Gary John La Rosa’s challenge in staging “Les Miserables” is expectations.
After all, theatergoers have very likely read Victor Hugo’s book, seen a touring version of the musical or sat through the recent ambitious film by Tom Hooper.
But La Rosa started with one assumption: “Challenging an audience’s imagination is a much more exciting way to tell a story.”
The much-anticipated musical opens this weekend at Playhouse on the Square and kicks off the POTS season in grand style.
“The film has changed the perception of the epic,” La Rosa says. “It created an unusual canvas with every eyelash and detail and crowds of thousands so that what was big to begin with became overwhelming. I want to give it a real intimacy and humanity while still being grand and epic in storytelling.”
But he also wants to do it without re-creating someone else’s vision, “so I find my own vocabulary.”
Of course La Rosa can’t replicate a Broadway extravaganza, nor does he want to. “There are technical constraints, the size of the stage, rehearsal budget, size of the company and all that,” he says. “So I’ve tried to find a way to satisfy the audience with certain expectations and be true to the novel and tell a wonderful story in a very heartfelt and accurate way.”
And if it’s not Broadway-big, it’s still going to be impressive.
“I was given the glory of a 31-member cast, which is quite large, and I was given a fine orchestra,” he says. “So it became a question of how to re-envision a show with expectations the audience has in terms of size and scope and yet still find a way to tell it so that it will work in this space — you have to find a way to make it manageable.”
One of his goals is to evoke the time with authenticity. “It’s extremely important to be historically accurate and true to the original piece,” La Rosa says. “We’ve gone to great lengths to educate the cast. I insisted everyone read the novel, which isn’t easy (the word count is 530,982), and we have a dramaturge researching and presenting information daily. We talk about the lives of the people, life expectancy, monetary currency, locations and distances traveled. And not only do we educate the cast about that, but we’re re-creating costumes and set pieces and props that will also be true to the period.”
La Rosa lives in New York but has done plenty of work in Memphis, including winning an Ostrander Award for Best Direction of a Musical for his production of “next to normal” at POTS. He also directed the world premiere of Michael Ching’s opera/a cappella tour de force “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2011.
So, when casting for “Les Misérables,” he was reminded of what he says is the extraordinary talent here. And the payoff has been a great enthusiasm as the show has been coming together. “I get chills at rehearsal,” La Rosa says.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Sept. 15, Playhouse on the Square, 66 S. Cooper. Tickets: $22 opening weekend (Aug. 16, 17, 18), $35 Thursdays and Sundays, $40 Fridays and Saturdays; $22 seniors/students/military; $15 children under 18. For more information: 901-726-4656 and playhouseonthesquare.org.