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There are few things more difficult to crack than a brand new original musical, and French musical theatre performer Jérôme Pradon knows this only too well. Having performed internationally in established shows such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon, he originated lead roles in the musicals Napoleon and the original London production of Martin Guerre. After recently starring in the UK premiere of Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, directed by Bartlett Sher at the Playhouse Theatre, he returns to the West End this month in a new biopic musical about the life of Louis Braille.
“It's been an intense process” he tells me as we meet at the Charing Cross Theatre ahead of the sitzprobe, the first time the cast rehearse alongside the orchestra. “We've been work-shopping a lot on the show and the actual story and doing a lot of changes in the rehearsal room. It's still an ongoing process – that's the thing with creating a completely new show. Ideas come about, we change things. It's all very exciting.”
Hearing the orchestra swell in the next room acts as a perfect backdrop to our meeting, and from the sound of the strings and the hint of lush melodic lines suggests that The Braille Legacy is certainly a traditional sounding musical, a style with which Pradon is accustomed.
“It's traditional but it's wonderful classic musical theatre” he confirms, referencing the score which has been composed by Jean-Baptiste Saudray. “There are some great melodies. I'm always drawn to great melodies when I hear them, and it's not often, but this time I'm really astonished by the quality of the music. The music is big and strong and desperate but at the same time full of contained emotions. I think it is extremely interesting”.
Pradon's journey with the piece echoes this traditional style, beginning with him recording the vocals for a concept album and demo tape years ago that were used in the creation of the show, much like the journey of shows by two of France's most successful musical theatre composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg .
“The producer and author of the show who are French initially wanted to do it in France” he explains. “In 2010 he called me, I didn't know him at all but he knew my career and he really wanted me to be part of the demo tape in French. I went to the composer's studio and sang for the tracks. I never heard from him for quite a while, all of a sudden I was next door playing in Woman on the Verge... and he came to see the show and said that he was work-shopping the show and he wanted me to work on it. That's when I met with the director Thom Southerland and we had a great time.”
The work-shopping process is the most important stage of any new musical, and despite the stresses and strains it's a process that most actors are desperate to be part of.
“What's great about this piece is that it's a complete creation. We started from a blank page and that was it. It's a group effort, so there's a group synergy, and I'm working alongside an excellent cast including Ceili O’Connor, Ashley Stillburn and Jack Wolfe. I would like to have more endeavours like that, to see more of that in musical theatre, it's quite rare. It's very interesting to be in an original production. When you take over in a role or do a show that's already been on elsewhere, it's always different. In a way you have to get into someone else's shoes – the show is already written and the shape that it has already works. There are other ways to find it interesting but it's so much more rewarding to be creating."
As an original musical the challenges facing The Braille Legacy are not lost on Pradon who remains positive and excited by this distinction in the current London climate which relies on Broadway imports, revivals of past shows and familiar marketable titles. “We're in the time of jukebox musicals and adaptations of films, for once you'll see a musical that's not even adapted from a source – it's a biopic but it has been created from scratch – an original musical. Trying to tell a story that an audience will like – it's very exciting.”
Aside from the creative opportunities Pradon explains how the character of Dr. Pignier, Louis Braille's mentor, appealed to him from the very beginning.
“I instinctively felt drawn to the character. I play Louis Braille's mentor, the professor who pushed him to make this big discovery. Braille was one of the few real progressive minds of the time, he went against the establishment who thought that blind people were only good for basket weaving and that they were 'retarded'. He was the first to realise that they were just like anybody else and needed a way to learn and to have access to education in a broad sense. It changed the life of millions of people, but wasn't recognised when he was alive. Now he's in the pantheon in Paris and is considered to be one of the greatest minds of all time.”
Condensing a historical biographical story into the form of a book musical is a challenge faced by various composers, but one that if told successfully like Evita or indeed Hamilton can reach audiences in new ways.
“That was the challenge of the book” he explains. “We concentrate on Louis' search for this system and for perfecting it and we tell the story of the confrontation between Dr. Pignier and another teacher and you see the two different views on education – one that is very conservative and one which is very progressive. He's a very tough and reserved man and quite authoritative. He sees the good in people, he sees the good in Louis' endeavours, and that's what I like in his character. He has an openness to people and new ideas and very strongly tries to change things.”
The story of The Braille Legacy may be largely unknown, but Pradon confirms that the musical not only explores the facts of an unknown creation but appeals to audiences on a much wider humanitarian level because of its subject matter and themes.
“Personally I think that some of these songs and characters are great because people can identify with them. Some of those songs resonate in other ways, finding a system for blind people tells about a liberation of a group of people, you can identify with that as gay liberation, social progress, political progress. That's why it's got some universal appeal, it's really interesting for that. It says 'I'm not a freak – I'm just different'. Different is not an affliction, different is the way I'm am, but I want to be like everyone else.”
That's the overriding message of the show that helps it stand out against other musicals currently in London, and one that Pradon is confident will appeal to audiences and make it a special theatrical endeavour.
“It's about faith in humanity, faith in progress, faith in the fact that we will find answers to live a better life” he passionately exclaims. “The extreme right is knocking at the door – you can identify with a lot of those things in this show because it asks how can we improve our lives. There are solutions that haven't been found yet – what can we do? The story we tell is very informative – people don't know about his life and what it changed, he enabled people with great minds, scientists and mathematicians who were blind to be educated like anyone else and turn out to be geniuses. It's an amazing story”.
The Braille Legacy tickets are on sale to 24 June 2017.