Nick Cartell remembers sitting in the lobby of an Arizona high school auditorium preparing to do his first-ever show – a kid’s theater production of Pinocchio – when his castmates started talking about this new Broadway show, Les Misérables.
“I knew nothing about it, and they pulled out the soundtrack and started playing it, and I immediately fell in love with it,” he says, never dreaming that decades later he would be playing Jean Valjean onstage.
Cartell is performing as the tragically heroic character in Cameron Mackintosh’s new touring production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Tony Award-winning musical phenomenon, which comes to the National Theatre from December 20 to January 7.
For those unfamiliar with the sung-through musical, Les Misérables is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name and is set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, presenting a story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption. The score features Broadway treasures such as “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” “Stars,” “Bring Him Home” and “One Day More.”
“When you hear the initial downbeat and the first chord [of the first song], audiences start erupting in applause because it fills you with a sense of energy,” Cartell says. “There are characters that people connect with throughout their lives, and it changes as people get older and see the show at different points in their lives. That is why audiences continue to fall in love with this show.”
This is the actor’s second go-around with Les Miz, having played Marius in a regional production about nine years ago. He’s excited about graduating to Valjean, although some may look at him and think he is too young for the role.
“I do read younger than I am,” he says. “Valjean is on the older side when he does get out of prison, but what’s interesting is I still connect with so many different parts of who this character is throughout his entire life. As I do this tour, there’s new things I am finding out about the character every night I step on the stage.”
What Cartell loves about Valjean is the incredible emotional journey he takes starting with his very first scene.
“He has to deal with so much. He really is broken at the beginning of our show. He’s spent 19 years in prison for a crime that should have been a slap on the wrist, and throughout his journey to get to where he is, he’s dealt with so much. His attempt to try and make the world a better place is something I connect with, and I think audiences connect with, nightly.”
Die-hard fans of the original may notice some changes in the new touring version, such as there’s no turntable and some of the characters are a bit more fleshed out, but Cartell feels traditionalists will enjoy the show as much as Les Mis newbies.
“Our production has a much more cinematic feel,” he says. “The designers went back to the drawing board and figured out that Victor Hugo was an incredible artist. They found some of his artwork and are using it as projections throughout the show, which brings so much color into the show and helps to establish the time and place.”
Don’t miss this holiday production of Les Misérables, at National Theatre from December 20 to January 7. Tickets are $48-$98. Learn more at www.thenationaldc.org.
National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.org