When actors take the stage Sunday at the Henry Strater Theatre for two performances of “Les Miserables,” it will be the result of all their own work.
The show is a completely student-run production: financed, produced, directed and performed by middle- and high-schoolers (and a Durango Montessori student).
Aiden Hurley, a 14-year-old eighth grader at Mountain Middle School, directs and stars in the production, which is the “Les Miserables School Edition.”
The show is a version of the musical by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo. It’s the story of petty thief Jean Valjean, who in 19th century France is released on parole from jail and turns his life around, ultimately becoming a mayor and an adoptive father. The relentless Inspector Javert, who makes a decent life for Valjean impossible, pursues him. Only years later does the ex-convict finally feel redeemed.
In 2017, Aiden directed the short film “18 Frames,” which was shown and won an award at Durango Independent Film Festival.
Aiden said the idea for the production began because he was interested in “Les Miserables” and found himself getting more and more interested in the music and the story.
“I’ve wanted to perform ‘One Day More,’ which is the main song of the play, just in front of the school with my friends, but then it kind of escalated and then other schools got involved,” he said. “And then we decided, ‘Well, why not just do the whole thing for real?’”
And there’s no denying the students involved are committed. They raised the money to rent the venue, buy their costumes and the rights to use the show. At a dress rehearsal this week, they were all business: The cast of 10 entered the theater (the full cast and crew includes about 12 students), got into costume and got down to the business of running through the show.
The cast includes: Aiden as Jean Valjean; Helene Brimhall, Fantine; Claire Hurley (Aiden’s sister), Young Cosette/Gavroche; Owen Huff, Javert; London Wheeler, Grantaire; Kaylyn Eckhardt, Enjolras; Mady Brand, Madame Thenardier; Gwyneth Prothero, Eponine; Ben Hinkley, Marius; and Roan Harvey as Cosette.
“I really just like the emotional story; it’s just pure human emotion. I just thought that it was something I’d never seen in musical theater,” Aiden said. “I went to the play for my birthday – it was on tour, so we went to Minnesota to see that, and pretty much after that I was like, ‘OK, we’re doing this now.’ It started with my idea and my obsession, but I couldn’t have done it without everyone.”
Helping Aiden, as well as playing Fantine, is Durango High School freshman and Troupe 1096 member Brimhall. Helene starred in “18 Frames” and played in “Macbeth” with Aiden while the two were at Mountain Middle School.
“He came up with this idea, and I thought, ‘Oh! Why not? It sounds fun, I’ll help him out with it,’” she said, adding that she is acting and working as stage manager in “Les Miserables.”
Helene said finding balance was the most challenging part of putting on the show.
“It’s all student-run, so it’s hard to balance everything with people having different schedules, especially with me being gone and jumping in halfway through rehearsals,” Helene said. “I kind of took over as stage manager to coordinate what we needed to get and make sure we stayed on track.”
For Helene, while it’s fun to put on a show, there’s a much bigger payoff.
“You can see the dedication in the students. We’re all good friends and we’re here to fun, but also to explore a story that’s really operatic and powerful, too,” she said.
And for Aiden, Sunday’s shows will fulfill a wish actors wait their whole careers to see happen – if it does at all.
“This is literally my dream role. I’m playing the main character,” he said. “People are always like, ‘Oh, I hope someday before I die I play my dream role,’ and this is one of my first roles and it’s my dream role, so I think that’s kind of cool. I’m always grateful that I get these kind of opportunities.”