seen him in a while by the time I auditioned for Assassins.
PLAYBILL.COM: Did you feel compelled to go into the theatre simply because you had seen so much of it through your father?
AG: No. I started out in college as a music major. Then I decided that wasn't what I wanted to do. Eventually, I entered the theatre department.
PLAYBILL.COM: You father conducted Assassins. Was it difficult working together on the same show?
AG: Not at all. I couldn't have had a better friend in the show than him.
PLAYBILL.COM: Nothing like being in the high school play when your father is the director, and all the other kids pick on you?
AG: [Laughs] No.