Wigan star of Les Miserables reunited with former cast members
An actor from the borough was reunited with members of the cast which brought one of the world’s best-loved musicals to the UK West End.
Keith Burns, from Lowton, returned to London as the curtain came down on the original production of Les Miserables’ extraordinary 34-year unbroken run in the capital’s theatres.
Keith joined the original cast soon after leaving drama school and helped to bring what was then a completely unknown production to the UK stage.
He then got his big break when Michael Ball, who was playing the role of Marius, fell ill with glandular fever just as it transferred to a bigger stage and Keith stepped up from the understudy position and ended up singing the part for seven months.
Boublil and Schoenberg’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic French novel, which tells of the life of Jean Valjean as he is pursued by the policeman Javert and students plot an unsuccessful revolution, has become one of the biggest theatrical success stories of all time with millions of tickets sold and its big numbers known around the world.
Keith, who returned to the musical in 1993 to play the part of rebellion leader Enjolras, says the production back in 1985 set his career on its way and spoke of his pride at being involved in a bit of cultural history.
Many surviving members of the original production directed by Sir Trevor Nunn came together on stage once more as the show bowed out at the Queen’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue.
Keith, 56, said: “Les Miserables is something I’m incredibly proud of. It has remained an integral part of my career.
“For the end of the run we were brought on to the stage and there was a big party with all the old creative team and cast members.
“It was an amazing, heart-warming evening. Getting so much of the original cast back together was very special.”
However, Keith admits that Les Miserables’ runaway success was some distance from the minds of the cast who assembled to bring the musical to the London stage in 1985.
For Keith it was all the more daunting as he found himself surrounded by top-level theatrical and singing talent while he, originally in the minor role of a gang member, was in just his second production following his studies.
He described the memorable process of bringing Les Miserables to life and then seeing it find its place in the hearts of countless musical theatre fans.
He said: “We were all scared stiff! I was only in my early 20s and I was in awe of these established actors and singers who all went on to win Tony and Olivier awards. The level of talent working on the musical was amazing. We had to read the book before rehearsal so we knew where it was coming from and then for two weeks we didn’t really touch the script or the music, we just improvised, working on the book.
“We would do things like the Paris scenes or a barricades scene.
“When we started some of the famous songs weren’t there. They were writing as we rehearsed. I remember one afternoon they said they had written this song for Jean Valjean in Act Two called Bring Him Home.
“They played it for us and most of us had tears in our eyes from the way Colm Wilkinson sang it, just around the piano in this rehearsal room.
“We felt it was something different and something special, we just didn’t know how it would work commercially. Then, of course, a lot of the first reviews were quite negative.”
Despite the critics’ comments the show began to build in popularity, and Keith was also catapulted into the spotlight as the show transferred from the Barbican Centre to the Palace Theatre.
He said: “I ended up involved because my agent thought I should meet the producer Cameron Mackintosh and sent me off to see him.
“We transferred to the Palace on my birthday in December 1985 playing the gang member and covering Michael Ball as Marius. I ended up in the role for seven months.
“Ticket sales were growing and the first week was so nerve-racking. Michael and I are still good friends and we always talk about how he gave me my big break when he wasn’t very well at all.
“We were also doing chat shows and things like that. We were really thrust into the limelight and it was a bit daunting. It was also great fun for a skinny little lad from Wigan!”
Keith’s portrayal of Marius ended up being so well known that he even ended up immortalised in oil, courtesy of a painting done by renowned wildlife artist Pollyanna Pickering.
She presented it to Keith as a gift in 1986 after he had sat for her at her studio in Matlock in full 19th-century costume.
The painting is also about to head off for Paris for an exhibition as it is being loaned to the composer Claude-Michel Schoenberg.
With the show preparing to mark 35 years on the UK stage next year the two DVDs Keith appears in, the Dream Cast version of the show at the O2 and Stage by Stage about the making of the musical are also being re-released.
Les Miserables returns to the Shaftesbury Avenue venue to continue its box office success in December but in a new version.
And Keith will be among the first to see that as it is coming to the Liverpool Empire in October and he has been invited as a special guest.