It takes Jim Boggess two days to teach the cast of “A Christmas Carol” all the show's music. For “Legally Blonde,” it took the Omaha Community Playhouse music director five days.
For “Les Misérables,” he took three weeks.
“It's not that the music is significantly harder than other shows,” Boggess said before a recent rehearsal. “There's just more of it.”
The entire show, 2˝ hours long, is sung. There's virtually no spoken dialogue.
That's just one of the ways “Les Misérables,” a multiple Tony and Oscar winner, is proving musically unusual as the Playhouse counts down to its Sept. 20 opening on the Hawks Mainstage.
The show boasts a larger orchestra, a cast that includes a number of music educators and opera singers, and a lead actor (Timothy Shew) who has played the role, Jean Valjean, on Broadway. Shew, who arrived in Omaha Monday, has had a local stand-in for the first five weeks of rehearsal, which began July 14.
Boggess will wield a baton at the head of the orchestra for the first time since “Ragtime” in May 2006. Usually he conducts with his head while playing keyboards, saving on musician costs.
“But there are just too many cues,” he said. “I have to be watching the whole time.” He's cuing actors onstage as much as the 11 musicians in the orchestra pit: trumpet, trombone, two keyboards, three reeds, two French horns, bass and drums. That's up from the usual seven to nine players in a Playhouse orchestra, Boggess said.
“It has to sound symphonic,” he said, though some compromise has been made. One of the electronic keyboards will serve in place of a string section.
Boggess said his cast of “smart, wonderful” singers has made rehearsal a joy. Their expertise has led to very specific rehearsal questions and to raising the bar for everyone in the room. He's also had a rehearsal accompanist, another role he usually fills himself, so he can concentrate on directing.
The cast includes music teachers from Ralston High (Ryan Pivonka), Westside High (Kyle Avery), Brownell-Talbot (J.R. Gould), Papillion-La Vista High (Tyler Buglewicz), a Millard elementary school (Lindsey Tierney) and a private studio (Jennifer Tritz). In addition, Jodi Vaccaro, Jennifer Tritz and Megan McGuire have sung for Opera Omaha, and Jimmy Friedlander is a pianist.
“They're among the most musically learned casts I've had,” said Boggess, who has been the Playhouse's music director for 16 seasons. “Even the nonmusicians are remarkable. They come in and they know their parts.”
That's partly because personal electronics mean cast members can record their parts at rehearsal, then use those recordings to practice in their cars, at home, anywhere. Gould and Pivonka said they already use this capability with their high school students.
The result of all that practice and expertise is a big choral sound at the end of the first act — six-part harmony sung beneath the solo parts of six actors in principal roles. Boggess said it's sure to raise some goose bumps in the audience.
Another first: Jerry Van Horn, who auditioned for the show but was not cast, has been standing in for Shew, the Broadway actor who missed about half the rehearsal period.
“It's the best of both worlds,” Van Horn said. “I get to rehearse with all these great singers, but I don't have to worry about my voice cracking, or catching a cold.”
The role of Jean Valjean has a tortuous range well over two octaves, from deep baritone to high tenor. Gould said Van Horn “has been killing it night after night.”
Susan Baer Collins, the show's director, said Van Horn has been a huge help to the cast members, who have had someone to sing and move with each night until Shew could join them.
“He's got all the work but none of the glory,” Pivonka said. “We get to hear it, but he never gets to perform. It's a really generous thing to do.”
Collins said the cast is already rehearsing on a rotating turntable on the mainstage, something that normally could not happen until the final week. But since “Les Misérables” is the season's first mainstage show, the space is free. It's another leg up for a particularly demanding show.
“Everybody comes to the party with some really strong thoughts about their characters,” Collins said. “I've been chomping at the bit to get going on staging.”
Matthew Pyle is assisting Collins with fight choreography. “We beat Julie Crowell to a pulp last night, from 6 to 10 o'clock,” she said with a smile. Crowell plays Fantine, the mother-turned-prostitute role that earned Anne Hathaway an Oscar in February.
“It's been daunting but exciting,” Collins said of rehearsals. Pivonka agreed.
“It's been so fun to have Boggess say 'Let's do that again' — not because we need the practice, but just because he wants to hear it again.”