They met in Les Miz — it sounds like a movie title. Indeed, the life that Barbra Russell and Ron Sharpe have led of late, hard-charging into the homestretch after nine years of rebuilding A Tale of Two Cities as a musical, must really seem like the reel thing.
These two, who debut Sept. 18 as executive producers when their torch-brandishing Dickens song-and-dance seizes the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, first crossed paths on Broadway — as Cosette and Marius in Les Misérables. One night, says Sharpe, "she kissed me for real." He came offstage and said, "How's that again?" — and was hooked by Kiss Two.
They got married, he went on to Jean Valjean and other Broadway wars (The Scarlet Pimpernel, King David), and together they developed a recording studio to create concept albums. Enter Jill Santoriello with book, lyrics and music for Dickens' Tale.
"As an actor, you work on so many new pieces," says Sharpe. "Then, suddenly, you find something — and it's, like, 'Wow! This is as good as things I've been performing on Broadway.' Then Barbra — it's all her fault, really — said, 'I want to produce it!'" Guilty, Russell gleefully admits: "I brought him in, kicking and screaming. When I first heard this score, I said, 'I can’t believe what I just heard.' We were compelled to bring this to Broadway, and it was our first general manager who told us, 'You don't know how difficult this is — so you'll probably be very successful.'"
Knowing the sound he wanted and just the friends to make it, Sharpe recruited the old Les Miz rabble. "In the beginning, we had seven Jean Valjeans in our show, which is a great thing to have. I'd say we've about eight or nine Les Miz-ites with us now."
This doesn't, however, include the hero and heroine — Sydney Carton and Lucie Manette — but James Barbour has a dense history of period-piece leads with a dark side (Jane Eyre, Beauty and the Beast, Carousel) and Brandi Burkhardt has had the Frank (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Jekyll & Hyde) Wildhorn experience (she's his fiancée, and this is her Broadway debut).
But after that, the line-up is solid Les Miz alums. An ex-Eponine, Natalie Toro, is now that knit-one-purl-two firebrand nitwit, Madame Defarge. A vengeful Javert, Gregg Edelman, has turned into a Bastille-broken Dr. Manette. The heroic Enjolras of the Broadway revival, Aaron Lazar, is spared a hero's death this time out as Charles Darnay. Another Enjolras, Kevin Earley, appears as Ernest Defarge.
Then, the show gets rapidly overrun with Masters of the House, with assorted Thenardiers galloping by as Jarvis Lorry (played by Michael Hayward-Jones), Jerry Cruncher (Craig Bennett) and John Barsad (Nick Wyman).
Victor Hugo was writing about the student uprising of 1832 the same time Charles Dickens was writing about the French Revolution of 1789, according to Santoriello. Dickens' Tale got to market first, she says, and she has spent the past 22 years — from 1986 B.L.M. (Before Les Miz) to last week — musicalizing it. "There's a song in the show at the top of the second act called 'Everything Stays the Same' that I wrote when I was 15. I started writing it as a hobby in our rec room, where the piano was.
"But I wouldn’t have known what to do with it — how to get out the door with it and show it to anybody — if it hadn't been for my brother, who really helped me and brought me along and encouraged me to take it seriously." Alex Santoriello was, at the time, easing himself into the Paris sewers of the original Les Miz, making his Main Stem debut multicast as the otherwise unwashed masses of that show — just the big brother to lead Li'l Jill across the steep and slippery Broadway barricades.