Dean Chisnall has played Jean Valjean, the leading character in Les Miserables, both in the West End and on tour and opens in Salford tomorrow night for almost a month.
We asked him what's it's like to play such an iconic role – one that been filled by a huge roster of top musical theatre stars over the years.
"I say it to everybody: this is the dream role for anybody in musical theatre; the pinnacle for any
male performer," he says. "I just feel very lucky to do it, and to have done it for as long as I have. I’ve now
played over 500 performances as Jean Valjean, and it still feels as magical as it did the first time I
stepped on the stage.
"I was always a fan, long before I even dreamt of having a career in theatre. When I first saw it I was in London on my own and about 18. I pootled off to get myself a ticket at the Palace Theatre; sat there and completely fell in love with the show."
Watching the show from a seat in the stalls can make each performance seem perfect, but Dean knows that when you are on stage, things can look different.
"We always try to strive for perfection, which isn't attainable – but you never stop trying to achieve it. Someone like Jean Valjean is very complex in many ways, but very simple in others, it’s always a challenge to try and work him out – and I love that about him.
"I think I’ve probably played him a little bit differently at every performance. There’s always something new you can find in him; he’s a wonderful person to play."
With 500 performances as Valjean to his name, Dean has his own favourite moments: "My favourites are the iconic moments," he says, like One Day More and Bring Him Home.
"Bring Him Home is a song I sing on my own, but it has always felt like a whole company moment, as we
have everyone asleep on the barricade. It’s quite magical: you’re always aware that they’re there
and never treat it as a solo. But to be honest, the whole show is two and a half hours of pure magic."
Valjean is a big role in a long show, performed several times a week; it can take a toll on stamina if approached without a plan.
"Preparation is key!" says Dean. "I try to stay healthy and get plenty of sleep. I love my job, so it’s not a chore and I don’t think of it as being exhausting. It is tiring, but I have to say probably more mentally exhausting than physically, because of who Valjean is and what a marathon journey he goes on.
"We are here to give the audience some sort of escape and of course actors like to escape into a role as well. I undoubtedly feel I'm somewhere else during those two and a half hours. You have to live and
breathe these characters. You can’t fake Les Mis."
It's hardly surprising Dean considers his job a privilege: "Touring a show like this, which has such a resounding message for humanity to people, is really special" he explains.
"I've been staggered by the audience reaction from day one of my time in the show, but when we take it on tour it’s something else. "We've just been in Liverpool, which is close to where I grew up, and friends and family could come and see me perform. I’m nervous every night before the curtain goes up, and that is heightened when you have people you love come to see the show. But it’s lovely to have them
Les Mis has been around in its current form since 1985, and most shows would long since have endured a slow decline and perhaps a revival. On the contrary, Les Mis is pretty much as popular as ever.
"The messages are still so relevant," Dean suggests. "Everyone has something they can relate to in the
show, something they have experienced in their lives. The show is as fresh as it ever was, we've got a wonderful company and we’re delighted to be sharing it with people. No show gets a reaction quite like this one: it’s the greatest show on earth!