MANILA, Philippines – I think it was jealousy,” Simon Gleeson says when asked what it was that first got him into theater. He watched his sister, Sara — now an actress as well — do shows as a kid, and she seemed to be having a lot of fun. “I thought, well, I might have a go at that.” From then, he just loved the feeling of it, and it was clear from very early on that this is what he wanted to do.
The 2015 Helpmann awardee for Best Male Actor in a Musical hails from rural country Australia, in a place called The Rock. “It’s about an hour out of Wagga Wagga, pretty much between Sydney and Melbourne. There are only about 300 people there, and theater’s not necessarily the first choice for a lot of them, but for me it was.”
Being born into a family who loved theater made it feel very normal and not at all strange. You could even say that Gleeson was marinated in the music and words of Les Miserables. His parents would play cassette tapes of the musical in the car all the time, with his father singing along on trips.
Gleeson finally got to watch the production at the age of 12, when it first came to Australia. He vividly recalls sitting in the front seat of the balcony with his sister. “I don’t think we moved for the first three hours,” he shares. “We were just struck by it. I mean, I knew the words and all the songs already, but I just couldn’t believe it. I was just really taken by it. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen.”
Playing Jean Valjean
Today, Gleeson is best known for playing Jean Valjean in Cameron Macintosh’s Les Miserables. He and the rest of the Manila production have been rehearsing nine hours daily to bring our audiences a mind-blowing show.
Set against 19th century revolutionary France, the legendary musical of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg has seen countless interpretations, even making it to the big screen. But for Gleeson, it comes fresh every night. “This production goes a long way in making it feel new and vibrant,” he shares. Built from scratch since the team assembled in Manila, it boasts a new set, new costumes, a different sound design, orchestration, and lighting. They also make use of Victor Hugo’s paintings in much of the backdrop, and as a tool to move the story while simultaneously providing color.
Filipino theatergoers are also looking forward to seeing our very own Rachelle Ann Go play Fantine, and Gleeson has nothing but admiration for her. “Working with her, ah she’s a dream,” he enthuses. “She’s just a lovely person, and is fantastic in the role, too. She’s really strong, and it’s heartbreaking to watch her. I think people will go nuts for Rachelle.”
As for Jean Valjean, it’s a huge role and a character with a vast story spanning so many years and trials. It has required everything of Gleeson, and it’s a challenge that he loves and embraces fully. It also gives him a lot of time to spend with the audience, taking everybody on the story with him. “It’s something that I’m really honored to do, to spend that much time with people,” he shares. Although when asked about other roles he secretly covets, Gleeson admits that he really wanted to play Enjolras when he was little. “But I’m too old now. It’s so sad,” he laughs.
The immediacy of theater
Gleeson has been on television and film, but it’s theater’s immediacy with an audience that he craves. “And I love the idea that you can do it again tomorrow. Every day, you go in and tell the story. Even though it’s the same story, it’s often vastly different from night to night, and I’m really interested to see how different the Manila audience will be.” It’s his first time in the Philippines, and so far, he’s appreciated how robust and incredibly friendly the people are.
Filipinos in turn can look forward to witnessing a story and songs that they love, but in a new, vibrant, and very up-to-date way. And as for those who, for one reason or another, haven’t seen Les Miserablesbefore — people who don’t know anything about it and are coming to see it for the first time — know that Gleeson envies you for that special moment and feeling. Les Miserables is a huge emotional journey to go on. It’s a story that Gleeson finds neither sad nor depressing, but full of hope.
“We’re desperate to get into the theater,” Gleeson told us during this exclusive interview for The Philippine Star a few days before they opened last Friday, March 11. “We’re ready to do this. Let’s go.”
Photos by Geremy Pintolo