To enter the BYU musical theater program, Will Swenson sang “Stars,” the solo of the Javert character in “Les Misérables.”
The Utah native auditioned for professors Gayle Lockwood and Randy Boothe, and “I got a scholarship, so I guess they thought I did all right.”
And he will be singing the majestic song on a Broadway stage after being cast in the highly anticipated revival of the multiple Tony-winning, mega-musical sensation.
If his future success with the role had been predicted? “I certainly would not have believed it,” he says with a laugh.
“I’ve always wanted to be a part of ‘Les Miz,’ ” Swenson explains. “That was always my dream as a young guy in musical theater. I just wanted to be at that barricade. It’s such a juicy show, with beautiful melodies and such amazing staging. I would have been thrilled to be the smallest guy at the barricade, just bringing a stack of bullets on stage and then running off.”
While the lead antagonist Javert is certainly a high-profile role in a huge show, Swenson has starred in previous major productions, both off- and on-Broadway, and in national tours. He created the role of Stacee Jaxx in “Rock of Ages,” played Chris in “Miss Saigon” and is currently starring in the stage adaptation of “Little Miss Sunshine.” He earned a Tony nomination for his role as Berger in the final of three different incarnations of “Hair" he led.
Swenson first came to prominence in Utah as being among those credited with launching “Mormon cinema” — starring in “The Singles Ward,” “The R.M.” and “Sons of Provo,” which he also directed and co-wrote.
Yet his performance history in the state has much deeper roots.
“I learned all of the craft of theater from my family,” he says. “I remember my grandmother telling me when I’m on stage to stand strong and don’t wiggle and know what you want and ask for it in a loud, clear voice. All of those things I learned early on, and they have been the basis for everything I’ve done.”
The grandmother he references is Ruth Hale, who with husband, Nathan, founded successful, still-in-operation theater companies in California, Arizona and Utah, establishing a theater legacy in the state. His direct relatives, brother and sister-in-law Cody and Anne Swenson, with uncle and aunt Cody and Linda Hale, run Hale Center Theater Orem.
The Swenson boys traveled as a family to see a Los Angeles production of “Les Miz” as a Christmas gift from their parents when they were children.
“It was mind-blowing. It was the biggest show that I had ever seen, as far as production and talent and emotion,” Swenson says. “I was at an age when I was discovering that I really like this theater thing, which my family had been doing forever, and recognizing it might be something that I’d be interested in doing as a living as well.
“Seeing the show solidified my love for theater.”
Swenson explains he is “really excited to explore” Javert in uber-producer Cameron Mackintosh's reconceived production of “Les Miz,” opening March 2014 at the Imperial Theatre.
“I certainly don’t want my Javert to be a moustache-twisting bad guy,” he says. “I want to find the humanity in him and discover what sent him down the path of becoming the kind of police inspector he is. What drives him, motivates him and why does he feel so compelled to chase down Jean Valjean with such relentless hunger? Why does he think he’s being righteous when maybe he’s not?”
Since his role was announced, Swenson’s phone has been ringing off the hook, prompting this tweet with a Utah reference: “Holy crud! (That’s how we swear where I come from.) Thanks so much for the @LesMisBway love! I’m incredibly grateful for all ur well wishes!”
There's another mention of the state as part of his career pursuits. On his resume, in the “Special Skill” section, where actors indicate their ability to speak a foreign language or juggle, he comically has listed “Makes Jell-O.”
“Yes, that’s a nod to my Utah roots,” he says, “along with my inability to cook anything else.”
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