Alexander Gemignani and Norm Lewisin Les Misérables(© Joan Marcus)
Alexander Gemignani and Norm Lewis
in Les Misérables
(© Joan Marcus)
When Gerard Alessandrini picked up a special Tony Award on October 24 for his work on Forbidden Broadway, he gleefully acknowledged that it was a doubly special day "since Les Misérables is back on Broadway starting tonight." Indeed, Alessandrini has gotten more laughs from his spoof of Les Miz than from almost any other sketch in his show's long history. So why shouldn't he be delighted that the Claude-Michel Schönberg-Alain Boublil musicalization of Victor Hugo's classic novel has returned to the Great White Way a mere three-and-half-years after it closed following a 15-year run?

Naturally, other people are delighted by the show's reemergence for their own reasons, such as the chance to see it for the 248th time. But probably no group of people is happier about this new production than the current cast, an eclectic, multi-cultural mix of performers that includes Alexander Gemignani as Jean Valjean, Norm Lewis as Inspector Javert, Gary Beach and Jenny Galloway as the Thénardiers, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Fantine, Aaron Lazar as Enjolras, and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Eponine.

Gemignani, who was playing the Beadle in John Doyle's celebrated production of Sweeney Todd just a couple of months ago, recalls the moment he got the dream role of Valjean. "When I was offered the job in April, I wasn't supposed to tell anyone except my parents [conductor Paul Gemignani and actress Carolann Page] and my girlfriend," he recalls. "But you can't keep anything a secret in this town for a second -- and, all of a sudden, I was getting all these congratulatory emails."

Not surprisingly, Gemignani was familiar with the piece long before he auditioned: I first saw the show when I was about 12 years old, and I listened to the cast album a lot, singing along with everything. But I never thought about getting to play Valjean, since I'm more of a character guy." Plus, there's the fact that Gemignani is only 27 years old, far younger than Valjean is even at the start of the multi-decade saga. "I can certainly draw on looking at people who are older than I to see how their weight is distributed differently," he remarks.

He's quite excited about tackling the multidimensional character. "I read an abridged version of the novel," he says, "but even there, you get some real insight into his moral struggle. He spends the whole time trying to cleanse his soul for this crime he committed, but nothing ends up being good enough. He's almost Christ-like in his way, and his most intimate relationship is with God. The score is more demanding vocally and emotionally than anything I've ever done. Fortunately, I had a great voice teacher in college, so I have technique to rely on. Still, I used to say I'd never again work as hard as I did on Sweeney, but now I'm eating my words."

Lewis didn't have to audition for the role of Javert. Producer Cameron Mackintosh, who had hired him to play John in Miss Saigon many years ago, simply offered him the part -- a risky move only in that Javert is not traditionally played by a black actor. "Cameron has that sort of eye," says Lewis. "John was originally played by a white guy in London. Here, after you first see me on stage [as Javert] and think 'Oh, a black guy is playing this role,' I hope my acting will take you to a level where it doesn't matter."

So, how does one of the nicest guys in the business prepare to play one of the meanest people in musical theater history? "He's not a bad guy; he just has a purpose," says Lewis with a sly smile. "He believes in the law and the Law of God. If you're not following those rules, you're as low as dirt and you're not going to heaven, and that's that. But I don't necessarily want the audience to like me. I would love to be booed -- for the right reason, of course."

Two more people -- well, characters -- who might earn their share of boos are those thieving inkeeepers, the Thénardiers. Beach and Galloway have previously played their roles, though not together; he did it in Los Angeles 17 years ago, she did it in London 14 years ago. "I was really flattered when Cameron called me," says Beach, who most recently starred in The Producers and La Cage aux Folles, in both of which he appeared in drag. "So I decided it was time to put the frocks back in the closet. What I like about this production and this theater, the Broadhurst, is that the show had become a pageant, but now we're getting the story back to a more human level."

Galloway is making her Broadway debut in the part. "It's a lot of fun to play," she says. "The Thénardiers are the lowest of the low; you can't get any lower than them. But sometimes it can be exhausting, so you need to put some lightness in your life. It's thrilling to work with Gary, who is the most un-bad person I've ever met in my whole life. Casting him was brilliant, because he is so horrible and nasty onstage."

Rubin-Vega has one of the show's smaller if showier roles as Fantine, who dies early in the first act. But director John Caird is getting the most out of the former Rent star. "I die twice in this one," she says, "since I also get to play a street urchin, and he dies too. It's kind of exciting! John told me, 'You don't get to just sit in your dressing room for the rest of the show. We're taking advantage of you.'"

Aaron Lazar in Les Misérables(© Joan Marcus)
Aaron Lazar in Les Misérables
(© Joan Marcus)
Lazar notes that Caird isn't simply recreating his original work. "What's so fantastic about this process is that, even though it's the whole creative team from the original production, we're all cracking the show open, looking at it moment to moment, and rediscovering things," he says. "When you grow up with a show like this, as I did, you think it's all inside you. But once you start working on it, you go, 'Oh my God, I never heard that line before.' I have to say, I don't think I could be having more fun on Broadway -- let alone anywhere else -- than by playing Enjolras."

Lea Michele was to have played Eponine in this production, but she opted instead to recreate her role of Wendla in the Broadway transfer of Spring Awakening. As a result, Keenan-Bolger had just one day off between leaving The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and starting rehearsals for Les Miz. "It was a strange gear shift at first," she comments. "This is such a serious show, and at Spelling Bee we were bouncing off the walls. But it's a great group of people. Alex and I went to college together at the University of Michigan; Aaron and I did summer stock together. And I've admired Daphne, Norm, and Gary from afar as long as I've been in this business."

Asked what's the biggest challenge in playing Eponine, Keenan-Bolger answers, "I suppose it's living up to everyone's expectations. She's such a beloved character, so I hope to do her justice. But it's a really well-written part, and John has been unbelievably good about making us all feel like this show is being done for the first time."