“I just finished a week of playing Thénardier on Broadway to 1,300 people a night, and it was so beautiful. I feel like my whole persona and world has shifted. I’m in a place of re-discovery: Okay, now I’m here. What does that mean? How do I live my life?”
The day after that week of performances had ended, I sat with Joshua Morgan in Joe Allen’s, the legendary theatre restaurant and bar. That evening, he would be going back to his normal chores in the revival of Les Misérables, currently in its second year on The Great White Way.
Morgan plays Claquesous and other roles each night in the blockbuster musical. He is also understudy to the actor playing Grantaire, and is second understudy for Thénardier.
When Gavin Lee, a British actor best-known for playing Bert in the stage version of Mary Poppins in both London and New York, took a two-week vacation from Thénardier, his first understudy (Joseph Spieldenner, who usually plays Grantaire) took over for a week, and Morgan went on as Grantaire. But Spieldenner also understudies Javert, so, during Lee’s second week off, Morgan was the “Master of the House.”
So, in only a few weeks, Morgan had, in a sense, not only a Broadway debut, but also three first-nights in each of his three character “tracks.”
Many of us in D.C. were surprised to learn, in early August, that Morgan, Artistic Director of No Rules Theatre Company, was heading North to The Big Apple and that, in addition, No Rules would be dissolved.
So was this all as sudden as it seemed from the outside?
“Yes and no,” Morgan answered. “I booked Les Miz so suddenly — I was not expecting it — but I had slowly begun to come up here once or twice a month, to meet people; to see if there was even room for me up here; all of those things. I got ahold of the ‘Breakdowns’ password. That’s a casting hub for casting directors and agents.”
Actors aren’t supposed to have access to that database, but Morgan got on and saw the posting for Les Miz actors. He was learning that “the only way I was getting in the room [to audition] was through people I worked with in D.C., and that’s what happened with Les Miz.”
Morgan didn’t initially have high hopes of actually being cast in that particular show: “I drove up for an audition, primarily to meet the new Casting Director.” When he arrived, he was there with “lots of men who went in and sang amazingly. And I’m not a singer. I’m an actor who sings.”
Morgan noticed that the other actors were walking in and coming back out after about five or seven minutes. Then he went in. “About twenty minutes in, I realized that I was still in the room. About ten minutes after that, I walked outside, and I said, out loud, ‘I got it.’ I knew it.”
And Morgan’s instinct proved accurate. Back in D.C., he got a call with the offer and a request to come back to New York almost immediately for a costume fitting. “I told them I’d need a day. The next day, I packed up and moved to New York.”
The day before his “put-in” rehearsal, Morgan came back to D.C. “to get the rest of my stuff. I gave most of it away. It was that fast. I still have stuff in D.C.”
Moving house is one of the most stressful events in life. Surely, since they were asking Morgan to relocate, they would find him at least temporary digs, yes? No. “I had to find a place to live.”
Morgan was once again helped out by D.C. connections. Lauren Culpepper (New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Theater J; Orestes, a Tragic Romp at Folger) had a bedroom in her apartment that was available for a few weeks. Then, Alex Mandell (Bad Jews at Studio Theatre; Morgan had met him when both were in Awake and Sing at Olney; currently Mandell is doing Hand to God on Broadway) had a room open up in his place in Astoria, Queens, providing Morgan a more permanent place to live.
“It was serendipitous.” Morgan saw doors opening in front of him. “It was as if the world sort of handed something to me and said, ‘Do you want this? You can have it.’”
So how different is a Broadway experience? “Broadway is exactly the same as anywhere else, except that there’s more money, more seats, more expectations, more egos. But I’m so grateful. There are thousands of people who would love to be doing what I’m doing. This opportunity still feels surreal to me.”
Morgan described what it feels like when the show begins. “The down beat hits and I well up. I can’t believe where I was six months ago compared to where I am now.”
The show has been selling well, at about 80% of capacity, which is better than the revival was doing a year ago. These are normally tough months for sales on Broadway, so that’s “only going to go up as we go into Winter. Les Miz, unlike other shows, does have a certain future. But Cameron Mackintosh [its producer] likes to be strategic about where and when shows play,” he continued, implying that the future of the run is ultimately impossible to predict. “For now, I feel pretty secure.”
And Morgan’s run in Les Miz should position him well for a next act. “This is a huge inroad to other opportunities. It’s so important, considering how hard it is to break in anywhere in New York. People take you a bit more seriously. This credit will hopefully set me up for an upward trajectory.”
Morgan also feels that his D.C. experience has been extremely helpful to him. “Over and over again, people will look at my resumé and say, ‘You’ve done so many things, it shows what you are capable of.'”
I asked about the size of a Broadway theatre. “I noticed immediately, when I set foot on that stage, that you are more aware of having to make it all the way to the back. I got a couple of notes about being bigger — not the acting, but being more alive, especially as Thénardier, so it reads, so you’re not just playing to the first few rows.
“That’s something that I actually learned a lot more doing Fiddler at Arena [Stage], in the round. That space actually feels larger than the Imperial. It’s more challenging to be alive and dynamic when giving people a 360 degree experience of a show. We worked a lot with Molly [Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage and Director of its Fiddler on the Roof] on that.”
I asked how much time Morgan had before he actually hit the stage. “Two weeks.” And after only three days in the show, he went on for the first time as Grantaire.
Most readers will have heard about the sad story of Kyle Jean-Baptiste. The young actor died suddenly, falling from a four-story fire escape, shortly after his first performance as Jean Valjean. His funeral caused Morgan’s put-in rehearsal to be cancelled.
“I was scared shitless. I had only just sort of gotten a little bit of footing with my Ensemble roles. I had three different tracks running in my head simultaneously.” The Grantaire character interacts a lot with Gavroche, played by a seven year-old boy. “The number of times I leaned over to him and said, ‘Where do we go?’ I knew the lines, and the general gist of where to go and what I was doing.” He described the experience of depending on the cast veterans to help him through his first night as “shoved with love. But I got through it. It went well.”
The cast, which numbers around 30, was welcoming. “It’s been so lovely and the people so kind. I have a big personality. I was mindful, as best I could, of keeping to myself, because I was coming into an ensemble. It’s truly an ensemble show. I was cautious of my choices at first, so as not to impose them on what others were already doing. But the cast was excited by the new energy. Several people entered the same night, including three leads, so there was a new energy.”
The experience has given Morgan a pay-it-back attitude. “I make a point to be overly welcoming because I’m hyper-aware of what that’s like now.”
And Morgan is picking up a bowling ball. “People in D.C. are so willing to meet you, chat, cast you, donate…not that New York isn’t like that, but I just have to find my place in a very, very open sea with lots of personalities and lots of talent. Tonight is my first night at the Broadway Bowling League. I’m excited. I’m not a night guy, coming home at 2, but I’m not yet as acclimated to this community as I was in D.C.” So…he’s hitting the lanes.
The show has an open-ended run that could go on for awhile. After all, the first Les Miz ran sixteen years, the fifth longest run in Broadway history. And Chicago (another revival that had a hit film version which helped keep its profile high) is now the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. Does Morgan worry about keeping his performance fresh throughout a long stay in the show? “If the past month is any indication, I’m going to be jumping around like crazy. It keeps you on your toes.”
And, surprisingly, the production seems to give the actors a lot of latitude. “They don’t want the same thing to happen every night. It’s not the museum piece I thought it would be. I was very surprised, the first night, to be honest with you, very surprised by how alive it was and how impulsive it was. During some scenes, I’ve been at completely opposite ends of the stage. And people are in and out non-stop. We’re constantly having new people in the cast. It’s never the same night to night. What I was doing [as Thénardier] was very different than Gavin, and they encourage that. I never felt married to anything, never felt pressure to do what Gavin did, or to get a laugh.”
And it must have been a particular thrill to play Thénardier, a role that is always an audience favorite, the kind of role that causes a swell when the actor comes out for his curtain call. “Exactly. What’s a word I can use to describe it? It has been overwhelming, in the best sense of that word. And you’ve got no warm-up before that first number [“Master of the House”]. The first night, when the music started, I was sweating — half my make-up came off my face. I don’t remember a single moment of the song.” The song ends with Thénardier, on the shoulders of other cast-members, doing a spit-take, and he remembers that and that “it had been so much fun.”
And Morgan loves the part. “He’s so dirty, so narcissistic, so irreverent, and so funny. Also, he’s remarkably dark, especially in the ‘Dog Eats Dog’ number.”
In the particularly unique world of Broadway musical fandom, the followers of Les Miz are referred to as “Mizzies.” “It’s amazing how people even know who you are. I’m signing autographs, taking pictures with people. I’ve gotten hundreds of new followers [on social media.] It’s surreal.”
And also a bit of a role reversal for a former Stage Door “Joshie.” “It makes sense to me now. I remember caring if they signed my Playbill. I used to know who was in every new show. I’d go to the Broadway Flea Market, and spend so much money…
“Now I’m working the Les Miz table.”
Catch Joshua Morgan in the Broadway production of Les Misérables at the Imperial Theatre, 2490 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th), New York, NY 10036. Details and tickets