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Meet Jean Valjean of the Straz Center’s ‘Les Miserables’

Bill DeYoung



Nick Cartell onstage in "Les Miserables." Photos provided.

For Jean Valjean, the luckless French peasant at the heart of the epic musical Les Miserables, family is everything. After serving 19 years’ imprisonment for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and nephew, Valjean breaks his parole, turns his fortunes around, and becomes a surrogate father to a young orphan girl. All the while being hounded by a policeman determined to return him to prison.

Set during the early 1800s, around the time of the “Paris Uprising,” Les Miserables began as a novel by Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). The musical adaptation by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer and Jean-Marc Natel is the longest-running play in the history of London’s West End; it’s the second longest-running musical in Broadway history and winner of multiple Tony Awards. It has been seen by more than 130 million people, in 53 countries and 22 languages.

New York actor/singer Nick Cartell plays Valjean in the Les Miserables tour at the Straz Center in Tampa through Sunday. A veteran of numerous Broadway shows, he has played the role more than 1,000 times – he began touring as part of “Les Miz” in 2017 and like everyone in the company took the pandemic years off.

For him, family is everything.

Cartell’s wife and 4-year-old daughter travel full-time with him; where the production goes, they go, staying exclusively in Air B&Bs. “We try to have a home life as much as we can,” he says, “where we have a kitchen and we cook meals, and we eat dinner together before I have to run off to the theater.

“We travel with a tub of my daughter’s toys, that she gets to play with. We try to make it as normal as it can be when you’re traveling across the country with a 4-year-old.”

His parallels with Valjean really come to the fore during “Bring Him Home,” the big, emotional Act II ballad. To get through it, Cartell explains, “I can’t think of the gravity of the song.

“Valjean is thinking about this boy, Marius, and talking to God. About how he knows that he is not much longer for this world. He doesn’t know how much longer. But he is the only one who’s protected his daughter up to this point – and he sees something in Marius that says ‘this could be the boy I need to take care of her when I’m gone.’

“I relate that to how I would give up anything for my little girl. And before I had my daughter, I was coming to it from a place of grief. A day before my final callback, in 2017, my mom passed away from Ovarian cancer. And so I related it to the sacrifices that my mom and my dad would make for me. And thinking about how many shows she came to see me in, across the country, right after she had finished chemo. Or flying to see me in a show on Broadway.

“The sacrifices that a parent makes for their child go above and beyond anything. So if I can pull those types of emotions into that song, it keeps me grounded.”

He focuses instead on the practical aspects of the performance – how do I sound? Can I hear myself? – Iiving in the moment “and also just trying to, technically, give the song what is needed.”

Cartell is asked constantly, by interviewers, how he keeps it “fresh” after more than 1,000 performances. “Because it changes every night,” he’ll says. “What I’m experiencing in my day, I pull that into how Valjean is feeling that night. The frustrations that I’m going through with, maybe, we didn’t get the Air B&B we wanted … or maybe it’s just been a long day … maybe I’m tired. All of those things I can pour into this character every night. Because at the end of the day, he is a man that’s just trying to live his life. He is just trying to make his world, and the world for people who live in his orbit, better.

“I wake up every morning and I’m not Jean Valjean to my daughter. I’m just her Daddy. And so I get up and I have to make her breakfast. And I have to play with her, and cuddle with her, and watch her TV shows.”

Next month Cartell will release his debut album. A Thousand Spotlights is a collection of standards, jazz tunes and his favorite Disney songs. “I’m so excited for audiences to hear me sing something other than ‘Bring Him Home,’” he says with a chuckle.

“But ‘Bring Him Home’ is on the album.”

Info and tickets for Les Miserables at the Straz Center: Visit the website.






















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