Unfortunately, this time, my understudy love is a little messier. Because just like that Carrie Underwood song about accidentally getting married, I don’t even know his last name. Actually, I don’t know his name at all. All I know is that when he stepped into the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables last week, he popped my West End cherry and it was good. Oh so good.
You can probably imagine my dismay when, just before curtain, I heard an announcement that someone besides Simon Bowman would be playing the role of Jean Valjean. Unused to this announcement business—being a West End newbie and all—I wasn’t paying enough attention to catch the name of the actor. I just knew the most important role in the whole show was being played by an understudy. I was so disappointed that I couldn’t even hide my sadness from my companions, neither of whom had ever seen Les Mis. Terrible, I know.
Well, it turns out my reaction was completely premature and unwarranted. This actor was so good that at intermission my friends and I turned to each other completely agog, and raved. And he hadn’t even gotten to “Bring Him Home” yet! (Which, I’ll have you know, he knocked out of the park.)
Since we had stupidly neglected to purchase a program (discovery: they don’t hand out free playbills on the West End) the three of us spent the next few days trying to figure out who the heck this mystery actor was. He was all we could talk about. After a few trips past the theater trying to see if a board was up, and several box-office phone calls which resulted in zero answers, I’m completely distressed to say I still have no idea who played Jean Valjean at the Queen’s Theater on May 26th. Whoever he was, though—and if you know, please, please tell me—he was absolutely remarkable.
Les Mis is the first musical I fell in love with that stayed open long enough for me to see it again and again and it’s become very special to me. For my Sweet Sixteen, when my parents refused to throw one of those big hideous bashes you now see all over MTV, I took four friends into Manhattan to see Les Mis. When I was a poor college student in 2003, the year Les Mis was closing on Broadway, all I wanted for my birthday were tickets to see it one last time. I’m over-sharing all of this information as a way of explaining the depth of my love for this show, so that when I say this understudy was my favorite Jean Valjean ever, you’ll know what that really means. For me, it’s huge. I have never been knocked sideways by a Valjean like I was last week at the Queen’s Theater.
It’s a shame I can’t name him here. Anyone who is even thinking of seeing Les Mis on the West End should try and catch his performances, and I can’t help guide you in the right direction. Simon Bowman is a big deal, to be sure. My friends and I would have loved him and if you see him, I’m sure you will too. But Bowman’s understudy deserves his due, deserves his own spotlight. He led a production of Les Mis that reduced me to tears more than ever before, and he did so with a heartrending passion and talent that made him the best Jean Valjean I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing.
If anyone reading this has a current program lying around or knows anyone who knows anyone who knows who went on that night, I’m begging you to point me in the right direction. Google has failed me thus far, and I’m dying to know who I saw, if only so I can throw his name up on this site. He may never see it. But it matters to me, anyway, to have the chance to thank him.