Through Dec. 30
The National Theater
1321 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
With the hotly anticipated film version of “Les Misérables” poised to open on Christmas day, it’s an exciting time to be connected to the musical.
“For me, just being in ‘Les Mis’ is a dream come true but to be in it right now is almost overwhelming,” says gay actor Jason Forbach, a cast member in the show’s 25th anniversary tour production currently playing at National Theatre. “It feels like a perfect moment in time.”
Forbach plays Enjolras, the iconic young revolutionary who leads the students in an ardent but unsuccessful anti-monarchist uprising. In Victor Hugo’s epic novel (on which the show is based), Enjolras is described as angelically beautiful. “No pressure there,” quips handsome Forbach before rhapsodizing on his character’s other admirable qualities: “I’m in love with this guy. He’s a passionate idealist who dies for what he believes in. Trying to grasp on to that magic is a challenge. It’s the most important role I’ve ever played.”
Set against the political conflicts of early 19th century Paris, “Les Misérables” follows the travails of Jean Valjean, an honest French peasant who spends almost 20 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. After his release he breaks parole and attempts to make a fresh start under an assumed identity, but Valjean’s attempts to separate from the past are thwarted by police inspector Javert who remains doggedly on his trail. Hugo’s material translates into powerful and uplifting theater.
While it sometimes feels there was never a world without “Les Misérables” and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg’s popular score that includes familiar tunes like “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” “Bring Him Home,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” and Enjolras’ stirring anthem “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” the show in fact premiered in London in 1985 and made its American debut at the Kennedy Center in 1986 before moving to New York where it set records as the third longest-running Broadway show to date. Over the years, it has toured the globe. The production now playing in D.C. was especially reconceived for the anniversary tour that began two years ago and shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
“The new production has enough familiar elements so as not to disappoint diehard fans, but a lot of innovation to keep the show young, including co-director Laurence Connor and James Powell’s new staging and efforts to make the show grittier, more real,” Forbach, 34, says. “Emotions are raw. There’s nothing played or musical theater about it.”
Also, the famous turntable is gone; instead the new production features a series of 3-D projected images fashioned in the style of Hugo’s paintings.
“These sepia-toned cityscapes and abstracts make both the actors and the audiences feel more immersed in the story,” Forbach says.
“Les Misérables” is a hard show to sing, even for Forbach, a Kansas City native who studied classical voice in graduate school at the New England Conservatory in Boston before trading a budding career in opera for Broadway musicals. It’s also physically demanding — he suffered a dislocated rib and has had other injuries playing Enjolras.
“It’s demanding all the way around. Eight performances a week of dying on the barricades while screaming out a complicated score can be difficult but it’s the realness of this extreme situation that makes it easier to keep the show fresh. You just can’t fake it.”
Touring can be a long and grueling business, but there are upsides. With few expenses on the road, Forbach has managed to pay off his college loans; and since his boyfriend is also in the cast (they met at auditions in New York and not long into the tour a romance developed) it’s not lonely. He’s completely comfortable being an openly gay actor.
“I wouldn’t be as successful a creative artist if I weren’t true to myself. I don’t know if I’d want the success if I had to compromise to achieve it.”
Ultimately, Forbach credits the universality of Hugo’s grand novel as the reason for the show’s enduring popularity.
“At its heart, ‘Les Mis’ is a story of redemption, a lifelong journey of making wrong right,” he says. “It’s something to which everyone can relate.”