Simon was 25 when he joined the original cast of Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre to play the role of Marius. He had auditioned for the show before it opened, at the same time auditioning for the role of Elvis in Are You Lonesome Tonight? The Elvis role was offered to him first and so that’s the role he took. After completing his year’s contract as Elvis he took over the role of Marius at the Palace Theatre for the last three months of the first year of the show.
Simon was, however, then already contracted to play Vernon Gersh in They’re Playing Our Song at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. After completing his contract there he returned to the role of Marius, joining the second cast of the show.
Simon: I really enjoyed playing Marius and I had a great time with the original cast at the Palace. It’s something I’ll never forget because it was iconic really. Especially with all the people I was working with like Roger Allam and Alun Armstrong. They were fantastic at their job and wonderful actors as well as being lovely people. I was quite young then and they really inspired me. I loved working with Colm Wilkinson too; we had such a great time and were always telling each other jokes. When we met at the O2 concert he took one look at me and said jokingly in his Irish lilt: ‘You were my Marius – what are you doing here playing my role?’ It was lovely seeing him again and to spend some time together. We go back a long way and he helped me a lot.
It was in April 2000, some 14 years after playing Marius, that Simon returned to the Palace Theatre, this time to take on the role of Jean Valjean.
Simon: Playing Jean Valjean then was very exciting for me, but it was also a bit strange after playing Marius there all that time ago. It makes you realise just how quickly time passes but it was lovely to be back at the Palace again. It was a completely different show for me and, of course, it’s a fantastic part.
Playing the lead is like being the captain of the ship and so it’s a nice responsibility. They were a lovely company and they gave me so much support and encouragement. There is a massive difference between playing a juvenile lead and a mature lead. I wouldn’t say that playing a juvenille lead was easier, but because you’re young, fresh and enthusiastic you are, in a way, playing a part of yourself. My first transition to a mature lead was to go from playing Raoul to playing the Phantom. I was lucky and blessed to be able to make the transformation.
Simon played Valjean at the Palace Theatre from 10 April till 7 October 2000. Les Misérables moved to the Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue on 3 April 2004 and on 7 June Simon returned to the role for a brief stint. And then on 12 October 2009 he took over the role once again, playing it until 18 June 2011.
Simon: Valjean is probably one of the most musically challenging roles I’ve played. But every time I come back to it there’s so much more to bring. You find things all the time – that’s how complex his character is, and you’re constantly learning. The more I come back to the role the easier it gets because I’ve already done it and you have a chance to explore more. Because Valjean is so complex it’s nice to play about with it and as you discover more things you can build it up layer by layer. It’s a very physically demanding role but it’s also very emotionally demanding. I am a singer but I’m an actor first and foremost and I love reality and I love the truth. When you can see someone’s acting you don’t believe them. In order to become real you have to tap into certain things, certain emotions, and ride with them. That way you draw the audience in so that it feels real to them and therefore more moving. Playing eight performances a week you need to keep it fresh. I don’t let it get boring because every time I’m doing something in a slightly different way and even varying it in intensity and that in turn provokes a different reaction from the people you are performing with. However I do sometimes find myself turning the tannoy off in my dressing room because it can get a bit like Chinese torture having to hear it all over and over. You end up knowing everyone else’s lines, not just the characters you happen to have played before, and with eight shows a week, it kind of becomes a part of the furniture of your mind.
I haven’t been influenced by anyone else’s performance and there is a wonderful freedom to interpret the role in your own way. It’s a great story and Valjean is such an interesting character. When you see him at the factory he’s wiser, older, calmer, but it’s not all over. There are still flashes of that struggle going on inside him; that way you make it a longer journey. It’s a wonderful story and you really feel for him. Although he stole a loaf of bread, he did it for a good reason. He was never a bad man but he was brutalised by the way he’d been treated. By the end he is humbled by all the things he’s been through and the battering he’s taken. He was able to change his life and become a righteous, tender and loving person.
Valjean’s voice changes through the show too. At the beginning it’s quite rough, raucous even – think of his soliloquy ‘What Have I Done?’ and the sentiments behind: ‘They gave me a number and murdered Valjean / When they chained me and left me for dead’. Later his voice gets gentler, more mellow and full of compassion. My voice has changed as I’ve got older. I was more of a baritone even though I’ve always been able to sing high but now my range has expanded. My voice has kept the high bits but it’s got really deep and rich with age. It’s been stretched much in the same way an athlete would keep pushing at something. It’s got weightier and matured in a rich kind of way so that I can now cope with Valjean’s intense range. It’s been a great experience working with Claude-Michel. He always spends time with the vocalists and he’s been lovely to me. He is so talented and yet he’s so normal and down to earth. He’s a very special person; he’s so touching and understanding.
Playing at the Queen’s Theatre is very different from the Palace. It offers a different environment, a different size stage and a different set altogether. The show was fantastic at the Palace. It was made for the Palace but now it works at the Queen’s in a different way. It’s so much smaller so that you can have a kind of intimacy that wasn’t possible at the Palace. You can do things in a more intimate way and I quite like that. It’s such an amazing show because of the music and the storyline, and, because it has everything in it, it keeps attracting the younger generation for both performers and audience. When I first started in 1986 I never imagined in my wildest dreams that Les Mis would still even be running 25 years later, let alone that I’d be in it. Regardless of how wonderful and captivating I thought it was, you can never second guess how well a show will do. I certainly never thought I would return to play Jean Valjean three times! But it’s a part I’ve really enjoyed playing each time. In my last run at the Queen’s there were quite a lot of Welsh people in the cast too which was really nice. We’re all very patriotic and we pull together and have lots of laughs, especially if a rugby game is on, when we come in with our Welsh shirts on and cause trouble among the English cast members!
I’ve had a fantastic time in all the roles I’ve played, or I wouldn’t have done them. This has been a very special role for me. It’s hard to say if I have a favourite role, all my past roles contribute to whichever one I’m doing in the present. I tend to live for the present. It’s nice looking back but I never really do; I look forward.