by Genea L. Webb
For New Pittsburgh Courier
When Brittney Johnson played Fantine in Les Miserables during her junior year of high school, the experience forever changed her.
“Being in the production made me want to do musical theater,” explained Johnson, 23. “You can’t see ‘Les Miz’ or hear the music without it moving you. It impacts you on every level, at every age. It’s magical.”
“Les Miserables,” tells the story of Jean Valjean a French peasant of abnormal strength and a potentially violent nature and his search for redemption after serving 19 years in prison for stealing bread for starving family members. Valjean decides to break his parole and start a new life but is hunted relentlessly by police inspector Javert. “Les Miserables” is a sung-through musical played based on the novel of the same name by poet and playwright Victor Hugo.
Pittsburgh is one of numerous stops on the musical’s 25th anniversary production tour. “Les Miserables” has become the world’s longest running musical and features new staging and re-imagined staging and scenery, which was inspired by Hugo’s paintings.
“I am delighted that 25 years after ‘Les Miz’ originally opened in London, the audience for this marvelous show is bigger and younger than ever before,” said producer Cameron Mackintosh. “Over the years I have seen many successful but visually different productions so it has been exciting to draw inspiration from the brilliant drawings and paintings of Victor Hugo himself, integrated with spectacular projections. The new ‘Les Miz’ is a magnificent mix of dazzling images and epic staging, driving one of the greatest musical stories ever told.
The Pittsburgh production is part of the PNC Broadway Across America Series. It is presented by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Pittsburgh Symphony and Broadway Across America. It will run at the Benedum Center from Jan. 15-27. For tickets visit www.pgharts.org.
The Broadway production of “Les Miserables” opened at the Broadway Theatre in March of 1987 and transferred to the to the Imperial Theatre in 1990 running for 6,680 performances. The U.S. National Tour began in November 1987 and visited over 150 cities before closing in St. Louis in 2006. Broadway welcomed “Les Miz” back to New York in 2006 where the show played the Broadhurst Theatre until its final performance on January 2008. To date, the musical remains the third longest running Broadway production of all time. It has been seen by nearly 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages.
Johnson is honored to be a member of the ensemble for this milestone production. She will also serve as the understudy for Eponine when needed.
“I’m much more connected with Eponine with the place she is in life. Fantine had a child, but Eponine is connected with heartbreak and sacrificing. Her story is more tangible for me at my age. I play the young whore and am also in the ensemble. In the ensemble I get to play a lot of different characters. Every time I change my hair it’s a different character, it’s fun.”
Johnson graduated from New York University School of the Arts with a degree in Drama in May of 2012. Prior to graduation she had performed in college and regional theater productions in New York, including “Hair.” She joined the cast of “Les Miserables” after auditioning five or six times.
“Les Miz had been on tour for two years before I could get it,” Johnson said. “Someone had to leave before I could get in. When I got the call that I got the part I was really excited! It’s like being a part of history. I am so honored to be a part of the musical phenomenon that has touched and continues to touch people’s lives.”
Not only is “Les Miserables” known for its epic story of hope and redemption, the show is known for amazing songs including “Castle on A Cloud,” “Bring Him Home” and “One Day More,” which Johnson loves to sing.
“I love it because of the staging and the emotions that are running through you at the time. I feel so connected to the audience. That’s why I do this. I do this musical theater thing because I want to touch people,” Johnson said.
When she isn’t performing Johnson enjoys knitting, watching “Superman” movies and reading.
Following her time in “Les Miserables,” Johnson plans on auditioning for more shows. But “Les Miz” will always have a special place in her heart.
“This is my first big show. It’s come completely full circle for me,” she said. “This role is catapulting me into the next phase of my career. I tell people to work hard and not slack off. You will get a lot of rejection, and you have to keep your eyes on the goal and fight. Out of all of those no’s there will be a yes. It’s definitely worth it.”