Longevity was probably not on the mind of Adam Hester (’77) when he took the reins in 1990 of the Abilene Christian University Department of Theatre from his ACU mentor, icon Dr. Lewis Fulks (’48). But Hester, now professor and chair, and the late Fulks have largely been the face of ACU’s esteemed program for nearly seven decades. Today, ACU Theatre graduates can be found performing and directing on Broadway, off-Broadway, national tours and in award-winning community theatre around the world. With rehearsals underway for Les Misérables, we caught up with Hester as he began to fine-tune preparations for one of the most anticipated Homecoming Musicals in years. Images seen here were photographed by Jeremy Enlow at a recent rehearsal. Tickets are on sale now for Les Mis, which will be performed Oct 18-20 in the Abilene Civic Center.
After debuting in London in 1985, Les Misérables came to Broadway in 1987 and ran until 2003 – more than 6,200 performances, the fourth longest run in history. The national tour continued far longer than anyone ever imagined. It was incredibly successful, which meant they weren’t going to release rights while the national tour was ongoing. Then a really odd thing happened: they decided to release rights to high schools so actors under 18 years old could be in the production. That meant, essentially, that no colleges could perform it. A Les Mis revival show debuted on Broadway in November 2006 and ran until January 2008, further delaying our opportunity. Without some kind of special connection with the producers, 2013 was about the earliest any university could have this opportunity.
What is the process of determining and acquiring the rights to a particular production?
There are different royalty houses. The three largest ones are Music Theatre International (which holds the rights to Les Mis), Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (which holds all its classic musicals and newer ones like [title of show], which we did in the 2012-13 season), and Tams-Witmark (which holds a lot of the old war horses like My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha and Hello, Dolly!). They gauge pricing similarly, much of it based on how many seats are in the auditorium or theatre house in which the production will play. We pay a fee for each performance, plus the orchestration, music, scripts/text (called librettos) and music scores. A play without music might only cost $60-70 per performance, but Les Mis is about $3,100 for each of the three times we perform it in the Abilene Civic Center. Our Homecoming musical in 2010, Titanic, required the largest fees we’ve ever paid: about $4,000 per show. In addition to royalties, costs also include rental of venue, sets, and costumes, and contracting for lighting, sound, vocal coaching and more, setting our total production budget for Les Mis at about $77,000. Ticket sales are an important part of maintaining our ability to prepare students for excellence. Our Lights Up! fundraiser, sponsored by ACU Theatre alumni for the third consecutive year, enables us to bring in exceptional workshops with theatre professionals, keeping our students’ training at the cutting-edge for the profession.
Our students are our first consideration, so a lot depends on what we think they need, what will best educate them, and what we expect them to encounter when they graduate. We want to make sure we’ve provided a fairly balanced group of musicals for them to be engaged in during a four-year time period. We want to include contemporary pieces, some standards and some different things, stylistically. Then, of course, we’re thinking about providing a balanced season for our patrons, offering variety to suit their interests. A little selfishly, there also are productions we are eager to direct or design as well. Another goal is to present stories that are either redemptive or, if there is darkness in the story, have a good opportunity to discuss the issues with our students and in talk-back sessions with our audience. We have a responsibility to equip students for what this business will be like when they graduate, and prepare them for the realities of professional theatre through a Christian worldview.
One of its compelling aspects is the connection to faith that permeates the story. We have loved discussing the contrast of light and dark, the profound effect the Bishop’s forgiveness has on Valjean, and, of course, the Isaiah passage at the end of the play. The immortal lyrics, “to love another person is to the see the face of God” will forever move me as I’m sure it does so many who have seen the play. The contrast of Valjean’s choice to show compassion to one person against the brutality of the rich and powerful has been important in our discussions. The play pulls no punches illustrating the darkness of women’s oppression forcing them into prostitution (Lovely Ladies) or the debauchery of the Thenardiers (Master of the House). That darkness makes lyrics such as “it is the music of a people who are climbing to the light” resonate with us in a very contemporary sense. The deep, spiritual messages in Les Mis make this THE musical I’ve been waiting to do for more than 20 years.
What are the challenges of doing a stage version of Les Misérables?
For one, each of the actors’ lines are sung rather than spoken. Les Mis is a classic and so dear to so many people’s hearts that we have a little concern about matching the expectations of our audience. Like the upcoming revival headed to Broadway in March 2014, this one will not have the revolving turntable you may have seen in London or on Broadway. The movie version released in 2012 has brought a whole new audience to Les Mis and also did a great job of telling its story. Whether you agreed with the portrayals or the performances – and there are critics everywhere – I thought the movie did a great job of telling the story well. It did alter several things, of course. “Suddenly,” the song performed at the 2013 Academy Awards, was added for the movie and is not in the original version of Les Mis nor in the version we’ll be doing. The movie changed some of the lyrics and took other liberties, such as moving songs from one act to another. “On My Own” and “Can You Hear the People Sing” are examples of that. We are taking extra care of our students’ voices – which we always do – and we are acutely aware they will be constantly singing in Les Mis. I’m especially concerned about the student who plays Jean Valjean, the central character. His role is enormous and he’s on stage for much of the show. There is very little dance to worry about, whereas last year in 42nd Street we had concerns about injuries from the physical strain of all the tap-dancing it required. This one is all about the voice.
I travel to New York about six times a year to see as many shows as possible. I keep notes, read lots of scripts, review Broadway cast lists, listen to albums, and try to stay on top of what’s going on. I receive recommendations on shows from friends; that is really helpful as well. We want to find productions that will be a good fit for our students and our academic program. We especially want to find those that will speak to our mission, which is to provide quality training and opportunity for the disciplined theatre artist in a nurturing environment that models Christian values.
What role does the musical play in a theatre major’s education?
It’s enormous. We have more students on what we call our musical theatre track than any other. The Tepper Semester (a collaborative program with the Syracuse University Department of Theatre to give students the opportunity to live and study in New York City), draws even more students because they are able to train here and then continue their development in New York City. Agents and casting directors are coming to Abilene each year to evaluate our seniors, so the opportunity to perform in Homecoming musicals is huge. The classroom experience is an important foundation, but being on stage is critical. Understanding the often major style differences in each playwright’s musical is an important part of our students’ education.
The one I’m doing at the moment is usually my favorite! I especially enjoyed doing Secret Garden, Evita, Godspell, and [title of show], to name a few. I’ve had so much fun it’s almost impossible to say which were best. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be doing this at ACU for 32 years. I’ve been blessed to direct and get to know some amazing people and productions. Working with my daughter, Jeanavene (’09), and Seth Bazacas (her husband, a 2009 grad, too) was a huge thrill. Students such as Juliette (Miller ’06) Trafton, Laura Seibert (’06), Alex Organ (’03) and Ben Jeffrey (’06) have each had great professional experiences on Broadway, off-Broadway and U.S tours of major shows, and I’m so proud of them. I’ve loved teaming with voice teacher Jeannette (Scruggs ’49) Lipford year after year. When she was a student, Dawne (Swearingen ’95) Meeks choreographed musicals like Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof and now she’s on our faculty and we’re doing Les Mis together – that’s a wonderful gift, too.
If audiences could see a behind-the-scenes view of a production, what would it be and why?
I wish they could see one of our tap-dancing extravaganzas on Saturdays, when our students are ready to sing and dance at 9 a.m. while most of their friends are still asleep. They work all day, take a quick dinner break and often come back to perform a show that evening. I’d like our audience to stand behind our stage managers as they’re calling several hundred cues for lighting and sound and movement of scenery – it’s phenomenal to watch those folks do their work. Seeing stagehands and actors moving huge pieces of scenery backstage is almost like watching a ballet. It’s amazing to watch a person in the makeup room recreate their features into those of characters like Fagin in Oliver, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Seeing large racks at the Civic Center filled with costumes arranged by character, act and scene, including accessories like gloves and earrings, organized or prepared by our wardrobe crew … it is astounding how many details are involved in one of our plays.
You regularly host agents on campus who evaluate the talents of your majors. What do they say about ACU Theatre students?
It’s been rewarding to see the remarkable tenacity of our students who work so hard to be prepared for these opportunities. This past year there was a three-fold increase in the number of agents and casting directors visiting campus. They have learned about the quality of talent at ACU through word of mouth and by seeing our alumni on stage in New York, which makes me so proud and thankful. An actor frequently can’t get an appointment for a TV or film audition without an agent. So instead of us taking students to New York, the agents come here. They love how our students are so prepared, and now that we have improved their dance training, they’re seeing even more success. Agents describe our students’ acting ability as “outstanding” and their singing as “exceptional,” but their dance training was lagging behind. So we’ve made some huge strides in that area. This semester we brought in Kei Tsuruharatani, who dances for the Metropolitan Opera, to train our students. We’ve more than doubled the number of dance classes we offer. And when students are in New York for the Tepper Semester, they can take even more classes from Broadway Dance Studios. We’re getting great feedback from agents, and the proof can be in seen in how they are choosing to represent so many of our students.