Two of Dunedin's Best Square Off in Roles of a Lifetime

Two locals who are at the peak of their musical theatre careers in Dunedin are set to square off against each other in a reimagined production of Les Misérables at the Regent Theatre in May 2020.

We sat down with James Adams and Greg MacLeod who will play Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert respectively to get their perspective on the musical, the characters they are playing, how they are preparing for their journey into Victor Hugo’s epic tale of redemption and some insight into their careers and work ethic.

What was the first thing you saw on stage that had an impact on you?

James: The first show I remember well is Dunedin Operatic's production of ‘Me and My Girl’, with Derek Metzger. I remember him coming along to a school assembly and getting everyone to do bits of the show. I was totally hooked. The show had such energy and joy. I loved it.

Greg: A hypnotist when I was 11. It was like watching magic. The hypnotist made himself invisible and picked me up from the audience and 'flew' me around the stage. The people on stage who were hypnotised held their hands to their mouths, aghast. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to perform and move people. 

What was the last thing you saw on stage?

James: Technically speaking, Postmodern Jukebox, who were huge and energetic and so skilled. Last musical was Taieri Musical’s, Blood Brothers. Stunning.

Greg: War Horse. I cried and I can't remember when I last felt so moved by a performance.

What made you audition for Les Misérables?

James: It is such a classic – the music is great, the characters are great, the staging is great, the show is wonderful. The character of Jean Valjean is the King Lear of musical theatre roles for a male and is a bucket list role that you just want to take on.

Greg: During 2001-2002, the last time Les Misérables did the rounds in New Zealand, I was in the ensemble for the Dunedin and Wellington seasons. I was inspired by all the lead actors’ performances and ever since I have waited patiently for the opportunity to audition.

How do you go about making the role your own?

James: It's sort of like getting to know someone. Taking time getting to know him really well. I try to build up the character slowly, experimenting with different ways of doing things and finding what fits.  I'll use my own experience where I can to try and get an idea of how he would feel in certain situations and reading or watching other things that can give me a window into Valjean's experience.

For instance, for Phantom, I read a few papers and essays on how people are affected by being disfigured. For Valjean I'll be looking for stuff about what forced labour was like in the 1800's. It begins as a sort of a history exercise, and over time I try to boil that down to understand his view of life and how he would respond to things; how he would feel and act, and how I can embody those things.

Greg: I try and forget any other actor's performance of the role that I have seen and play it from a place of first instinct. I talk to Heidi, my wife, about the character and discuss what motivates them. I read a lot and I use inspiration from other characters that are similar. I always like to move as they would, I ask myself questions like, does Javert lead from the head, the heart, the belly or the groin. I try not to act when I am on stage, I just am, and the little bits of Greg pop out and form a unique character. 

What kind of research will you do for Javert?

Greg: I read the novel earlier this year to prep for the audition. I will read it again with fresh eyes and pay closer attention to Javert's role. Victor Hugo's writing is the first inspiration for this timeless story, and I will go there. I will want to understand how a person can come from poverty to being a police inspector - his novel follows Valjean's story, however, Valjean holds a mirror up for Javert and I wonder if that is why he despises him so much, because, we are repulsed often by seeing ourselves in others. 

Future dream roles?

James: I'm a bit of a sucker for classics. I always wanted to play Tony in West Side Story, but I'm probably a bit past that now! I love Jesus Christ Superstar, and I'd love to have a stab at Judas or Jesus. Archibald Craven in The Secret Garden would be wonderful. And I'd love one day to return to the first lead role I ever had, at high school: Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

Greg: I have to play Jesus or Judas in JC Superstar, I just love the story and music - I played Jesus when I was 21 but at 40 I think I could properly do it justice. There is also a musical called Once where the protagonist (Guy) is a busker who plays the guitar. And...I would love to play Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

How do you unwind after a show?

James: During the season I'm pretty boring I'm afraid. I generally like to take things quietly. A quiet cup of tea on my own while my head stops spinning, thinking over the show, recalling what worked or didn't work so well. Maybe then watch something, read or listen to a podcast, something totally unrelated. Then I try and get some sleep to be in good form for the next night's show.

Greg: I have a shower and wash my character and makeup down the drain. The adrenalin is always pumping so I like to chat with the other cast members and then I switch off by reading.

If you could switch a song in the show with someone else, what song would it be and why?

James: There are so many good songs. Winner by a nose is Empty Chairs at Empty Tables; it's beautiful music, a wonderful sweeping melody, coupled with a dramatic, haunting lyric. There's so much you can do and communicate with it. Close runners up: Javert's suicide, Fantine's ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and Thenardier's ‘Dog Eat Dog’.

Greg: I do love ‘Bring Him Home’, it's like a lullaby - you get to play around in falsetto and push and pull volume and voice placement. But it's in great hands with James so I’ll let him have it.

Who was the first person you told that you got Jean Valjean?

James: That was my wife Jemma. She had trouble understanding at first because of the way I was jumping around.

Who was the first person you told that you got Javert?

Greg: It would usually be my wife Heidi, but, she told me! (Heidi is Les Miserables’ production manager).

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