10 Questions With Jean Valjean and Javert
Two of the stars of Les Misérables, Robert McDougall who plays Javert and Daniel Belle who plays Jean Valjean, talk about the show, themselves and the power of the show.
1. What inspired you to become a performer?
Robert: I actually was dragged to see John Farnham do his Last Time Tour in Tamworth by my parents, and couldn’t have been less interested. I wanted to be at home watching Star Trek, but after about 20 minutes of him being absolutely hilarious on stage, I got really into it. I went home after the show and devoured the DVD copy of The Main Event (Farnham, Newton John and Warlow) and halfway through Warlow/Farnham singing Granada I said “This is what I want to do“.
Daniel: I was inspired to become a performer largely through the musical influences of my Mum and Grandmother. I also grew up singing with my mates from school.
2. What is your favourite thing to do when you’re not on stage?
Robert: I love a smart computer game. It really switches my mind off. I’ve also become an intense reader of historical websites, WW2, the Cold War, that sort of thing. My housemate and I also have a deep connection with red wine.
Daniel: If I’m overseas I enjoy going exploring and sightseeing depending on where I am. If it’s at home then I love catching up with friends when I have the chance.
3. If you were a song in musical theatre, which song would you be?
Robert: I’m Reviewing the Situation from Oliver? Ha Ha! Tricky question. What Kind of Fool Am I? from Stop the World, I Want to Get Off? I can’t think of one that’s not instantly self-deprecating. Let’s go with The Impossible Dream from Man of La Mancha.
Daniel: I wouldn’t be a song, I’d just be the horn that goes off when people die in Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
4. Tell us about your character…
Robert: Javert is BY FAR my favourite character in Les Mis. He spends the better part of 15 years hunting someone whose original crime is fairly insignificant; purely because he broke parole under Javerts watch. He’s the quintessential, by-the-book hall monitor! I actually relate a great deal. Rules are incredibly important to me, I crave structure and certainty, (picked the wrong industry by the way) and I often find myself irritated or personally affronted when people don’t follow them. There’s a way to behave in society, set down by laws, but also by general social convention, and when these are not adhered to I become instantly irritated, it feels like people are cheating.
Many people view Javert as the villain of the show and I actually think that’s a real misread. Javert is driven by a code of honour; to him obedience to the law and the state is the same thing as morality, while Valjean represents a view where morality is separate from legality. That doesn’t make Javert evil, it makes him rigid, and perhaps a bit anally retentive. It would never occur to Javert to break a law in order to achieve a higher purpose, because for him no purpose can be just if it violates the rules of society. For most of the show he is merely doing his job as he understands it, and certainly not with malign intent, yet this is often misconstrued as malevolent because of his manner. Again I relate a lot.
Daniel: Jean Valjean is an interesting study in the idea of redemption. After being released from 19 years in prison he finds that he cannot escape his past as a thief. In an act of mercy from a bishop Valjean steals from, he is changed and realises the rest of his life will be in service of the debt he owes to the bishop for not sending him back to prison for the rest of his life.
He is a through line that the story evolves out of and is in some ways its heart. I love that he is a character with enormous physical strength who is only ever tested through the strength of his character. It’s a beautiful dichotomy.
5. If you could have dinner with one character from any musical or play, who would it be and why?
Robert: I think I’d actually like to meet Mary Poppins. I’m a teacher in my day job and I suspect we would have some fascinating chats about educational techniques. Also, I really want some of that medicine.
Daniel: I would have dinner with Oliver. He could probably use the feed.
6. Can you tell us what your favourite career moment has been so far?
Robert: Going on for Javert in the Australian production for the first time was pretty magical. The whole cast swamps you at the end of the show and gives you a big congratulatory hug, and I just remember feeling so profoundly grateful, more than I’d ever felt in my life. I had also flown my father down from Tamworth, and he was brought backstage and was crying a lot. It was very special, definitely number one, but there are others.
Daniel: I’ve had quite a few favourite moments but it would probably have to be the first time I ever went on as Valjean in the Australian production. I don’t remember the show. I do remember the curtain coming down and the cast getting in around me to hug me. It was incredibly special.
7. What are you most looking forward to about Les Misérables?
Robert: Daniel and I have been wanting to play these roles against each other since we understudied in Australia, and so we both jumped at the chance when Neil spoke to us about this production. Working with one of your best friends on stage in this way is something people don’t often get the chance to do, so it’s very special. It’s also a wonderful cast and makes a massive sound, so it’s quite exciting to be in the room where everyone is going full blast.
Stars has always been one of my favourite pieces to sing, and I feel I have a much deeper understanding of it now having done the show for so long, so that moment of the show is always very uplifting for me.
Daniel: I’ve done the show a lot and I still am excited by it. I think it would have to be working with Rob McDougall and having Luke Joslin direct it. I think it will be very special.
8. What is it like performing in such an iconic musical and one that is so universal and timely?
Robert: I was told before starting the Australian tour that Les Mis would change my life, and I had no idea how correct that would be. I was a different person coming out of that show than I was going in, and whilst part of that is age and experience, a lot of it has to do with the subject matter of the show. It’s so personal, so emotional and so heavy a piece, that to play it properly we as a cast had to throw ourselves into some very intense emotions on stage in front of each other. It builds bonds that will last a lifetime. People walk out changed from having seen Les Mis in a way few other musicals can boast. The material is also so relevant to our world, our relationships with power and to our relationships with each other. In a world increasingly focused on which of us is the most disadvantaged, the themes of this show have a lot to say.
Daniel: I was one of those teenagers that could sing you the whole show from memory. It is always a privilege and always something I cherish being able to experience.
9. Why should people come and see this production of Les Misérables?
Robert: Luke Joslin is coming at this production with a very clear and honest interpretation of the work, that really shows the world for how it is, not an idealised musical theatre version. There’s a lot of truth in this production that people can take a lot out of. Our musical director is also incredibly competent, and has a record of producing incredibly tight orchestras, a must for a show like this. The cast is stellar, and many of them would have been at home in the professional show. It will truly be a sight to see.
Daniel: I think the design, direction and music will all be very special here. It’s also Les Mis. Isn’t that a good enough reason?
10. If you could describe Les Misérables in 3 words what would they be?
Robert: Stark, hopeful and honest.
Daniel: Powerful, colossal and beautiful.