ASPEN - Last summer's renovation of the Theatre Aspen venue included the addition of a permanent lobby and box office as well as the integration of the theater tent with the neighboring John Denver Sanctuary. The facility upgrade did not, however, include any significant expansion of the theater space itself; the theater, in Rio Grande Park, retains its intimacy, its capacity of 189 seats, and a cozy backstage area that presents a challenge even for smaller productions.
None of that is preventing the organization from staging its biggest production yet next summer. To celebrate the refurbished venue, as well as its 30th-anniversary season, Theatre Aspen will present the musical "Les Miserables." While the planning is still in the early stages, Paige Price, Theatre Aspen's artistic director, expects the show to feature approximately 20 actors. Price added that, in the five years she has led the organization, two shows from 2010 - "Annie" and the musical revue "Defying Gravity" - had casts that approached the size of the upcoming "Les Miserables." But "Les Mis," based on Victor Hugo's novel set in early-19th-century Paris, will stand by itself in terms of the scale of the production.
"'Annie' had about 16 actors, a lot of set changes. This, though - I'm not even sure exactly how we're going to do it," Price said from New York City, where she lives most of the year. "The sheer number of wigs, costumes, period theatrical stuff - this will be a challenge for sure. It's a question of real estate not just onstage but backstage. It will be huge."
The musical version of "Les Mis," by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg and with English-language lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, debuted on Broadway in 1987. It was a massive hit, earning several Tony Awards, including one for best musical, and running into mid-2003. The show had a Broadway revival in 2006 that ran into 2008. Interest in the show is likely to be spurred by a film version, featuring a cast of Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried and Hugh Jackman as the criminal Jean Valjean, which is set to open in late December.
The Aspen production, Price said, will be scaled down to fit the Theatre Aspen tent. She said it was likely that the show will make extensive use of the venue's interior stairways. Price considers it a positive that the director of "Les Mis" will be Mark Martino, who has directed three Theatre Aspen productions, including last summer's "Avenue Q." Theatre Aspen also is getting assistance from other arts organizations: Theater companies in Denver are sharing some props and costumes, and Price has called on the Aspen Music Festival and School to help with casting.
Still, there are hurdles. Price is making a bigger effort than usual to find sponsors and underwriters.
"I'm in obsessed mode already, waking up early and thinking about fundraising," she said. Early next month, Theatre Aspen will have preliminary meetings with parents of local young actors interested in auditioning for the three children's roles, which will be double-cast, so six actors will be necessary, and Price expects all of those to be sourced locally. The commitment for actors is expanded not because of the size of the show but because of the unique scheduling: "Les Mis" will run in repertory through the entire Theatre Aspen season, beginning June 25.
For Price, the additional effort is worth it to stage a show that audiences will see as something special.
"I was joking last summer that we needed a big happening at the theater for our supporters, our audience. To say, 'We're here, and we're going to keep surprising you.' And what a way to do it, with 'Les Mis,' a show of that scale," she said. "We casually asked a lot of people what they thought of the show, and I was surprised how many people said that was their favorite show of all time."
Another outside-the-box presentation in Theatre Aspen's 2013 season will be "Cross That River." The musical, about a freed black slave who becomes a cowboy, was conceived by singer Allan Harris and has been developed in collaboration with Theatre Aspen. "Cross That River" will be presented as a work in progress; the form of the presentation will depend on "its state of readiness," according to Price.
Rounding out the Theatre Aspen season will be the family musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," based on the "Peanuts" comic strip, which Price will direct, and "Fully Committed," a one-actor, multiple-character comedy about an ultrapopular New York restaurant.