Pepperdine Dreams a Dream of ‘Les Misérables’

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Marius (Jon Gibson) cradles the dying Eponine (Marina Moore) in this rehearsal scene from the upcoming Pepperdine University Fine Arts Division production of the classic musical “Les Misérables.” The musical runs Nov. 14-17 and Nov. 21-23. 

When Pepperdine theatre professor Cathy Thomas-Grant applied for the theatrical rights to the formidable Schonberg-Boublil-Kretzmer musical, “Les Misérables,” she knew she was taking on a sacred monster. 

For more than 33 years, it has been staged for thousands of productions, won dozens of awards, taken in millions in box office revenue and might have single-handedly renewed the commercial viability of movie musicals, following last year’s smash, Oscar-winning film version. Pepperdine’s production, slated to open this month, will contain nearly all the elements that have gone into creating a show that has run continuously somewhere since the English-language version debuted in London in 1985.

“I tried to get the rights to ‘Les Miz’ for the past 10 years,” Thomas-Grant said. “I jumped on it the minute production rights were offered to universities and got a contract, and then thought, ‘Oh, my God, what have I taken on?” 

“Les Misérables” was published in 1882 by famed French man of letters Victor Hugo. His historical novel told of a felon who breaks his parole and is pursued relentlessly by a government agent, and who eventually sides with anti-monarchist rebels in the Paris Uprising of 1832. The populist tale of redemption and rebellion against the upper classes was critically panned at the time, but caught the attention of oppressed populations around the world. It has been prodigiously adapted to stage and screen, and is considered to be one of the most important novels of the 19th century. 

Thomas-Grant is fully aware of the gravitas of the project. She just arranged a master class for her cast with an actress from the original Broadway production of “Les Misérables.” 

“We are lucky enough to have a live orchestra,” Thomas-Grant said. “And I cast the show entirely from Pepperdine students and one alumnus who is our artist-in-residence this year—Eric Downs, who plays Javert.” 

“Les Misérables” is a demanding show vocally, with a large cast, and Thomas-Grant has juggled to rehearse a group of students who still carry 18 units of schoolwork. 

To Thomas-Grant, the story of a failed rebellion against an oppressive government has remained relevant for 150 years because it speaks timelessly about people living in misery while a different social class just around the corner lives like kings. And yet, there is salvation. 

“Valjean (the hero) has this moment where he can go one way or another,” she said. “But he is shown mercy and sees that his life has been spared so that he can go do good. Javert (the villain) cannot handle learning that his black-and-white world has grays in it, so he kills himself.” 

Much of the story revolves around Valjean’s adoption of a young girl, Cosette, whose mother’s death he feels responsible for. The waif is saved from a life of abuse at the hands of petty thieves, and, as a young woman, becomes the emblem of hope and salvation for a new generation. The young Cosette in Pepperdine’s production is being played by Malibu fifth-grader Bridget Cooper. 

“I saw the movie, but it doesn’t affect how we do our show,” Cooper said. To channel the despair of the young Cosette, Cooper said she just “pretends to be a sad dog, dying.” 

Cooper is no stranger to the stage. She has played roles in “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” produced by Malibu’s Once Upon a Time Children’s Theatre. 

“Eventually, I’d like to play the older Cosette in a production of ‘Les Miz,’” Cooper said. 

Meanwhile, Thomas-Grant says she’s proud of the way her cast has stepped up to the plate with no sense of intimidation of a show with a storied history of production. 

“Working on this musical changes how you look at your own world,” she said. “Like Valjean says, there is a time for us all to decide who we are and what we will fight for.” 

Les Misérables” runs at Pepperdine’s Center for the Arts Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 14 through 16 and Nov. 21 through 23 at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee Sunday, Nov. 17 at 2 p.m. Tickets and more information may be found at http://arts.pepperdine.edu/performances/theatre.htm#lesmiserables