Andrew Varela | Les Misérables’ Inspector Javert

theat prof_varela“It’s as demanding as any athletic endeavor because the fact of the matter is that, if you’re really going to get ‘in the pocket,’ you don’t stop thinking, you don’t stop being engaged with your body.”

 

 

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Andrew Varela was heading into a show when we caught up, but we didn’t need a lot of time to talk. He has an extensive website where you can read about his life and career, see interview and performance clips, and, most importantly, hear him sing. I encourage you to check it out because his voice is a surprise and a wonder. The surprise comes from the fact that his speech sounds like just a normal dude, one of your beer-and-baseball buddies, while his singing voice is something quite extraordinary. When I mentioned that to him, he laughingly compared it to “the first time [I heard] Jim Nabors sing. How could Gomer Pyle do that?”

We talked about how he developed that voice, among a number of other topics in a discussion that ranged from opera study to our mutual Eddie Izzard fandom to the TLC program A Baby Story, which chronicled the birth of his and his wife’s (Broadway performer Susan Spencer) now 10-year-old son. Varela’s age isn’t available and I didn’t ask, but he’s still young and has the stamina and range of a musical theater/opera performer at his peak.

Varela was born in Los Angeles but he has lived all over the world, as his father worked in international banking. Both his parents are Cuban refugees who came to the United States in 1962. I asked him what he considered “home,” and he immediately said, “Jersey.” So I asked this authentic “Jersey Boy” what city, and he said a small town called Summit (“Exit 142 off the Parkway”), where his family settled after their postings around the globe. He began singing in middle school choirs and took the lead in high school musicals, even receiving a best actor award for his title role in Pippin. He knew then that he wanted theater to be his life’s work.

Varela double majored in economics and music at Rutgers, and here is where the voice truly developed. “A good deal of my development was through private training,” he said. “When I was in college, I took classes through my music major, but the bulk of the learning I did, I did privately. The primary benefit of the opera [part of my] training is that it teaches you to sing very hard for a very long time. It gives you a strong technique. It’s like jazz dancers who take ballet: The fundamentals are there and carry over.

“I’ve been singing [Javert] for two years now, and I know performers who tore up their voices—the role claimed them, really—because they didn’t have the benefit of the conditioning that opera training gives you. It actually matters. The fact of the matter is, my song [“Stars”] has, my voice teacher told me, ‘tits and ass.’ It’s all loud and gloomy, and if you don’t give it [your all], you’ve missed a real opportunity to affect people.”

theat prof_varela_300I mentioned the first time I ever saw Les Misérables and how affected I was by it, and that I found Javert the more interesting character (between him and the conventionally good leading man, Jean Valjean), even a kind of hero. He said he’d heard that often. “Imagine,” he said, “if all the way through, you do think you’re the hero, then you find out you’re the bad guy. That’s shocking, a mind-blowing thing, to realize ‘I was wrong. I was the one [who] was the problem. I don’t belong here.’ And I can only hope that every night I present that sort of intellectual challenge to people. It’s so original. It’s like Inception before “inception” happens and [the character] finds out he was a ghost all along.’”

I wanted to know how it feels physically to sing this part. (He has also sung Jean Valjean, a role he calls “the most challenging male part in any musical because it’s as taxing as Javert’s, only three times as long.”) He told me, “It’s as demanding as any athletic endeavor because the fact of the matter is that, if you’re really going to get ‘in the pocket,’ you don’t stop thinking, you don’t stop being engaged with your body. You have to stand a certain way to keep your shoulders down and your larynx down so you can get the optimum resonance, because you know you’re rattling the walls out there. It’s such an opportunity when you sing this jeremiad to understand the effect you’re having on everybody’s mind with these sounds, but to get it right, you have to think of it like a race or like martial arts, when your body has to do a certain thing a certain way. It’s exciting.”

I wondered how he kept the energy up for eight performances a week, and he replied, “You have a choice. Every night, when you go out there, you can choose to get yourself excited about it up to the point of the level of performance you hope to achieve. That’s what you want every time: to be so engaged, so focused, and so present, and to be physically able to do what a song requires. It takes a while, but I know how privileged I am to be out there. I’m grateful. And because of that gratitude, I can stay in a good place every time I’m onstage. I get to do what I love, and I’m old enough to know you can’t take that for granted.”

Les Misérables isn’t Valera’s only big musical role. He had sung the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. He played Che (the male lead) in Evita (where he met his wife), and Jud in Oklahoma. He was thrilled to get to be a part of Sunday in the Park With George as Jules. I asked about a favorite role, and his answer surprised me. “Valjean,” he said with no hesitation. “I love Javert, but when you [sing] Valjean, when you get off the stage, you’ve climbed a mountain and been a place few mortals have been. Looking ahead, I would love to play Sweeney [Todd] one day, just because that character is just so complex. Like I said, I’ve played The Phantom but I’d like to do it again because there is so much room in that character to find new stuff.”

Outside the theater, he is working on putting together a show for television he describes as “Dirty Jobs, only in the military. I’m a big fan of the military, and I want people to see every side of that life, not just the stuff in the news. Right now, all the channels are looking at different kinds of things, but once the military cycles around again, I’m ready, and I think it’s going to be a great show.”

I asked if he had any final remarks, he said, “If you’re only going to see one piece of theater in your life, make it Les Mis.” I couldn’t agree more. | Andrea Braun

The 25th Anniversary Tour of Les Misérables plays the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis October 16–28, 2012. You may follow this link for more information on the show and ticketing.

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