Desperate acts spawned from poverty, including prostitution and theft, mixed with social rebellion and love triangles might not seem likely material for a high school musical, but as School for the Creative and Performing Arts senior drama major Colton Ryan says, "Art is art."
Ryan is one of two students to play hero Jean Valjean in the Lexington's school's production of Les Misérables: School Edition, a truncated, less bawdy version of the vaunted 1980s musical based on Victor Hugo's epic novel about social upheaval in 19th-century France. The show opened Thursday at the Lexington Opera House and continues through Saturday.
The school edition is trimmed for younger audiences and performers, but that doesn't make it any less epic in its own right, both onstage and backstage.
SCAPA drama teacher and Les Misérables director Alberta Labrillazo says student cast and crew exceeds 100, and that's not counting the legions of parents and volunteers who work behind the scenes building sets, sewing costumes and shuttling youngsters home from each day's two-hour after-school rehearsal.
"You want to have a big cast for a big sound, but along with that comes a lot of costumes and the logistics of getting all of these kids who have lessons and recitals together," says Labrillazo, who first directed the school edition of Les Misérables in 2005.
Adding to Labrillazo's logistical challenge is that she works with not one but two casts.
"We have a deep pool of talent to choose from, so by double-casting, it gives more students an opportunity to play these roles, and also it's a security net in case one of our kids gets sick," she says.
"The other thing is this show has huge sets, and that has been a challenge," she says.
Labrillazo and set designer Rick Peterson didn't undertake constructing the famous rotating stage frequently used by Les Misérables productions, but they do take advantage of the Opera House's space, flying in huge set changes, some of which have been recycled or repurposed from previous shows.
The logistical and technical components of mounting an epic show like Les Mis aren't the only challenges SCAPA students and teachers are embracing. There is also Claude-Michel Schönberg's music.
"I've been doing this (SCAPA) since the sixth grade," says the other Valjean, SCAPA senior and band major Joseph Wrightson, who says that he has been involved in as many musicals as possible.
"This one is definitely a lot more difficult because the music is very complex," he says. "We spent at least three weeks just working on the music."
"The entire script is sung," Labrillazo says, and that requires students from varying artistic backgrounds to develop the singing chops and physical endurance required to sustain the two-hour performance.
Labrillazo turned to SCAPA alumna Stafford Hartman to vocally coach the large cast. Since her role as Fantine in the 2005 version of the show, Hartman graduated from Oberlin College and sang with the Memphis Opera.
"She sings every part with the kids, and that has been very helpful," Labrillazo says.
She says that even though the themes of Les Misérables are adult, students can identify with their characters' universal struggles.
"It doesn't matter if you're a teenager," she says. "You can still relate to caring about someone and not being loved back or wanting something and not being able to have it or experiencing an injustice or being redeemed."
The school edition of the show trims some of the more risqué verses, but there is no avoiding certain fundamentals, such as that one of its lead characters, Fantine, is a prostitute.
"I found ways to still be true to the text but to keep it as G-rated as I could," Labrillazo says, adding that parents who bring students to the show ought to "have a conversation" about the material.
"The purpose of the theater is to entertain, but it's also to teach," she says.
Clark Davis, a sophomore drama major, and Sydney Jahnigen, a senior vocal major, both play Fantine, a role that recently earned Anne Hathaway an Oscar for her performance in the recent film of Les Mis.
Neither feels pressured to imitate or compete with Hathaway.
"It was helpful to see how she played it," Davis says, "but I didn't ever feel any pressure to be like her, because the stage and film is so different."
"It's always great to see another interpretation of a part," says Jahnigen, who saw the film three times. "The movie coming out has really helped us.
"It's gotten more people excited, more people knowledgeable about Les Mis. We've worked very hard to meet everyone's expectations, and we hope we're going to surpass them."
IF YOU GO
'Les Misérables: School Edition'
What: The School for the Creative and Performing Arts' production of an abridged "school edition" of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and Herbert Kretzmer's 1980s Tony Award-winning musical based on the 19th-century novel by Victor Hugo.
When: 7 p.m. March 28; 8 p.m. March 29; and 2 and 8 p.m. March 30
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: In advance: $14 adults, $12 students with ID. At door: $15 adults, $13 students with ID. Available at (859) 233-3535, Lexingtonoperahouse.com or Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.
Learn more: www.scapa.fcps.net
A HISTORY OF 'LES MIS'
Key moments in the history of Les Misérables.
1845: Victor Hugo writes Les Misérables.
April 3, 1862: First two volumes of Les Misérables are published in Paris and Brussels.
1863: Hugo's son Charles Victor Hugo and Paul Meurice first adapt the novel for the theater
May 26, 1885: Victor Hugo dies
1935, 1952, 1958: Non-musical film versions are released.
1978: Non-musical TV movie debuts starring Richard Jordan as Jean Valjean and Anthony Perkins as Javert.
1980: The French-language musical opens at the Palais des Sports in Paris.
1985: An English-language Les Mis opens on London's West End at the Barbican Arts Centre with Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean and Patti LuPone as Fantine. LuPone wins an Olivier Award for best actress in a musical.
1986: Musical debuts at the Broadway Theatre in New York with Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, Frances Ruffelle as Éponine, Michael Maguire as Enjolras and Randy Graff as Fantine.
1987: Broadway production wins eight Tony Awards, including best musical. First U.S. national tour is launched.
1988: Wins Grammy Award for best original Broadway cast recording.
1995: Musical celebrates 10th anniversary with a concert at Royal Albert Hall in London.
1998: Non-musical film debuts starring Geoffrey Rush as Javert, Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, Uma Thurman as Fantine and Claire Danes as Cosette.
2000: Non-musical TV miniseries premieres starring John Malkovich as Javert and Gérard Depardieu as Jean Valjean
2003: Broadway production closes after 6,680 performances.
2004: London production moves to the Queen's Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, where it is still playing.
2006: Les Mis re-opens on Broadway, this time at the Broadhurst Theatre, where it played until 2008. Musical turns 21 and becomes the world's longest-running musical, surpassing previous record-holder Cats.
2010: Two sold-out 25th anniversary concerts are held in London and broadcast in movie theaters around the world. The recording is available on DVD.
Dec. 25, 2012: A musical movie of Les Misérables is released with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, Anne Hathaway as Fantine and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. It has grossed over $148 million in the United States so far.
January-Feburary 2013: The 2012 movie is nominated for eight Oscars and goes on to win three, including best supporting actress for Hathaway.
March 22, 2013: DVD of the 2012 movie is released.
SOURCES: Lesmis.com, Imdb.com, published reports
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.