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Student Directors’ Vision Shape Les Misérables

This fall, DSHA took on the heavy-lift production of Les Misérables. In the planning stages of this production, DSHA Theatre Director Rhonda Schmidt had the vision to offer three young women the leadership role of Student Assistant Director. Ale Razo, DSHA ’20, shares her first-person experience as one these directors – and how her research, hard work, and vision helped shaped a show to remember. This piece was pulled from the spring issue of The Word.
One month before May auditions began for Les Misérables, an email appeared in my DSHA inbox with the subject Student Assistant Director Application. This job was completely out of my comfort zone. I knew it would involve working longer hours than the actors and would take a priority in my already extremely busy life. And yet I, Alejandra Razo, class of 2020, knew I had to be a part of this amazing opportunity.
Flash-forward to the first week of school, and what was once just an “amazing opportunity” became a reality. For the next 3 months, I would be working alongside Emma Sedgwick, DSHA ’19, and Alyssa Arnold, DSHA ’19, and the best director I have ever met, Mrs. Rhonda Schmidt (DSHA’s Theatre Director) in shaping the 2018 Fall Musical Les Misérables.
Little I knew of the wonders that awaited me.
One of the most unique parts of the Student Assistant Directors’ job description for this musical season was the opportunity to direct a scene from the show. Before diving into choosing a scene I felt inspired to direct, I had to embrace myself in the story of Les Misérables. For countless hours, I watched different versions of the musical produced by other high schools; I watched interviews of the actors from the 2012 Hollywood movie version; and I watched a documentary on Victor Hugo, the author of this brilliant novel.
Through my research I learned the similarities the book had to Hugo’s own life. The character Marius is the image of the author – from the oblivious nature he had of the world around him to the love triangle he faced. I came to know the truth behind the novel and fell in love with every single part of it. The image I had of Marius from only seeing the movie had completely changed after my research, especially in learning about Hugo’s purpose to show how a person struggles when choosing between fighting for what they believe in, or love.
That gut wrenching feeling of recognizing what Marius had faced is what drew me to portray him as so much more than a love-struck person, and rather as a strong, determined survivor of the saddest French revolt attempted.
Through this realization and recognition of character, I felt the scene The Café Song, more famously known as “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” was the ultimate scene to unveil this interpretation. So I shared my vision for this scene with Mrs. Schimdt. Though initially reluctant to give a student such a big scene, she put her trust in me and let me take the reins.
Her trust alone made me feel so confident that my vision was good and that I would be able to pull this off. I also felt the extra weight of responsibility to represent not only the characters well, but my fellow actors and directors, too.
The process for each of the student directors to block our scenes involved a lot of bouncing off ideas with one another. Emma, director for The Night, wanted to invoke the importance of women in their roles of supplying the rebels with much needed supplies. In this process, we worked as a team in coming up with ideas to aid this vision. Alyssa, director of the Second Attack, unveiled the importance of Gavroche, the young rebel of the revolutionaries.
In my scene, The Café Song, the team truly helped me find the best possible way of showing the emotional toll of war through a unique portrayal of Marius. By showing the revolutionaries (who had previously passed away fighting for the revolution,) present in the café where it all began, I wanted to show the audience how Marius now had to live with their absence – especially through placing the revolutionaries in the exact same spots the characters were in during the “ABC Café” scene earlier in the production.
They each carried a candle as a symbol of moving to a new life. As they walked off stage into the audience, they blew out the candles at the end of the scene; it was meant to show the ultimate feeling of loneliness Marius will forever feel in his life.
My goal for this scene was for the audience to feel invested in this moment and feel Marius’ agony – the way he felt it himself as he remembered and honored the women and men he fought alongside. The reason for the unique portrayal of showing the dead characters back on stage, and having them walk off stage only to blow out their candles, was to provoke thought on the great bravery in not only standing up for one’s beliefs, but also to truly see the consequences that follow when life and death are on the line. Though the revolutionaries knew what they put on the line, the reality of the outcome did not hit Marius until every bit of it disappeared from his life.
This is the meaning of Victor Hugo’s book Les Misérables. It illustrates a life in which we all suffer, and it also shines a hope that love can never end and will forever be the solution. Though in the Café Song Marius’ close friends have died, he still lives on to not only forever remember their legacy, but to continue the fight in their honor.
When I initially shared my vision with the cast, they took the scene with such seriousness and dedication that during the first run-through in the arena theatre, actual chills went up my spine. Within the next several weeks, the actors and I bounced ideas around until the scene became even more than my hoped-for vision.
By the end, some parts had changed but the end result was so much better than the original. Marius, played by Christian Spaay MUHS ’19, was brilliant to work with, for he depicted that version of Marius that I wanted the audience to know and love – the version with depth of soul that I came to know from Victor Hugo himself, not the Hollywood version.
On opening night, nervous about how the audience might react to my scene, I had faith in the actors and in my direction – I knew I had given it my all. I remember the audience holding their breaths as the beautiful song touched their hearts. I even saw a few tears.
The compliments I received on the scene surprised me – I had not expected the scene to have been such an impact to the show as a whole. I was so grateful to share a different side of Marius and share my unique interpretation on this sometimes misunderstood show.
Never being really strong in trusting my instincts or confident in my decisions, the role of the Student Assistant Director changed my life. It showed me how to take ownership of my instincts, my creativity and vision, and allowed me to be a leader to my fellow cast mates.
This position helped build character – both my own, and those in the show – and it shaped the show to truly be a vision from the students.
The new skills of self-confidence, leadership, and owning my voice that I gained from this production will forever and ever help me – wherever life takes me. I will never again be afraid to try something new.
    • This scene from DSHA’s production of Les Misérables called the Café Scene was concepted, blocked, and directed — start to finish — by student director Ale Razo, DSHA ’20, who also performed in the show’s ensemble.

    • Ale Razo, DSHA '20, center, with the other student directors of Les Misérables.

    • Members of the infamous Thenardier gang perform during the Wedding Chorale.

    • Laura Kloser, DSHA '19, performs as a revolutionary alongside Whitefish Bay High School junior Oscar Gregg during Do You Hear the People Sing?

    • The end of the scene Do You Hear the People Sing?

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