U-M Musical Theater Student Makes National Tour Debut in “Les Misérables”

Haley Dortch, a musical theater major at the University of Michigan, didn’t have an agent, didn’t have a manager, and didn’t belong to the Actors’ Equity Association

Yet that didn’t stop Dortch, 20, from auditioning for the national tour of Broadway’s “Les Misérables,” the sixth longest-running Broadway production of all time based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name. 

“Why not? The worst they could do is say no,” said Dortch, a Texas native.

For the last several months, Dortch has portrayed Fantine, the lead female character of “Les Misérables.” She has taken a leave of absence from U-M to tour.

Fantine is an impoverished factory worker who loses her job and turns to prostitution. She has an illegitimate daughter named Cosette, whom she places in the care of reformed criminal Jean Valjean upon her death. Valjean is relentlessly hunted by Inspector Javert. Along the way, Valjean and Cosette are caught up in the Paris Uprising of 1832 where a group of rebels attempts to overthrow the government. Fantine appears before Valjean at the end when he dies and guides him into Heaven.

Dortch is looking forward to performing at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit from Dec. 20 to Jan. 8, 2023. She isn’t the only Michigan connection in “Les Misérables.” Rochester Hills native Steve Czarnecki plays Brujon. Detroit native/Broadway vet Nick Cartell returns to the role of Valjean, which he played for two and a half years pre-pandemic. 

“I’m so excited,” said Dortch. “Ann Arbor became such a home to me these past few years. I simply love it. I’m going to be staying in Ann Arbor with a friend. I’m very excited to be back in Ann Arbor… I miss all my favorite college spots.”

Initially, Dortch auditioned for the role of the street waif/thief Éponine, given that they’re around the same age. She was asked to come in for callbacks. The casting director asked her to sing Fantine’s songs, including the famous “I Dreamed a Dream.” She was called back again and eventually cast as Fantine, much to her surprise. 

“In my mind, she’s an older character. I’m only 20. I was still 19 when I initially auditioned. I figured they would not want someone that young to play the leading female role in the national tour. I was shocked. I was called back, then I got called back for it and I was even more shocked!  They liked what I did. As I’ve played this role, I’ve realized it’s not about age necessarily. In the book, Fantine is around my age. It’s really about the storytelling and what you convey. Typically, she’s played by older actors because it’s a heavier subject, but I can still do my best as a younger actor,” she explained. 

Dortch spoke about the challenges and the pressures associated with this role.

“It’s been around for nearly 40 years. There’s been plenty of actresses who’ve played this role. I find it a challenge to bring my own self into this,” she said. “It was difficult at first because the show’s been around so long, people want to see it in a very specific way… The director, too, has a very specific vision of what it needs to be. I found myself getting lost in what I bring to this role.”

Dortch continued, “I discovered and am still discovering… it’s not about ‘I need to do this in a specific way because this is how it’s been done in the past,’ but rather I have this lived experience that I’m bringing into this production. If I just tell the story from my perspective as Haley, but still know the story of Fantine and just tell the story as I think it should be told… it brings itself to life on its own through me rather than trying to force something or someone else’s story on to it.”

She also spoke about the challenges of being on tour. She’s on stage eight times/week, which she called “intense.”

“I don’t think until you actually do it, you don’t realize how intense it is. I’d had to put in a lot of work to make it happen. I’ve purchased a lot of products like vocal steamers and vocal nebulizers and some therapeutic things for my body to sustain this. You have to eat clean…I eat things that’ll give me energy in the right way,” said Dortch. “It’s so exhausting, but it’s a miracle to see how my body can sustain doing this eight times/week and still be happy doing it. It’s so hard to do a show eight times/week and stay fully committed to it physically and mentally. Also, you’re traveling all the time. You don’t really get a day off. For the past month, we’ve been in one city/week. When you’re in a city for one week, Monday is your travel day, which is typically your day off.” 

Cartell has been the “saving grace” on this tour, according to Dortch.

“He’s definitely been a father-figure to me; he’s always there when I need help, guidance, anything. He’s ridiculously talented. I find him to be such an inspiration,” she said. “If you just watch anything he does onstage, it’ll bring you to tears because he’s so committed and he’s so wonderful at what he does. It’s a plus that he’s a wonderful human being. It’s also fun to have his family on tour. I love to hang out with them. It’s a tradition of mine when his wife (actress/Detroit native Christine Cartell) and daughter are in the dressing room after I die, I have 45 minutes to go hang out with them and talk and play with his daughter. It’s really fun to have such a special bond on this tour.” 

Her first encounter with “Les Misérables” was seeing the 2012 film adaptation with Hugh Jackman in his Oscar-nominated role as Valjean, Oscar winner Russell Crowe as Javert, and Anne Hathaway in her Oscar-winning role as Fantine. 

“I was quite young when the movie came out,” she said. “I was still in elementary school. I wasn’t 100 percent sure what was going on, but I knew I loved music. I loved ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ which is what I sang for my 6th grade talent show audition… but I did not get in, which is funny because I now I play this role eight times/week.”

She saw “Les Misérables” onstage once in 2018 at what is now called Broadway Dallas in Texas. 

“I remember calling my mom at intermission and telling her this is the best national tour I’d ever seen,” recalled Dortch. “It was such a surreal moment for me because the people I saw in the production I now share the stage with, so it’s really a full-circle moment for me.”

The best part of this tour has been how rewarding all of it has been.

“My goodness…” said Dortch. “There’s been so many amazing things. Traveling is fun. Getting to explore. I would’ve never gone to Milwaukie had I not been on tour.”

Dortch continued, “My favorite part is it’s a release for me. If I’m having a rough day, I can get up onstage and leave it all behind; it’s very therapeutic in a way for me… even though I’m feeling overwhelmed, if I just get on the stage and have a different story to tell, I can release those emotions through it. I find that therapeutic and beautiful – it’s one of my favorite parts. So many people tell me these stories about what my performances mean to them and the things that they’re going through. It’s so sentimental and lovely and I’m glad I can be this person for them and also their emotional release.”

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