Yearning to be miserable

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Lucinda Breeding/DRC
Deborah Beltan performs during Music Theatre of Denton auditions at the Campus Theatre.
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Music Theatre of Denton auditions pack the house with hopefuls

James D. Laney said he was ready for a big turnout.

The director of Music Theatre of Denton’s fall show, Les Miserables, said the musical has a special place in the hearts of musical theater performers.

Laney is himself a fan of the musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and Herbert Kretzmer.

“It was back around the time that I’d finished my doctorate that I went to New York and saw the show with my parents” in the ’80s, Laney said.

The English-language staging of Les Miserables debuted on Broadway in 1987. Laney was among the first in the country to see what’s become one of the most popular musicals in theater history.

“I remember after curtain call, I looked over at my parents and said something like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a hit.’ My parents weren’t so sure, but I had a feeling about it,” he said.

Laney, a familiar performer and volunteer in Denton’s theater scene, said his concept for the show is to examine all of the degrees of loss and absence it contains.

“I kept coming back to the song in the show ‘Empty Chairs, Empty Tables,’” he said. “There are going to be a lot of empty chairs and tables throughout. We’re going to have projections of chairs falling and going every which way. I want to really focus on those things.

“People come in and out of our lives, because of circumstance. And not just the students at the barricades. Jean Valjean loses family through his own incarceration. Fantine has to leave her child. Javert’s loneliness. All of these people are haunted by empty chairs and empty tables. They are suffering.”

Music director Arturo Ortega, who was the musical director for Music Theatre of Denton’s stagings of The Color Purple and Monty Python’s Spamalot, also expected a massive turnout for auditions.

“One thing I hear is that this is a bucket list show,” Ortega said. “It’s not something people who do musicals look at as something to do. They don’t look at this show as something to add to their resume, just for experience. This is a dream of theirs.”

Ortega said he expected the auditions to bring singers with musical theater experience and singers with choir and opera training. He was right. On the first of two nights of tryouts, nearly 70 singers arrived and filled out audition applications. Some attached professional head shots to their applications.

About a dozen children arrived, all hopefuls for the roles of Cosette, a young girl left in the care of an unscrupulous pair of innkeepers; Eponine, the pair’s daughter; and Gavroche, a street urchin who is the innkeepers’ abandoned son.

The adults who auditioned hoped to make the chorus and the leading characters in the musical version of the famous Victor Hugo novel.

It’s an epic story. Jean Valjean commits to a new moral life after violating his parole from a brutal French prison. Inspector Javert is consumed by his pursuit of Valjean. Fantine is a worker in Valjean’s factory who becomes a beneficiary of Valjean.

As Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, and Eponine grow, they are drawn into the revolutionary movement and to the young men who want to challenge the French aristocracy.

University of North Texas music student Malcolm Payne hushed the room when he sang part of the song “Stars.”

“Oh my God,” someone whispered when his baritone punched the final note with effortless vibrato. Payne was cast as Javert.

A similar response met little Madison Verre when she sang “Castle on a Cloud” from the musical. A loud cheer went up when her confident and clear soprano trailed off. She earned the part of Cosette.

In spite of the apparent competition for roles, the performers and directing team were supportive. Children’s tryouts elicited cheers, and when adult performers forgot their lines, they were urged to start over.

A few performers were stricken by stage fright and tried to sing their audition songs on the wrong note.

“It’s OK,” production voice coach Becky Jones said when one college-age man got off on the wrong note. “The note is right heeeeere,” she sang.

The performer found his note and followed through with his audition.

Assistant director Aileen Stark said performers weren’t alone in their anxiety during the two days of auditions.

“I don’t think people know this,” she said just a few hours before callbacks, a third audition in which the directing team can take another look at promising performers. “But this is just as nerve-wracking for us.”

Facebook was buzzing after the auditions. Lots of performers and their friends posted status updates reporting “crossed fingers” and hopes to take on “the role of a lifetime.”

The cast and crew will rehearse the show for the next two months. The musical runs from Oct. 17-26 at the Campus Theatre. Fans of the show can learn more at

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.

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