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Hugh Panaro: A new Valjean for a new Les Miserables

July 10, 2008

Hugh Panaro: A new Valjean

Hugh Panaro was born in Philadelphia and grew up in the East Oak Lane section of Philadelphia. A La Salle High School and Temple graduate, Hugh has gone on to much acclaim as one of Broadway's leading men. Some long-time Walnut patrons may remember him from A Little Night Music back in 1986. Hugh has played the title roles in The Phantom of the Opera and Lestat on Broadway, toured Europe with Barbra Streisand, and started out 20 years ago as Marius in the First National Company of Les Misérables. We sat down to talk with Hugh about coming back to Philadelphia and playing Jean Valjean, one of the most challenging roles in modern musical theatre.

WST: Tell us how you came to be a part of this production of Les Mis?

I am honestly not sure how I got the audition for the Walnut, but I DID!!

While I had played Marius in the national tour twenty years ago, I hadn't played Jean Valjean, which turned out to be a good thing. Many of those who auditioned had previously played him, so they already had a developed characterization. But I didn't have muscle memory of the role and there weren't habits to break. I knew the music well but I was able to go with my own instincts. I think Mark (Clements) probably saw me as a blank slate to create on. We both really believe in the message of this show and the story it tells. I think I really connected to Mark- we were on the same page. We just clicked! It was really a great moment!

Does Les Mis have such a special spot in your heart for a particular reason?

I love everything about this show so much. Actually a very special friend of mine and my role model for Jean Valjean just passed away last year. His name was J.C. Sheets. It's very strange how all of the sudden these Les Mis experiences have come into my life since then. I had the pleasure of being a part of a concert version in California. He worked on Broadway with me and he was one of the most beautiful actors I've ever seen on stage. He wasn't the strongest vocally, but no one cared because the acting was so magical. Eventually, because of illness he lost his ability to perform, so he became the star dress for Phantom of the Opera. He was not only my dresser but he became a close personal friend and performance coach. I am dedicating my performance as Jean Valjean to him.

WST: With the new envisioning of the production, is there any particular part of the show you can't wait to experience in a new way?

The runaway cart! No matter how many times I've seen it, I always want to see a new way to do it! Whatever we can do to make it better, I am all for it! It's not just about the concept - I am excited to do the show from a whole new point of view.

Do you feel any pressure playing such an iconic character like Valjean who has been played by so many brilliant performers?

I already had an experience with that which has freed me! When I played the Phantom, I played Raul and then came back and did Phantom. Everyone remembers Michael Crawford as the original role model for the part. I realized as I was in rehearsal, that there was no way I could duplicate his character and I shouldn't try. You learn to do your own work. It would have been wrong for me to try to be an imitation because I think that is inauthentic. Audiences are smart and they won't accept it. My version of Phantom ended up being very popular because it challenged them to think outside the box they had grown used to.

I'm a huge Colm Wilkinson fan! He is a big inspiration for me. He's got his accent and very distinctive way of saying things. If I tried to do things like he did, it would be so weird and inorganic for both me and the audience. Everyone would leave the theatre saying "He's just trying to copy Colm" Imitating someone else's performance would be pandering, rather than going with my own truth and it would be very dishonest. I was always taught, "Do your own work as you understand it. Don't try to be anyone else." Everyone's version is valid and in the end it usually comes down to each audience member's personal preferences.

WST: What is it about doing Les Mis that is so exciting for you!?

Les Mis is such a powerful thing. It has started so many people in the theatre. If I can inspire even one person to keep the theatre alive and vital, I will feel like a success. There are many mediums dumbing down our audiences, it is important to keep people interested. Talent might get you a job but training and technique give longevity. My parents were intent on me going to college, get your degree and then pursue. Four years of maturity and growing are a great place to start! But way back a young person, there were shows and performances that inspired me to take that first step towards a career in the arts. I am forever indebted to those people.

Also, I'm so excited to work in my hometown of Philadelphia. There is such a huge base of local talent here that I have not had the pleasure of sharing the stage with. My first show as a professional in Philadelphia was A Little Night Music at the Walnut many years ago and it stills ranks as one of the favorites. It was a very special experience for me. Having done Marius on the national tour here, I kind of feel like things have come full circle for me! And my Philadelphia family will be so thankful to not have to drive so far to see my show!