By Sharon Eberson
Hayden Tee was a bit surprised to discover that he missed Javert, that single-named relentless pursuer of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Tee played the role from his native New Zealand to Broadway, but after 5 1/2 years, he needed a break.
That was in 2016. When the national tour of Les Miz came calling in 2022, the man with a baritone as rich as the Stars was ready for more.
“Oh, I absolutely jumped at it,” he said by phone, a week before the tour was scheduled to return to the Benedum Center.
“The thing is, I had lots of time to think over the pandemic, as we all did,” he said, admitting that he hadn’t considered that taking a break meant the doors to the role were potentially closed.
“So I had many times in the pandemic where I would sit and think,” Oh wow. I kind of wish I didn’t stop. I wish I’d just maybe taken an extended leave and then gone back. So then when this call came in and they were like, Oh, we just wanna check if you’re available. I didn’t even have to think about it because I’d already thought about it for so long and missed him and missed the production and missed the company and missed everything about it really. So I was a very enthusiastic, yes, I’m available.”
Tee actually has just a window with Javert – he takes over the role in Pittsburgh, at the Benedum Center, and continues through January. His availability in the short term meant Preston Truman Boyd could take a paternity break from the role.
Les Miz at the Benedum Center marks the first time Tee will be back in the Pittsburgh Cultural District and within a few steps of the O’Reilly Theater, where his theatrical career in the United States was launched. He played King Arthur in Camelot in 2010, and returned to bring down the house as Edward Rutledge in 1776.
After early success as a cabaret artist and musical theater performer, Tee came to the United States in 2010 and was cast as Captain Hook in a Penn State production of Peter Pan. Around that time, Ted Pappas, then the Public’s producing artistic director, was in search of his King Arthur.
“We were introduced by Mark Simon, the casting director of Peter Pan as well as my then-upcoming production of Camelot,” Pappas recalled via email. “Hayden was the answer to my prayers in the role of King Arthur, negotiating a performance that went from the young, eager, awkward, and hopeful boy to the beleaguered King of England and the bold and visionary creator of the Round Table – a powerful performance but heartbreaking, as well.”
“I drove in from Happy Valley for the day, and did the audition on my day off,” Tee said. “I had such a glorious time working with Ted. And we are still friends. We still email regularly.”
Tee returned in 2013 for 1776, where his powerful rendition of Molasses and Rum was a highlight.
When not playing Javert in the ensuing years, Tee was still in demand.
His roles include Marius in the West End Les Miz and a stint as the notorious headmistress Miss Trunchbull in the London company of Matilda The Musical.
He was in the Philippines, traveling with an international company of Cinderella, when the COVID shutdown swept the world.
Manila was supposed to be the first stop on tour that included Macau, Mumbai, Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong.
“I remember very clearly, we were in Manilla, a Thursday night, and it became the first city in the world to be locked down,” Tee said. “All of a sudden, there was a meeting on stage, and everyone ran to their phones to see what had happened. … And then they had to get 100 people out of Manila.”
It took Tee three days – by way of the United States and Canada – to get back to New Zealand.
Then, like everyone else in the theater world, he had plenty of time to think.
And while he was thinking about Javert, he also had time to make himself a new home. Tee bought a plot of land in a town where the population swells to 1,000 during tourist season.
“I’m very much environmentally conscious, so I learned and taught myself how to build a tiny house, which is basically minimalist living,” said Tee, a man who knows what it’s like to live out of a suitcase. “It’s off the grid, solar powered, on 2 acres in the middle of the countryside of New Zealand. And I love it. And it’s my base now. It’s my little paradise,”
Still, he had no hesitation about packing up and inviting Javert back in his life.
Tee isn’t comfortable with those who might call the prison guard-turned-police inspector the villain of Victor Hugo’s story, turned into an enduring piece of musical theater by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (book), music by Schönberg and English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer.
“He’s opinionated, and I would go as far as to call him an antagonist,” Tee said of Javert, pointing out that the inspector is not present when Valjean begins his redemption.
Javert knows only that Valjean was imprisoned – no matter that his crime was stealing bread to feed a starving family member – then broke his parole.
“So from Javert’s point of view, all he knows is this person broke the law and broke his parole, and now he is on the run and is a fugitive,” Tee said. “From all he sees, this person needs to be caught. He could be described as someone who doesn’t let go of a grudge and can’t let it go. He’s an antagonist that chases Valjean and helps push our story forward, at a pace. But I would never describe him as a villain. Just a bit misunderstood, maybe.”
It is undeniable that the character of Javert has been gifted songs that show off an actor’s impressive range – it’s no surprise that Stars, for example, is a staple of actors such as Brian Stokes Mitchell and Norm Lewis.
“His performance as Javert in the Broadway revival of Les Miserables was nothing short of sensational,” Pappas wrote. “I texted him during that show’s intermission saying: ‘You are beyond brilliant tonight!’ And he responded ‘Thanks. Let’s get a drink after the show!’ He then proceeded to give an absolutely definitive performance in Act Two. Hayden is a STAR.”
Les Miserables has been seen by millions of people worldwide. The English-language version debuted in London in 1985, and it first ran on Broadway from 1987-2003. The show has enjoyed two revivals, with Tee appearing in the last New York production.
The current national tour, the sixth, has several cast members with Pittsburgh ties: Among the cast members with local connections are Shaler High and Carnegie Mellon grad Daniel Gerard Bittner (Feuilly), CMU grad Ben Cherington (swing) and Benjamin H. Moore (Claquesous), seen recently in Sister Act for Pittsburgh CLO.
The production’s scenic design was reimagined to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary in 2009, using Hugo’s paintings as inspiration.
“It’s like you are stepping into Victor Hugo’s world when he wrote the book,” Tee said.
Whether you have seen Les Miz with the elaborate turntables of the original production, or the more minimalist production coming to the Benedum Center Tuesday, or you are seeing it for the first time, the draw of the story remains the same as it was when the novel was first published in 1862.
“It’s essentially the humanity, the human spirit,” Tee said. “It’s that no matter how difficult things get, that love prevails and we can make it through. And that’s, I think, a message that’s really important always, but particularly right now in the world.”
Les Miserable is at the Benedum Center, Downtown, November 22-27. Tickets: https://trustarts.org/production/81545/les-miserables.
Categories: Arts and Ideas