Playing the Troublemaker

. July 23, 2013.
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Dexter’s Encore Theatre is presenting Les Miserables until August 18. Stephen West, who plays the role of Javert, is a professor of Music in Voice at the University of Michigan and has had a long and illustrious career in musical theater and opera. He’s appeared in many of the most renowned opera houses in the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Bayreuth, and the Opera National de Paris. Last summer he played Tevye in the Encore’s production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Tevye is such a loveable character. Javert is… not.
This is the wonderful thing about being an actor, being able to plumb the depths of entirely different psychological personages. I, as an actor, call on either personal experiences, or emotions that will feed a characterization. As Tevye, those are usually happy, family things. As Javert I get to find a very concentrated nationalistic sense, a policeman who goes by the book. He believes very strongly that what he’s doing is ordained by God. And the conflict inside him—that turns 180 degrees and then causes him to kill himself—is that life does not play out according to that natural plan he had in his mind. With Tevye, there were tremendous religious struggles, but again, it was all about rules and the way things are supposed to be.

That’s fascinating. Maybe Tevye and Javert are not so different after all.
I hadn’t thought about it until just now, but with Tevye, too, it was about the way things have always been, and always should be, but they don’t end up that way.
But the reason that Tevye is not a tragic figure, like Javert, is that he is able to bend.

Right. He’s able to do that and Javert is not. He’s too rigid. I think it’s a great political commentary on virtually any nationalistic system at any time—you’re going to find elements that do things by the book and they will not bend. I think there’s a pretty strong parallel for that in our own country right now. (Laughter)

Talk a little about the musical differences between these two roles. Fiddler is a musical, but Les Mis is almost opera.
Strictly speaking, this is an opera, because every word is sung. Stylistically it’s different from a grand opera, a Verdi or Mozart, in that it’s a musical theater style. Because of the spoken dialog in Fiddler there’s a much more natural, real way of communicating. In a musical such as Fiddler, or South Pacific, in traditional American musical theater, we speak and our emotions become heightened in whatever we’re saying until we have to sing what we’re saying. (West’s voice steadily rose throughout that last sentence; by the end he was singing.) In Les Mis it’s already at that heightened level. That’s what opera is, already at that heightened level, and Les Mis is just in a different style. I have to act and present it in a musical theater fashion, rather than in an operatic fashion.

Les Miserables runs at the Encore Theater until Sunday, August 18. Encore Theater, 3126 Broad St. Dexter. (734) 268-6200. www.theencoretheater.org