Lea Michele, who created the role of Wendla in the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening, is currently living out a childhood fantasy.
The Drama Desk Award-nominated performer made her Broadway debut in 1995 as Young Cosette during the original New York run of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer's Les Misérables; over a decade later, the singing actress is finally getting the chance to play the ill-fated, unlucky-in-love Eponine — a role she has coveted and nearly played in the recent Les Miz revival — in the eagerly awaited Les Misérables in Concert, which begins tonight (Aug. 8) at the famed Hollywood Bowl.
"All of the little girls [in Les Miz] wanted to play Eponine," Michele recently told be by phone during the fast-paced, two-week rehearsal process for the Bowl's Les Miz, which features a 55-piece orchestra. "When we were younger, we all said we were going to grow up to play Eponine. . . This is a part I've wanted to play my entire life, and all of a sudden, I'm doing it. It didn't really hit me until [July 30] when we staged Eponine's first scene. I was like, 'Oh, my God, I'm playing Eponine. That's incredible!'"
It was actually director Richard Jay-Alexander who cast Michele in her Broadway debut and who is now shepherding her through one of her dream roles. "Lea Michele playing the role of Eponine was a 'no-brainer,'" says Jay-Alexander, who was the associate director and executive producer of the original Broadway, touring and Canadian companies of Les Misérables and who is equally well-known for staging critically acclaimed concerts for Barbra Streisand, Bernadette Peters, Bette Midler and, most recently, Betty Buckley. "Victor Hugo described Eponine as an angel with a dirty face. Well, all we have to do is add the dirt," he laughs. "Lea played Young Cosette on Broadway during the time I spent working on the original Broadway production. When she was old enough to audition for the recent revival, they apparently wanted her, but she had put so much time into creating the role of Wendla for Spring Awakening that she just had to see it through to Broadway. I think she made the right choice at the right time, as originating a role is always more interesting to an actor than doing a revival — if you're lucky enough to be faced with such a choice!
That starry company, a mix of award-winning actors from around the world, also boasts J. Mark McVey as Valjean, a role the actor has played both on Broadway and in London's West End; Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, the star of Broadway's Ragtime, Man of La Mancha and Kiss Me, Kate, as Javert; Melora Hardin, the singer-actress who plays Jan Levinson on TV's "The Office," as Fantine; Broadway veteran Ruth Williamson (La Cage aux Folles, The Music Man) as Madame Thénardier; Jersey Boys Tony Award winner John Lloyd Young as Marius; Curtains' Michael McCormick as Thenardier; British actor Tom Lowe, whose West End credits include Les Misérables and Cats, as Enjolras; and Les Miserables' Michele Maika as Cosette with Sage Ryan (Robert Zemeckis' forthcoming "A Christmas Carol") as Gavroche and Maddie Levy (Oklahoma! and Oliver! at The Downey Civic Light Opera) as Young Cosette.
Michele has nothing but praise for her co-stars. "On the first day [of rehearsal]," she says, "I was amazed by this cast. [Richard has chosen] everyone — from 17-year-old high school students that he saw in a production of Les Miz that just broke his heart to people that were in the original company. He handpicked every single person. Richard said [at the beginning of rehearsals], 'I know each individual character in Les Miz as if they're my best friend.' When he picked each person he thought, 'Okay, I'm not going to hire you because you're a great ensemble member and you'll also be a good Cosette understudy. We don't need that.' He looked at someone and said, 'You're perfect just for this part,' and every single person was handpicked by both [musical director] Kevin Stites and Richard Jay and our casting directors so wonderfully.
"When I got here and I saw John Lloyd Young," Michele adds, "I never would have thought [of him as Marius]. I think of him from his great success in Jersey Boys, but he, in my mind, is one of the best Mariuses I've ever seen, and he was born to play this role. Richard told me that initially, and I didn't believe him until I heard him sing, and I'm blown away by his performance. And, Brian Stokes Mitchell, as you know, is one of the greatest actors to grace the Broadway stage, and he is just an incredible Javert."
The young actress, it should be noted, is equally dazzled by her director. "We have such a long history," Michele explains, "and the passion and the dedication that Richard has for anything and everything he does is so incredible. Whatever he puts his mind to, whatever he is working on, he puts 100 percent into it. His knowledge and his passion for Les Miz is so extraordinary. He knows this show, he feels this show, he loves this show. In my opinion I think this is going to be one of the best forms of Les Miz that anyone has ever seen, really because he is such the heart of this [production]. He knows how it beats and [has put] together such an incredible piece."
It's also a reunion of sorts for Michele, who worked with Tony Award winner Mitchell in the original Broadway cast of the award-winning, epic Terrence McNally-Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens musical Ragtime — Michele was cast at age ten as, appropriately, The Little Girl with Mitchell in the lead role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. "I was talking to Brian Stokes [on the second day of rehearsals]. I said, 'Do you have a list of roles that you want to play?' And he's like, 'Well, I've been kind of lucky to play the majority of them.' He really has! . . . And, now I'm here, and I also have Richard Jay, who hired me [for the original Les Miz]. I have Marybeth Abel, who is our assistant director — she was my stage manager [for the original Les Miz]. Everyone who is working on costumes were the people who put me in my Little Cosette costume every night. A woman named Kathleen [Melcher] was my dresser. I'm literally connected to every single person in this production."
As for her current role, Michele says she is enjoying playing a character whose demands, both physically and emotionally, are a welcome change from Wendla, the Spring Awakening character she spent eight years either developing or playing. "I find Eponine such a heartbreaking character to play because she loves Marius so much . . . that she helps him and she stands by his side even as he falls in love with Cosette. In comparison to the characters I've played before and the character I just played, I'm loving her physicality, how spunky she is and how tough she is. Some of the stuff I'm getting to do so far I've never gotten to do before. Vocally it's incredible . . . [and I love her] attitude and her strength… It's that strength in [light of her] complete and utter heartbreak that I find is such an incredible meal, as an actor, to conquer . . . I feel like both Jonathan Groff and I have been able to leave Spring Awakening and go on to things that are completely different from our show."
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