Based on the epic novel of the same name by French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, and adapted by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Sch?nberg, Les Mis?rables is the story of Jean Valjean, a convict who was released after 19 years in prison, and his long struggle on the road to redemption in 19th century France.
Presented through special arrangement with Music Theatre International (MTI), the production features a lead and supporting cast and chorus comprising some of Trinidad and Tobago’s most talented singers and musicians. Cast as Valjean are Marlon De Bique, 35, and Nigel Floyd, 42, who have been with the Marionettes for a total of 37 years.
De Bique, a Cultural Programme Coordinator at the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism, is a two-time Cacique Award winner who has performed in various productions around the world including United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and Poland.
Floyd, on the other hand, is an attorney and a member of the Key Academy of Music who studied for a Grade 5 certificate in voice with the Royal School of Music.
Despite their years of experience however, the men described the role of Valjean as one of their most challenging to date.
“The music is quite challenging. It stretches you as a singer and as an actor in terms of the ranges and the dramatic scale of the roles. Valjean’s character is downright difficult. It stretches me dramatically and so I’m called to pull on all the resources I have to really deliver the role,” said De Bique.
Floyd agreed, saying when first selected for the part he initially felt exhilarated, and then trepidation.
“The role is extremely vocally and physically demanding. I did not come from a background of acting so I have taken acting classes with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop for this role,” he said.
He noted that when he joined the Marionettes in 1991, the members would form a line, stand, clasp hands and sing. However, as younger persons joined, movement began to be incorporated in the performances, especially for calypso and folk songs. When they began doing musical excerpts however, the choir became more production oriented than choral.
“One of the things I have been able to see is that there is a true connection between standing and singing, and getting into a role and performing. It requires a tremendous amount of discipline, and self-observation. It’s really about managing your idiosyncrasies as well as observing others,” he said.
The two men would be performing the role on alternate nights while the rest of the cast remain the same, except for four members of the Marionettes Children’s Choir - Annalise Emmanuel, Jayna Akal, Elise Blanc and Amelia Emmanuel – who play the roles of Young Cosette, a child adopted by Valjean, and Gavroche, a streetwise urchin who helps the French revolutionaries.
The rest of the main cast includes Marvin Smith, Danielle Williams, Raguel Gabriel, David Stephens, Errol James and Aurora Tardieu.
Although they play the same character and sing the same lines, De Bique and Floyd have different approaches to the role based on their physiology and their life experiences. Floyd explained that he previously worked at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
There, he met people who claimed to be wrongfully imprisoned. He said he noticed the way they moved, spoke and even breathed, and he tries to incorporate that in his performance.
“This is not Nigel acting like trapped man. It’s me finding that part of me that’s trapped as well and trying to get that out in my performance,” said Floyd.
In his research for the part, De Bique read several chapters of the novel.
One chapter, he said, dealt with Valjean’s history and family, which was all he needed for the role.
“The chapter described the darkness and the dirtiness of that particular time. When Valjean went to prison, he didn’t know what happened to his sister, nieces and nephews.
“I have siblings, and I connect through them and their children. When Valjean speaks to Inspector Javert in the prelude, it’s like he’s speaking about my sister. You use what is most accessible to you,” he explained.
Despite their differences, the men learn from each other. De Bique said he was a more physical, engaged performer and learned from Floyd that sometimes less is more.
“Nigel has always been one of the singers I look at and listen to. I think the innocence that he may approach the role with often works in his favour. There is a sincerity that is delivered in certain scenes that I just look at and tap into and learn from,” he said.
Floyd admits that De Bique had more acting experience than he, and would often pay attention to De Bique’s use of the stage as De Bique seemed to be “instinctually aware” of where to position himself to get the most dramatic effect.
Floyd said that in the Marionettes’ production of the opera Carmen, the acting was more theatrical. In Les Miserables, however, he described his performance as an exchange of energy with the person or persons with whom he is on stage.
“It’s a trust that you develop with that person, so my approach is really trying to engage that person, and if it comes across, the audience would follow. For the duration of a play, the stage becomes my home and the people on the stage, my whole world,” he said.
De Bique agreed that trust was a big part of the production. He noted that the character of Valjean was very psychological, intelligent, isolated, and yet very compassionate. Immersing oneself in that role, he said, makes the actors vulnerable, and so the actors must be comfortable with themselves.
“Everything on stage is about trust. You become extremely vulnerable and completely exposed. If during rehearsals, you break down in tears because the scene has taken you to that place, everyone witnesses that, and then you have to bare your soul in stage to hundreds of people,” he said.
“The other day I had to run away from the role, literally, emotionally I ran away from it, and said I didn’t want to deal with it anymore.
“It wasn’t that I abandoned the production but I had to step away because it was getting in my head. I had to do that before I got back to it,” he said.
Besides his family and friends, De Bique said the members of the Marionettes were his support as they knew the challenges of the roles, assist each other, and recognise there are good days and bad days.
His friends, he said, were honest about his performances and give him critical feedback.
Meanwhile, many of his co-workers attend his performances, while his boss allows him the time off for rehearsals and performances.
Floyd’s points to his wife of 12 years, Allana, and their three children as his main support, saying he “wouldn’t be able to do any of this if she didn’t send me.”
In addition he said the choir had been working very hard to “step out of itself” for Les Miserables.
“When that comes together, with the direction of our able director Caroline Taylor, the energy is palpable and it makes it easy to immerse yourself and feel that the scene is really happening,” said Floyd.