Paul Truckey Q&A
lead actor/ “Jean Valjean”
Paul Truckey: the voice of Broadway at NMU
With past theatrical hits like “Legally Blonde” and “Peter Pan,” the Forest Roberts Theatre has been putting on yearly student shows of productions that have once appeared on Broadway for over 20 years.
This year, one of the most well-known Broadway plays in history will be gracing the stage within the same building: “Les Miserables.”
Not only that, but the NMU production will be reviving one of the original voices from the 10th Anniversary Broadway cast of “Les Mis” with associate professor Paul Truckey seizing the reins of the lead protagonist, Jean Valjean.
Cody Boyer, The North Wind’s editor in chief, sat down with Truckey en lieu of the upcoming November performances to talk about his return to the show after traveling with the National Touring Companies and appearing in New York.
NW: Going into the upcoming performances here at Northern Michigan University, what is your personal experience with “Les Miserables”?
PT: “My background with the show goes back for a long time. I started doing this show in 1995 and my 30s were basically Les Mis. I started doing it on the road in road productions. I had initially auditioned for it in Salt Lake City, Utah and they liked me, but they didn’t have an opening. I was despondent. I was like, ‘Aw, I was going to get it,’ but I didn’t get it. Then they said I had to come to New York, so I moved to New York. They saw me again and they hired me. After that, I was right out on the road with the show. The first place I got to perform was El Paso, Texas. That actually wasn’t the first time that I went out on stage. That’s where I met up with the tour. We are talking about a national tour, for people who don’t know. We are talking about a show that is exactly like the Broadway show. It’s basically the Broadway company on the road. It’s managed by the same company; we were managed by a company called Alan Wasser Associates. The company measured for all of Cameron Mackintosh’s shows, like ‘Phantom [of the Opera]’, ‘Miss Saigon, and all of the shows that were running at the time. They all put on a roadshow that is equal to a Broadway show, so when you are seeing it in a town near you it is the same thing you are seeing. It’s a genius way of being able to bring Broadway to somebody in Iowa who can’t get to New York City. Anyway, that’s where I met up with the tour.
I did that for two years. The first time I went on was in San Diego, Calif. They spent a couple of weeks with the show and they put you in, so you are new person coming in with people who have been doing this show for two or three years, so that’s always kind of wild to be stuck into that mix. Everyone always cheers for you and they are really rooting [you on] and they are pushing you in different places. If you are not in the right spot, they just move you over a little bit. After 10 or 20 years into the show, you know and now you are an old hand. I did that for two years, on the road. We played everywhere in America. I called it the ‘Golf America Tour’ because every daytime was free so I golfed everyday and then do the show at night.
It’s a grind, though. Tour was a grind especially because, in most cities, they don’t necessarily garner to huge markets. We might be in San Diego, which is bigger like L.A. or San Francisco, but if you go to somewhere like Scranton, Penn. or Syracuse, you don’t do a normal schedule. You do four-show weekends, so you do two shows Saturday and two shows Sunday, which is a killer because a show generally ran 3 hours and 20 minutes long. That’s a long day of singing, so it’s a little better in New York.
So, yeah, I toured for two whole years, which was a great experience. My wife was with me and she was ‘the child wrangler’ because we had kids in the show. There were two boys and two girls at all times because they would have to rotate since they can only do four shows a week, legally, at their age. She would have to keep watch over them when they weren’t on stage and traveling school and everything. I played everywhere. It was great. I got to perform in all of these grand theatres and, oh gosh, everywhere: St. Louis, L.A., San Francisco (like I said), Seattle and Vancouver. We played in Honolulu for two months. It was a great experience.
So then, from there, I was done, I thought. Two years of doing that…you know, you are living out of a suitcase. It’s nice; you find some nice hotels. Still, it’s like, ‘Okay, I’ve kind of run my course here and I want to do something else.’ So I gave what is called ‘your notice’, which is a four-week notice before you leave the show so they can have time to find another replacement to bring in. I gave my notice and about two days after I gave my notice (one or two days, I can’t remember exactly), we were in Detroit doing the show. I thought that was the perfect place because I could always just get up to Marquette then after I was done because I didn’t know where I was going from there. I wasn’t living in New York. I was just living on the tour. That was it. I didn’t have an apartment. I didn’t have a permanent address. The permanent address I had was Las Vegas because that’s where we had our home and I had my wife. She’s from there. I wasn’t intending on going back there. I was going to get married. We had a honeymoon planned and everything.”
NW: How did you get to Broadway following the fact that you gave your notice from the National Touring Company?
PT: “They called me into the office and they said that the role that I was playing was open on Broadway and they wanted me to come to Broadway, which was huge for me. That’s what I was shooting for my whole career and it was very rare that somebody came off of the tour and got moved to Broadway. There was only about one or two people in the whole time that I remember who ever did that. They wanted me and a lot of your career is always based on timing and I guess that word ‘luck’. I was lucky. The guy, he left. He gave his notice at the same time and they called me. They were great to me. I went into town and they granted me my two week honeymoon. I was in town, did the show for about a month and we left and went to Italy for two weeks and then came back. I did the show there for four more years in New York.”
NW: Being on Broadway during that time period for you must’ve been something else. Could you tell us some more about your experiences once you made it to actual Broadway productions?
PT: “I’ve had some great, great experiences with this show. I was fortunate to be part of what was considered the ‘original company’ of Les Mis, which opened in 1987. I hope I’m getting my dates right. Check it on the computer before run with it. (Laughter) That was right at the cusp of the 10th Anniversary that they did. Ten years…there was a big ‘to-do’ in The New York Times. The directors came in and the producer, Cameron [Mackintosh] and the directors were John Caird and Trevor Nunn came in from London and they saw the show and said it was ‘tired’. They said there was a lot of people in it that were hired ten years early when they were casted as students and now, they were 20 and now they are 30 and they don’t look like students. They were bald and they had beards. It was there way of wanting to revamp the show and give it press and so they did this whole 10th Anniversary thing where they basically cleaned house. It was a big ‘to-do’ because, with the union and everything, it was a tough thing to do.
And it worked. It was a huge success. They closed down for five weeks. Actually, I should backtrack here because we actually..I got to play in Broadway before with the show because when they closed down, we were in Providence, Rhode Island. They said they were going to be closing Les Mis for five weeks to re-rehearse it and reopen a new company of it. They took the tour and we came to Broadway for those five weeks because they didn’t want to stop the run. In Broadway, your consecutive run is a big deal. You never want to close the show because you want to set the record. ‘Phantom [of the Opera]’ has the record and nobody’s going to beat that. So we came into town for five weeks and got to play at the Imperial Theatre and they advertised it as ‘The National Tour Company on Broadway’. They are great at promoting everything. And so that was it. I thought that was about it and I thought I got my chance and I performed on Broadway and dah dah dah. But then I got in the company. That was a part of the whole 10th Anniversary thing. I got to work with some incredible people and some other really interesting things happened.”
When they restaged the 10th Anniversary, we had to restage it on the road, also, to match that show because it always had to match it. So when we staged it, there were a lot of scenes that were changed and cut, so we rehearsed all day long and performed that night and we would put in all of the changes. That was one thing we did. When I was in New York, they discovered that, over 16 years, we had the longest running show, timewise. Our show would go down to 11:15 [p.m.], right? All other shows were over by around 10:30 [p.m.], and the problem with that is when you go over 11 o’clock, you go into overtime. Not the actors, but the musicians and the stagehands make overtime if they go over one second passed 11. They had realized that, over that time, they spend around $16,000,000 in overtime money, so they wanted to cut the show back and make it go down to before 11 o’clock. All of the creators came in, including Nunn, Caird and Mackintosh, and we literally during the daytime rehearsed and cut 25 minutes off of the show. We cut music, shortened scenes and did all of this other stuff. Again, it was all apart of this big ‘to-do’. They used it for advertising. It was a wonderful marketing tool. ‘Now come and see it again: the shorter version.’ We would come in then at 10:58, literally, but it was an incredible experience to be able to cut from…to sit there with the creators who wrote the music and say ‘Okay, so we are going to cut this and this and I’ll sing that. Does this work great? Does that work great?’ You were a part of the whole new creative process of developing the piece. That was very, very exciting.
Sometimes it would come down to, like, 10:59 and there would literally be a timer where the conductor was. We would be coming out for our bows and sometimes there wouldn’t be any music playing while we are bowing because all of the musicians would be packing up. They would say ‘No music for the bows today’ because that would take us over 11 and you wanted the musicians out by 11 so you didn’t have to pay them. All the business stuff, you know? (Laughter) So everyone would be doing their bows in silence and we’d be like ‘Oh, man, what a drag.’”
I was just really, really excited to be a part of that original company and all of that. I was very fortunate. I did the halftime of the NBA All-Star Game. We got to do a whole Broadway halftime show and that was great. The Today Show, I did several times so it was a lot of great stuff.”
NW: So throughout all of your travels and experiences with the show, what characters were cast as and what was your personal take on them?
PT: “I was always the understudy for the role of Inspector Javert. I understudied two roles; I understudied that and I understudied Thenardier also. My mainstay role was Grantaire, the drunk student, which is a wonderful role to have because you get some great moments; comic relief, but then also some really, really poignant moments with the triangle between Enjolras and Marius. Grantaire is the older student, the conscientious objector of the students who tends to like to drink a lot. What’s nice about that is Enjolras is kind of this idealistic, young, aggressive revolutionary who just wants to go for it and Marius, of course, is the dough-eyed [character] who follows him around like a puppy but still is going to go along. [Enjolras] is like the bigger brother. Grantaire really is the word-of-reason. He mocks these things but he is also saying ‘Hey, what are you guys doing? This is ridiculous. We can’t beat the French army. This is silly. Why die for this?’ That was a really nice role to have.”
I also had a lot of nice little bit parts in there, but where I would get to play Javert was usually about once a week. Javert would get what is called a rotation. They would only have to do seven shows a week, so you would always go on once a week. There were many times where I would play him for two or three weeks at a time. If someone took their vacation, I’d play him for two weeks straight. Sometimes, if they were switching over to a new Javert, they would always…the people on principle contracts, like the Javerts, Valjeans, and Fantines, they sign a different kind of contract and their contracts are limited. My contract…the only one that could end it was me. It was a run-of-the-show contract, but theirs’ might be six months or a year. When it was up, the producers might say ‘Okay, well, thanks. We loved you but we want to go with somebody else so we can bring a name in play the role.’ The problem is, when you do that, you have to create all new costumes for them and all of these things so it might take a month for them to actually get in. So, I would play the role the whole time. I would just move over to that role and play it. I did that on the tour, too.”
NW: So how does it feel to be playing the protagonist, Jean Valjean, after playing the antagonist, Inspector Javert, for so long?
PT: “When I am doing Valjean, it’s interesting to see Javert from the other side. As Javert, you are always the aggressor. You are the antagonist and not the protagonist. You are definitely always going after…you are like a bulldog constantly, constantly searching for this man because of what he believes is right. Doing that, being stuck in that vein and now being on the other side and watching Javert go after me that way when I’m now trying to pursue other things like pursue a life of goodness and to make things right in the world and to try to be righteous…having that obstacle is interesting to watch now from my…the ‘cheap seats’.
The funny thing about Javert and I shouldn’t say anything disparaging about Inspector Javert is that he only has 28 minutes on stage. The nice thing about Javert is when he is on, he is doing it and he never stands around, listening to anyone else. When he is done singing, he is offstage. Valjean is the whole show. I’m not taking anything away from doing Javert. It’s difficult but it’s nice because you walk on, you say what you have to say, and then you leave. You never stand there. You never have to stand on the barricade for 45 minutes listening to other people sing, so yeah. It’s a real peach-role to have. It’s nice.”
NW: Going from “Les Mis” on Broadway to the stage at Forest Roberts Theatre, how does it feel?
PT: “I’m awfully fond of saying that theatre is no different to me anywhere I do it. It’s not and I mean that. I’m not trying to be nice. When a play starts and I am on the stage, it doesn’t matter where I am. It’s the play. That’s the way it is, whether there are 2,000 seats or there are 50. The play is the play is the play while I am doing it. I remember as soon as we hit those first chords when we were in rehearsal with the Chain Gang coming out, which I am part of, it was like putting on an old shoe. I was just like ‘Here I go again’ and I’m right into it, but then I’ve done the show almost 3,000 times so I know it. It’s part of me. I know the show better than I know my children. It’s just in there. It doesn’t take anything to drum up all of those feelings right up because I’ve had so many experiences with it. So, whether I am on the Forest Roberts stage or I’m at the Fox in Atlanta with 4,000 seats, it’s no different. It’s the same thing because you are only operating within the context of the stage and the stages are about the same size. That’s where my life is going on and where the story is being told. All the seats out there really don’t matter, sizewise. I’m not paying attention to them. I’m in the story. When I break out and sing some solos, I look out and the house is bigger or it’s lit different and all of that but it doesn’t feel any different to me at all. It’s the same thing.
The students are fantastic. I’m going to tell you right now that everybody should get tickets to see this thing because it is going to be awesome, and not me. The kids are incredible. I’m not kidding you. I sit out there at night and I’m listening and they sound exactly like the Broadway show. No difference. They are great. It’s really, really going to be good. Tell everybody to come out and see this because you’ll be sad if you don’t. We ran the first act (two weeks ago) and it was really rolling and we had only rehearsed 10 days. They are just all over this thing. There is a lot of excitement.”
NW: What kind of play is this, from your perspective, to those who don’t have any knowledge about it? How difficult is it for students who are in the cast?
PT: “They like to quote it as one of the ‘pop operas from the 80s’, one of these things that came out like ‘Phantom’, ‘Miss Saigon’ and others that are all through-song and through-composed pieces without dialogue. All singing. In a way, it is like an opera because of that but, at the same time, it’s got all of this patter, this recitative that opera doesn’t have. Opera is often focused at the circus act of all of these notes that you can sing and all of these…you know. Les Mis doesn’t do that. It does have poppier tunes, but it is all through-composed so it is a great challenge for all of the students to act through song for an entire show. It’s very comfortable to do it. It never through me. After a while, you don’t even really feel like you are singing because you are doing it so much that feel like you are really just speaking dialogue excluding some of the solos when you have hit some of these notes. A lot of it is just da-da-dadada-da-da-dadada…you won’t be on the same note for several measures, just saying the same words on different pitches.”
NW: In the show, there is a great deal of emotional content and, therefore, there must be some great experiences with that. Do you have any moments from your career with the show that really stick out in your mind?
PT: “I remember we had man named Robert (“Ro-BEAR”) Marion playing Valjean and he was the man they hired for the 10th Anniversary number. Robert Marion is French and he actually goes all the way back to the Paris conception of the show before Cameron Mackintosh got a hold of it and the company made it into Les Mis. You can actually listen to some of it. It doesn’t sound anything like the Les Mis that we know. He was part of that as Jean Valjean. So they hired him on and he was one heck of an actor. He was just this burly Frenchman and he was just incredible. Then he was done. His contract was up so he had his final night and final performance. Well, everybody had been with him through the 10th Anniversary during the whole creation, re-creation of the show. He’d been there for about two years and you got to know him very well. You really grow into hearing that performance all the time. So, he was singing ‘Bring Him Home’ and he starts and, of course, he’s French but he is singing the show in English. We are all there and we were all thinking ‘Wow, Robert’s last show. He’s singing.’ Everybody in the audience knows it is his last show. Halfway through the song, he starts singing in French and it was unreal. I’m telling you, the audience fell to pieces. Everybody just fell apart because he started singing in his own tongue and his own voice. The song just soared like it never soared before when he sang it and we all thought he was making a mistake. We were like ‘What’s he doing?’ He was singing it in French. The whole thing. That was one incredible experience I had, and I had many like that that I got to experience in the show, itself.
As far as the show, itself, and moments that I think are really, really poignant, it’s incredibly emotional for me. Even last night, I was falling apart in a lot of moments during the show. This show is a gift because the older you get, the more you learn about it and there is always a role for you to play. Now I’ve grown into finally being able to play Jean Valjean. I couldn’t play him 15 years ago but, now, I can play him. I’m a dad. I know what it is. I know what loss is. All of those things are inside of the show and I can feel those things. They are just there and I don’t have to jumble them up when you get to that moment. It’s just there and you are like ‘Wow, I know what this is,’ like when Fantine’s dying or when I’m saying goodbye to Cosette. That’s something I wouldn’t have had 15 years ago. It’s all immediate. There isn’t a whole lot of acting involved, actually. It just kind of comes out.”
NW: How did your casting as Jean Valjean occur and what was the process behind NMU’s decision to do “Les Mis” this year?
PT: “We meet every year at the end of the year and we decide what we are going to do next season. We always need at least one show that is going to be a hit. Last year, we had Legally Blonde. Anyone see Legally Blonde? (He asks the occupants of the office) You should have all seen it. It was a blast. (Kind of shouting now) This is what I’m saying, folks. With about 10,000 students on campus and the smallest population that attend our plays are students. I’m telling you, not just because I’m just some theatre geek, it’s because it is a blast. Better than a night at the frat house, let me tell you. I can guarantee you that. Guarantee it.
We also have to end up doing experimental plays because we are trying to train our students, so those might not draw up an audience but we have to do one because we also serve the entire theatre population of Marquette. We are like the 800 lbs. gorilla for theatre here, right? So we were looking and we had a musical decided on but then Les Mis became available. It only became available last year. It has never been available for people to do, only for young groups like the ‘Junior Edition,’ as they like to call it. The ‘Student Edition.’ You have to be 18 years or younger and you can’t be professional to do it. Well, they finally released the full rights in America for any company to do, the full show, so everybody’s jumping on it. We were there and I was like, ‘Well, Legally Blonde was so successful. It made us money. We need it. What are we going to do?’ We had a musical we had picked but it really wasn’t something that was going to be a big audience-draw. We are at the meeting and I said, ‘Folks, why don’t we do Les Mis and I’ll do it? I’ll be in it.’ Then Shelly [Russell] said, ‘You’ll be Valjean.’ I think I was waiting for someone to give me permission to do it. The reason is because I think it will sell and I think it will sell huge. The audiences recognize it. The movie had just been out so everybody knows it by the movie even if they haven’t seen the Broadway show. They know what the story is. You know it is going to be a huge, huge sell. (Starts talking to the NW staff again) Tell everybody to come. Please. We want to sell this thing out.
Also, we we are under a timeline because the show is going to reopen on Broadway in March. When it opens on Broadway, they are going to take the rights away and no one will be able to do it again. So who knows when or if we would ever be able to do it again? Once it reopens back on Broadway, trust me, it’s going to run for years and no one will release the rights. So that’s how that came about and then we just dove in. It comes as great expense to us because we have to front all of the royalty money and the royalty money for this show is extreme so we are taking a gamble that we will be able to sell those seats out to get the money back.
The cache is, with me in it and with me having done the show in New York, in some sense, you are getting some of the New York show in our show. I think that’s one of the reasons to do it. I think that it is also a good educational reason for the students, this show. It’s tough. It’s a grind. It’s not easy to do and they are really going to have to crank it out. I think I can hopefully set a good example for them to say ‘This is what it is like. This is what it is like to do this thing.’ You want to do this for a living? Here you go. Audiences already love the show, anyway. So many people know or have already seen it.
I’m really excited to bring this show here. I’m a Northern kid, you know? I graduated from this place 25 years ago and went off and did all of these things. Now I’m back here and doing the show here in Marquette. It’s no different than doing it on 46th Street, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the same thing.”