As a child, actor Simon Gleeson was transfixed by the musical Les Misérables.By Liam Pieper.
The voice of Simon Gleeson
Simon Gleeson turns up late and is at once apologetic, distracted, charming and out of breath as he leads me through the freezing guts of Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre last winter. Together we walk down the dirty white-brick corridor decorated with the signatures of those who have played the theatre (Gleeson’s is scrawled in fresh black marker among the fading names). We go past the clockwork behind the barricades, an elaborate set on which in a couple of hours Gleeson will have yet another dark night of the soul, as Jean “24601” Valjean. Gleeson closes his dressing-room door behind us and turns on the vanity mirror. “This isn’t for theatrical effect,” he assures me, as the naked bulbs flicker into life around the glass, “but they’ll warm up the room.” He’s still puffing as he launches into our interview, only slowing down a few minutes in as he pauses to catch his breath. Gleeson is a busy man – playing Valjean in Les Misérables, one of the most coveted roles in musical theatre, around Australia. The show is currently in Perth and opens in Sydney next month.
Gleeson is very much a theatre actor. His laughter is booming and sudden. His pronunciation is exquisite, and when I speak to him I feel the weight of all his concentration rest on me. It’s hardly a scoop and would make a lousy headline – “Theatre actor is theatrical” – but in person Gleeson is one of those performers the stage has made its mark on, as well as the reverse. He talks with his voice, his hands, his feet – stretching out to think while pondering a question and then drawing up straight to answer it, waving his hands to illustrate a point: every inch the actor. Even when the media training is showing, such as when he’s talking about his love for Les Mis and gives a sound bite that’s been repeated elsewhere, it sounds utterly genuine.
“The show is a big reason why I wanted to follow this profession,” he says. “It had always had such a magical, important role in my life, this show, ever since I was 12. When I first saw it, I remember clearly sitting in the front row of the balcony with my sister.” Gleeson crosses his arms and leans forward to rest his chin on his hands, miming a child lost in rapture. “I don’t think we moved the whole time. I already knew it all word for word, but it blew my mind. I thought it was just the most extraordinary thing I’d ever seen.”
Gleeson learned the songs the way most of us did: by osmosis, with his mum singing along to the original cast recording in the car and in the house. As a child he was struck by the songs that drove his mum, a “lovely – hard but lovely – woman”, to tears. Even if Gleeson was too young to yet understand the darkness at the core of the story, he understood that he was tapping into something grown-up. He would wait until his parents went out, watch until they were safely down the driveway, then put the recording on and sing along. “It was a guilty pleasure, almost, because I liked what it did to me inside, not so much the sound, but I liked going through those feelings,” he says.
Gleeson recognises a similar reaction in his own seven-year-old daughter, who’s banned him from singing the emotionally charged numbers in the house. “They make her upset. Although she can’t cognitively understand what’s going on in the music, she can hear ‘it’ in my voice, that something is wrong. It can still take her down this path emotionally.”
Somewhere between the anthemic musical numbers and the bombast of the play, there’s something almost universally accessible about what is actually a very strange story, when you think about it. A long, gritty melodrama by a didactic French novelist about an all-but-forgotten rebellion which, centuries after the fact, was adapted into an even more melodramatic musical by theatrical producer and future knight Cameron Mackintosh. It’s packed with stirring melody and harmony, and deals with prostitution, slavery, child abuse and comedy in stirring singalongs that are fun for the whole family.
Les Mis is a big deal. The latest production by Mackintosh doesn’t so much as market itself as roll into town like an occupying force. The flags asking if we can “hear the people sing” unfurled down city streets months before the first curtain went up. The iconic image of the waif Cosette pushing her broom adorns alleyways and newspapers, whizzes past on buses or trams, and crackles invisibly through the air on radio broadcasts. In American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’s own sprawling novel about capitalist excess, the Broadway production’s unrelenting promotion across Manhattan in the 1980s is a recurring motif.
In present day Australia, the State Library of Victoria hosted a tie-in Les Misérables – From Page to Stage exhibition, featuring costumes and ephemera from nearly three decades of the musical and 200-odd years of the tale. The centrepiece of the exhibition is Hugo’s original handwritten manuscript of the novel, which was on lease from Europe for the first time and was flown over on its own lie-flat business class seat on an Emirates airliner.
Few musicals have been as successful as Les Misérables. Sixty-five million people in 42 countries have bought a ticket to see it in one of 22 languages. The cultural capital of Les Mis is undeniable and, for Gleeson, it has been a constant companion. He and his future wife left theatre school in their final year to take roles in the ensemble of a previous staging of the show.
An actor’s career path is never certain, and musical theatre suffers the vicissitudes of fate worse than most; you are only ever one scandal or poor production from ending up at a horror-themed theatre restaurant. Branching out from musical theatre, Gleeson worked around the place for a while – a play at the Sydney Theatre Company, stints on Neighbours and EastEnders, a bit part in the not-great movie My Life in Ruins, time in London working for the Royal National Theatre – before a critically acclaimed return to the Australian stage as Raoul in Love Never Dies, the sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. “When I heard Les Mis was coming back,” he says, “I had to have a crack at it.”
Jean Valjean is, without hyperbole, the role of a lifetime for Gleeson, a rich character that has traditionally made stars of the men who play it. Gleeson was stoked to land the part, although he admits to some trepidation. The character as written into the libretto is an angsty Übermensch, and demands an actor who can hit high notes that would frighten a castrato, while still being physically imposing enough to believably lift an oxcart, or kick the shit out of a relentless gendarme. (Gleeson’s contractually obliged to stay fit, and packed on 10 kilograms of muscle for the role).
Asked whether it is daunting to take on such a well-known role, and one that arch-triple threat Hugh Jackman just chewed to pieces in the 2012 film, Gleeson agrees. “It took everything for me to say, ‘What’s my version’, because if I can’t be true to that, then I’m going to be very much influenced by people saying, ‘That person did that bit better.’ At some point I have to go, ‘This is my version and make of it what you will.’ ”
To that end, Gleeson leans into his strengths as an actor. “As a singer I’m not technically as gifted as some, and my passions have been in plays. For me, it makes
no difference if the words are spoken or sung. It’s just
a shitload of experience: so much of it is just reflex.”
It’s fair to say your eyes never leave Gleeson while he’s performing. He moves from dewy-eyed wreck hovering over Fantine’s deathbed to lithe and deadly wildcat during his confrontation with Javert, or shrinking before your eyes in the closing coda, an old, broken man, bent over, shuffling slowly towards death, all without ever losing his angst over the fate of the wretched around him. “I love the guts of it,” Gleeson explains. “I love how full-on it is, even though it’s terrifying to know that for the first 15 minutes you’re going to be basically sprinting.”
Mackintosh had the final say on casting, and gave the role to Gleeson based on his “inner spirituality”. “All the best Jean Valjean’s have it,” Mackintosh told Fairfax Media at the time. “They have a serenity and calmness to them. When you talk to them, they’re grounded people.”
Gleeson, who grew up in a religious home and attended the Jesuit Xavier College in Melbourne’s Kew, brings a morality formed in youth to his character’s spiritual struggle. He’s not deeply religious as an adult, but “I see [Valjean’s] journey as very connected to God. It’s that desperate struggle between good and bad in oneself, which is humanity. At the end of the day, is the ledger in favour of good, have I done enough at the end of my life to justify my existence? I’ve had plenty of those 3 o’clock in the morning discussions with myself saying, ‘What do you stand for?’ ”
The arc of Jean Valjean is where the shade, all but bled from the source material by the original stage production, creeps back in. Among the harmonies and stirring leitmotivs there is little room for complexity of character. Although the big set pieces and breakout songs belong to the ensemble cast, there is less room for character development than one would like. The innkeeper and his wife are grotesques, Éponine as alluring and pitiful as the working class that Hugo fetishised, Cosette is a saccharine nothing-cake with two perfect songs, while Javert is relentlessly one-dimensional in his pursuit of his ideals, pig-headed and gimlet-eyed like some Bourbon Restoration Scott Morrison.
In this new production, Valjean’s journey is more pronounced, closer to the damaged character as written by Hugo. It stops short of being a gritty Christopher Nolan-style reboot of Les Mis, but it is much more nuanced. “I’m pushing it as hard as I can, because if we don’t have that, he’s got nowhere to climb back from,” says Gleeson.
Valjean’s struggle is archetypal, and has only grown more so over the years. “It’s now part of the psyche of all of us. We may not recognise that the songs come from Les Mis, but we know the songs,” says Gleeson. It’s a musical that exists somewhere between childhood indoctrination, post-ironic camp and wholesome fun. It requires surprisingly little suspension of disbelief to enjoy Les Mis, and you only need drink a little of the Kool Aid.
“There’s a need for it, that’s why people keep coming back. They don’t go, ‘Oh God, those three hours, soooooo much hell! I’m never doing that again.’ That has struck me to the core in a way I can’t articulate. There’s something about it that blows people’s minds, but only if you buy into it. If you want to come in and go,” Gleeson holds out his palm like a traffic cop, “well, then there’s no point going to the theatre, really.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 21, 2015 as "The voice". Subscribe here.