Pièce de Résistance

Sandra Neal will Direct 'Les Miserables' for the second time this August when the Townsville Choral Society stages the classic at the Civic Theatre IMAGE: Sonia Warrell

If you’ve ever crossed paths with Sandra Neal, you’d have picked up on her passion for musical theatre.
She lives it.
She breathes it.
She sings it at the top of her lungs.
And she’ll lecture you on it, if you give her half a chance.

If you’ve ever crossed paths with Sandra Neal, you’ll be surprised to learn she ever hated musical theatre. But she did.

“I’d always hated musicals in the sense that there’s a bit of a dialogue and then we put on a show,” said Sandra. “Mum had made us watch them all, she loved musicals, but the whole naff-ness used to drive me insane.”

Fate intervened in 1994 when Sandra’s best friend invited her to Townsville’s first production of Les Misérables.

“He said ‘You’ve got to come and see it’ and I was like ‘No, I don’t think so. I hate musicals. Not even interested. Can’t be bothered.’ He actually bought my tickets, because the show sold out in ‘94, it went gangbusters.

“I remember just being so wrapped up. I didn’t know any of the people in the show except my best friend, but I was crying through the barricade scenes and I was one of the people standing on my feet clapping at the end.”

That first experience of Les Misérables (or Les Mis, as it’s affectionately dubbed) lead to a life-long love of musical theatre and Sandra is the Director of the Townsville Choral Society’s production of Les Mis this August.

“This’ll be the fourth production [of Les Mis] that I’ve been involved in – I’ve acted in two and directed once before – but I can not even tell you how many professional productions I’ve seen!” Sandra said.

From Sandra’s perspective, Les Mis, set among real events during France’s Revolutionary Period, is essentially about the struggle of trying to live a good life in the face of hardship.

“I think that’s why it still hits a chord with people,” said Sandra. “It has such universal themes: unrequited love, the struggle between right and wrong, and making those choices and what we all need to do to survive in whatever circumstance we’re presented with.”

While it may sound like a glorified lesson in history and ethics, there’s something about this tale that keeps pulling in new fans and drawing back the old on such a scale that even Sandra is shocked.

“I thought being the fifth time this show’s been done in Townsville nobody would really care,” she said. “I thought everyone would be a bit blasé; that it certainly wouldn’t be the Les Mis of old where things went so gangbusters they added two extra shows and it sold out before they even opened.”

But if events so far are anything to go by, this season could be just as big. More than 160 people auditioned to be part of this year’s production and over 600 tickets sold before the first rehearsal.

“It’s pretty much a perfect musical if you analyse the music themes in it, if you analyse the music, if you follow the rules of musical theatre,” said Sandra. “Everything is so heightened you no longer speak, you sing.

“That’s why Les Mis is sung the whole way through – everything that’s going on in this show is at such an emotional height that they can’t just go back into speaking, it has to stay at that singing level to keep your audience with you and the tension building.”

It’s a big ask for the cast and one that demands significant physical, mental and emotional stamina.

“You really do need to keep stamina and health at an absolute premium to do a show like Les Mis,” Sandra said. “You need to make sure you’re singing correctly … and you have to make sure you’re at peak condition physically. It’s not strenuous dancing, it’s not physically demanding, but the emotional level you have to put yourself on to actively and accurately portray what’s happening on stage, takes an incredible toll on an actor.”

Sandra said the actors ultimately cast in this production, had displayed huge emotional insight into the characters right from auditions.

“Intent feeds a story and to watch every person’s different take on Eponine or Marius or Valjean was really interesting. There were several really strong contenders, but it came down to the combination of actors,” said Sandra.

“When we did the call-backs for the Marius/Eponine/Cosette love triangle, the one we ended up with was the strongest combination of performers in terms of chemistry.

“Brooke Maxey [who plays Eponine] auditioned early on and she was glorious. Her audition was stunning. And that’s not to take away from any of the other people who auditioned, there were lots of really great Eponines, but when the combination between Brooke and Harshil Pillai and Sophie Ricca [who play Marius and Cossette, respectively] came out in the call backs; it was heartbreaking … We watched Eponine’s face just get more and more heartbroken as Marius kept singing these words of love to Cosette; and it wasn’t just heartbroken, it was this resigned acceptance. Instead of making me feel sorry for her, it gave her such strength.”

Harshil managed the same in his audition.

“Harshil sung ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ twice for us in the auditions and people were crying on the panel. There’s a real fine line between being self-indulgent as a performer but his beautiful, sensitive, passionate portrayal of that song in a cold audition brought this intense sorrow and grief.

“And then Sophie Ricca – her Cosette is bad ass!” Sandra said.

“Cosette has always been a little wimpy, but we forget this kid [grew up] being beaten and scrubbing floors and going into the woods with dangerous animals in the middle of the night. She’s not a wimp at all … she’s actually pretty ballsy and Sophie brings that to her.”

These fresh takes on ld characters are part of Sandra’s ever-evolving understanding of a show that’s been part of her life for almost 25 years.

“I always find something new whenever I go back to Les Mis.

“Maybe 10 years of experience, maybe 10 years of life, gives you a different take on some of the characters’ plights. I think life hands you a lot more experience and so therefore you approach the show differently from someone in their 30s or 40s or 20s.”

Yes. When you hear Sandra talk about Les Mis, it’s hard to believe she ever hated musicals.

The Townsville Choral Society will present Les Miserables at the Townsville Civic Theatre 23 August – 1 September, 2018. Click here for tickets

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