The following interview was published in Issue #20 (Autumn 1997) of “The Barricade” – the international newsletter of Les Misérables.
DAVID CHARLES ABELL
The Maestro Behind Les Misérables
by Michael Oh
When David Charles Abell took his bow during the Tenth Anniversary Concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1995, he had reached the apotheosis of a musical theater career which spanned seven years and four international productions of Les Miserables. The audience greeted him with a wave of ecstatic applause befitting the premier conductor of the musical that has swept the world. It was one of those rare moments in contemporary musical theater where commensurate recognition was given to the musician who brought a composer’s music to life in a concert-style performance.
How did Abell become acquainted with the world’s most popular musical? “I happened to be talking to a colleague one day, a conductor in the US who has also done musicals and opera,” Abell says. “I was asking him what sort of work there was, what advice he could give me, and he mentioned a few opera projects that he knew were going on. At the end of the conversation, he asked me, ‘Have you spoken to [Robert] Billig, the Musical Supervisor of Les Mis? You should give him a call, because he’s always looking for conductors.’
“So I called Bob up, and he said, ‘Well, yes. In fact, there is a tour going out, and I need a conductor for it. How can I see you conduct?’ I told him that I was doing La Boheme at the Prince George’s Civic Opera, and I asked him to come and see the production. So Bob took a train down to suburban Maryland. He saw me conduct the performance, and he gave me the job.”
That audition marked the beginning of Abell’s long-running association with Les Mis. In 1988, he became the first conductor of the US Third National Tour. He led the bus-and-truck company through 27 major cities across the country for two years and garnered rave reviews from the American theater critics for his “impassioned conducting” (Memphis Commercial Appeal). The Pittsburgh Press commented that “no small credit for the triumph of this company was the conducting of David Charles Abell. This was an intelligent, profound, sensitive reading of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score.”
Abell’s success with the touring company led to an invitation to lead the Montreal bilingual production in 1991, then the Paris production later that year. He assumed the post of musical supervisor with the Prague production the following year.
Abell’s involvement with Les Mis culminated in the Tenth Anniversary Concert, where he led a company of highly accomplished musical theater performers and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the historic one-night event.
When asked how conducting differs from other disciplines of music, Abell says, “As a conductor, you’re performing, but you’re not actually creating any sounds that the audience hears. It’s through your gestures, your body language and facial expressions. You coordinate the acting and singing of the performers on stage with the music from the orchestra in the pit.”
The duties of a musical director encompass many different aspects of a musical theater production. “Conducting is only the ‘visible’ part of the job,” Abell says. “There’s a lot of administrative work. You have to be in on decisions like when people take holidays, and substitutes and deputies are huge issues you have to deal with. You have to make rules, like how many deputies are allowed at a time, who can deputize [and] who can’t, because the quality of the orchestra starts to go down once you have a lot of deputies in it.”
“On the other hand, if you insist that members of the orchestra are present every night, then they get ‘stale,’ so you have to let them go out and do other things. Most of them are accomplished classical musicians as well. They perform in concerts, operas and ballets, and they also do recordings.”
A musical director is also involved in casting and singing. “Brush-up rehearsals with the cast members and understudy rehearsals are also the musical director’s responsibility,” he says.
Some of Abell’s favourite moments in Les Mis are inevitably linked to the performers involved in the scenes. “I loved conducting ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ with Louise Pitre because she is such a powerful performer and she gives the number such heart,” he says. “I also enjoyed conducting ‘Bring Him Home’ with Robert Marien – but even more so, the confession scene in the second act, where Jean Valjean takes leave of Marius. I must admit that it’s rather strange, because it’s not a big musical moment, but the way Robert did it was so moving. You could really feel the sense of sacrifice that Valjean was making at that moment. The pacing of that scene wouldn’t seem like something that the conductor would have a lot to do with, but he actually does. ‘One Day More’ is always thrilling – it’s the big conductor moment in the show.”
Abell also enjoys conducting the “sewer walk” scene after ‘Dog Eats Dog.’ It’s really fun to conduct because you can drive the music right through, and it builds to a climax as he walks through the sewers. Valjean is walking through those lights and getting more and more fatigued with Marius on his shoulders, and the music evokes the sense of danger that Valjean is facing at that moment and also a sense of urgency, in that Marius’ injury could be fatal. Then suddenly there is a big chord from the orchestra and Javert is standing in the spotlight, and they confront each other. The music rises to an even higher intensity at that point; you get the same music as the confrontation scene in the hospital, but it’s in a higher key, which makes it more intense; it continues to build until Javert finally makes the decision to let Vajean go, which then leads into ‘Javert’s Suicide,’ with the offbeat accents and big, brassy chords, where the audience gets the impression that Javert is losing his sanity, and he cannot deal with it anymore.”
Abell also cites ‘The Finale’ as one of his favourite parts to conduct. He sees the change of key in the epilogue as “a musical depiction of the characters passing from earth into spirit world. As the conductor, you’re responsible for making sure that the ‘transition’ runs smoothly, and as the last note in ‘To love another person is to see the face of God ...’ fades into nothingness, you have to bring the chorus in very softly. You want to let that note stretch out a little bit, but if you stretch it too long, then singers will run out of breath, so it’s a matter of control and timing, but if you get it right, it’s a thrilling moment, and you have to build it all the way to the very end. Les Mis is a great show for a conductor, because he really gets to demonstrate his skills.”
Abell’s musical talent is well supported by his unstinting commitment to his work, and he imposes exacting standards on himself. “You have to find something within yourself to make your performance fresh every night, because most of the audience will be seeing the show for the first time, and you have to make it a special performance for them,” he says. “If you’re doing it routinely, then you’re not doing your job; you’ve been in the show for too long, and you should leave.”
How does he maintain the enthusiasm and concentration required for his job? “Before I started my engagement with the touring company, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to do it.: physically, you’re moving your arms in the air for three hours during each performance, eight times a week,” he says. “Not to mention the mental aspect of keeping yourself interested in the musical. There isn’t any answer to it. [You] just do one performance at a time, that’s the only way to do it.”
Abell found that the duties of a musical supervisor in Prague differed from those of a musical director in the other venues. “As musical supervisor, you can’t have any impact on a live performance. You watch a performance, you take notes and then you see the performers and deliver the notes to them. It’s important to know the right kind of notes to give and which notes will have the best results on a performer, so it’s a matter of tact and diplomacy. You may also want to talk to the sound department to get the balance right for the orchestra and the performers, and you have to set certain standards that can be achieved by the company, then you have to maintain the quality of the production.”
Abell successfully captures the nuances and subtleties of Schönberg’s epic score with varied moods and shadings, crisp phrasing and intelligent, imaginative interpretations. His graceful, flowing gestures are often punctuated by displays of remarkable power and gusto as he generates tremendous emotional force from the orchestra, sustaining the intensity of the music from the first resounding chords to the blazing ‘Finale.’ His virtuoso performance in the Tenth Anniversary Concert led Gramophone magazine to note that “despite the potentially hazardous nature of this semi-staged concert performance, the conductor David Charles Abell deserves special mention for his assured direction of the huge forces on the Royal Albert Hall platform.”
Abell’s musical interpretation of Les Mis is reinforced by a thorough understanding of the story which inspired the musical. “For the first two months on tour, I was reading the novel,” he says. “I have to admit that I didn’t finish all 1,000-plus pages before the tour started, but I did so eventually. We were in Miami at that time. As I was reaching the end of the novel one night, I stayed up until three in the morning. When I finally got to the last words, I dissolved into a flood of tears because I was so moved by it. It was like being in the show.”
Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that Abell was the French composer’s personal choice for the Tenth Anniversary Concert. Abell describes the concert as “a truly unforgettable evening,” and he has fond memories of the week of rehearsals at the Shaftesbury Theatre leading up the concert.
“Despite a hectic rehearsal schedule, we managed to run through individual calls with the principals, the chorus calls, the orchestra rehearsals, and we put them all together in the end,” he says.
One of the principals was Colm Wilkinson, who created the role of Valjean in London and on Broadway. “[Colm] can be a bit idiosyncratic when he sings, so as conductor, you really have to be on your toes,” Abell says. “At every rehearsal I would do the last note at the end of ‘Bring Him Home’ slower and slower, thinking that Colm was going to run out of breath, but he never did. So during the concert, I thought to myself ‘How slow can I go?’”
The momentous occasion also involved one of the most distinguished concert orchestras in the world. “I was really nervous about the rehearsals with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra,” he says, “but my fears were soon laid to rest during the first rehearsal. The orchestra was wonderful, and who should be sitting in the [first violin] leader’s chair but Jonathan Carney, whom I went to Juilliard with. He was fantastic and very supportive.”
Abell fondly remembers one rehearsal with all the Gavroches who had been chosen to carry the flags of the various countries. “After all the international Valjeans had rehearsed their part for the concert,” he says, “I sat them in the stalls of the theater, and I had all the Gavroches up on the stage. I asked them to sing ‘How do you do, my name’s Gavroche ...” all together. It was deafening, but they were really happy to be given a chance to prove their singing talents. On a more serious note, I thought that it was important for the Valjeans, who had flown into London from all over the world, to know who were carrying the flags of the countries they represented in the lineup, and how talented the boys were.”
The collaborative efforts of the company and the creative team paid off handsomely. The event was hailed as a resounding success by both the British theater critics and the audience, which consisted of Les Mis enthusiasts from around the world. The concert has been preserved for posterity on cassette, compact disc, video tape and laser disc.
[TO BE CONTINUED. In Issue #21, David Charles Abell discusses the recording process, lyric changes in foreign language productions and his career beyond Boublil- Schönberg musicals.]