DIVA TALK: As Film Approaches, Tony Winner Randy Graff, Broadway's Original Fantine, Reflects on Les Miserables

By Andrew Gans
24 Nov 2012

Graff (right, standing) in the Finale.

Question: What was the rehearsal process like?
Graff: The rehearsal process was totally inspiring and awesome because we actually improv'd for two weeks. We didn't get to the text until the end of — I can't remember specifically — but I think it was two weeks. Two weeks of improv to get the company to trust each other and work together and bond. We were doing improvs that actually worked themselves into the show because Trevor [Nunn] and John [Caird] didn't want to do what was done in London. They wanted to [reinvent] it. We did some typical theatre exercises that you do in college just to sort of shed your inhibitions — trust exercises where we'd fall into each other's arms, and machine exercises, where we'd all have to come and be part of a machine. And, there's an infamous cartoon character exercise, where we made a big circle and we were asked to perform our favorite cartoon character, and we all felt like fools, and that's exactly what they wanted. [Laughs.] They wanted us to feel foolish in front of each other. I mean, you ask any original Les Miz cast member about the cartoon exercises, and they'll just make a face — "Ah!" It was so awful. [Laughs.] So we did that, and then we started to tackle the text, but there's a lot of improv work that really bonded the company. Did you ever hear from anyone else about the famous prostitution exercises?

Question: I haven't.
Graff: [Laughs.] This is funny. Trevor took the guys in one room, and John Caird took the women in another room. And, this was preparation for what "Lovely Ladies" was going to become, and he had all of the women — one at a time — walk in front of him as if they were prostitutes in that time, meaning they had some sort of an affliction. So we had to walk across with whatever it was — whether we were missing a limb, or whether we were completely ill with consumption like Fantine. But we had to still show how beautiful we felt inside and show off the part of us that we still felt was beautiful and attractive and sexy to men. We all had to go across the room, one at a time, in front of John Caird. [Laughs.] He loved the exercise! Trevor would always say, "Where's John?" … "Oh, he's doing the prostitution exercise." [Laughs.] It was really something. Then, after that, all of the women went into the room with the men, and until this day I don't know what they were doing with Trevor in that room, and we had to do the exercise — not one at a time — as a group, as the "Lovely Ladies" group, and then go pick the person we wanted to seduce and sort of "work" them the way we did with John. And, that became the "Lovely Ladies" scene. It was born from that improv. It was great. And, it worked! [Laughs.] Ask the guys. It worked!

Trevor Nunn

Question: Did you go back and read the novel? How did you approach the character, and how did you approach "I Dreamed a Dream"?
Graff: Well, I did do my research by reading the novel. Truthfully, I read the abridged version of the Victor Hugo novel, and then I read the full passage on Fantine in the unabridged, and everything I needed to know about Fantine was in that section. There were things in that section — physical things — that I applied on stage. He talked about how she was crawling around on her hands and knees like a dog before Javert… And, also, by that point, she's just so drunk. I mean, the thing about Fantine is that she was high all the time on absinthe. He talked about how she is just high to numb the pain that she was in when she became a prostitute, so I really used that through all of "Lovely Ladies." I didn't fight being a prostitute; I just surrendered to it and played it like I was numb — that's right out of the novel. She was high all the time on absinthe, which is an opiate. And, as far as "I Dreamed a Dream" is concerned… It just came out of the scene for me, organically — from the journey that Fantine travels up until that point. I didn't have to think very much about it. I just let it happen.

Question: What was audience reaction like from the first preview?
Graff: Well, I'll tell you, when were in D.C., the first preview was amazing. The audience was on its feet at the end, and they would just not leave the theatre. We were all downstairs in the Kennedy Center dressing rooms, and John Caird came down to my dressing room — I was starting to get undressed, and he said, "Put your costume back on. They're still standing." I ran upstairs, and Fantine's barefoot in the last scene, as the ghost, and I ran upstairs and ran across the stage with the rest of the company to take another bow because they wouldn't leave the theatre, and I cut my toe on one of the grates that Thénardier pops out of. And, it was sort of gushing blood all through that curtain call, and after that they gave me ballet slippers to take my curtain call in, which is why all the Fantines wear ballet slippers in the curtain call. [Laughs.]