Hayden Tee takes on Javert in Les Mis
Hayden Tee grew up in a Northland town populated by only about 800 people.
For the next four months at least, the 34-year-old, former Maungaturoto resident will be performing almost nightly in front of crowds twice that size at Melbourne's Her Majesty's Theatre.
It's nothing new for the accomplished singer who has spent the last five years living in New York, appearing in shows like Into the Woods, Camelot and My Fair Lady. But Melbourne marks a homecoming for Tee, not only to Australasia where he started his career, but also to one of his favourite musicals: Les Miserables.
Only this time there's a bit of a twist. Whereas in 2005 he played smitten student Marius, here he's landed one of Victor Hugo's (whose 1862 novel forms the basis for the musical) villains, dogged policeman Javert. Not that Tee sees him in that light.
"People keep saying Javert's the villain - he's not. He's actually 100 per cent in the right," he asserts.
"Jean Valjean did steal a loaf of bread, did break his parole. He is running away from the law. Javert is just doing his job, what he believes is right. It's amazing to play an antagonist that has really honest, true objectives and is not just evil."
Tee says while he has fond memories of the months he spent playing Marius in London's West End, he couldn't resist the challenge of Javert.
"It's a dream role. Not only is he very different to me in real life as a person, he's also vocally very different. He's so intense - I'm excited and nervous."
Believing he now has a good understanding of both sides of the Les Miserables divide, Tee is relieved Marius and Javert don't share any scenes.
"They only sing together in One Day More - where everyone is lamenting their storylines - so it was very easy learning the material without getting caught up in my past."
And as Tee and others involved in the production are quick to point out, this 25th anniversary production is a new version of the show. Gone are the synthesisers, revolving stage and the cringeworthy lengthy Little People; in comes backdrops inspired by Hugo's own paintings and the orchestrations that made the 2012 Les Mis film such a hit (thankfully Tee doesn't channel 70s-era Bowie in his interpretation of Javert a la Russell Crowe).
"It is just so much more epic," Tee enthuses.
"It's more naturalistically performed and has a bit more grit - it's not quite so musical theatre-ish. The costumes are also a little bit more colourful, but the most exciting change is the set. They've gotten rid of the revolve/turntable that's so iconic and now there's so many more pieces that come in from the sides and the top, while the projections of Victor Hugo's paintings make you feel completely like you are entering his world. The sewer scene is amazing because you really do feel like you are walking through this cavernous area."
Showing a strong commitment to preparation and research, Tee himself recently undertook a Les Mis tour of Paris, as well as listening to many recordings of the musical, watching all the cinematic versions of Victor Hugo's story and re-reading the book for a third time.
"Each time I read it there's something new because it's so descriptive and amazingly written. I love reading, your imagination goes somewhere, unlike a film which paints the picture for you. Hugo refers to Javert as a tiger a lot and uses lots of other descriptors which has given me a lot to play with."
But despite seeking as much inspiration as he can, Tee is adamant that he won't be copying what others have done before him.
"Whatever show I'm doing, I approach it as if I'm the first person doing it. I want to see what other people have done so I can do my own interpretation, but stay within the realms of what people expect. I think it's a mistake making choices that are just for the sake of being different."
He admits to experiencing "character hangover" with every role, but is unsure how playing Javert will affect his life.
"I have theories on how it is going to go. When I was playing Arthur in Camelot, I was engaged at the time which opened up my mind to the way that Arthur was - although I won't say that I actually became involved in a love triangle. Then there was Mason Marzac in Take Me Out. He's an incredibly neurotic, outrageous Long Island Jewish accountant who talks with his hands a lot. I became quite outrageous in my social life.
"I think normally the thing that's closest to me becomes more extreme when I'm playing a particular character for any length of time. I imagine that I may become a little more solitary doing Javert - a bit of a hermit. Maybe my obsessive compulsive side will come out more."
Despite the potential grind and sheer hard work, Tee says he loves the routine of a long-running show.
"I find keeping it fresh a great challenge. It really is about the person you are acting with - action and reaction - just bouncing off one another and going to a slightly different place each time, but always within the realm of the story."
To that end he's delighted that his good friend, Simon Gleeson, is playing his on-stage adversary Jean Valjean.
"We get on incredibly well. A base friendship like that is really important when you are playing two roles up against each other the whole time. We laugh a lot, which is great when you're doing something so serious."
But how did a boy from Northland end up at Sydney's NIDA, let alone on some of world's most prestigious stages? Tee admits his interest in acting was inspired by both a medical condition and a girl.
"I have metal pins in both hips so swimming and hockey were ruled out. Then there was Rhona Fisher. I had such a crush on her - she was the lead in an amateur theatre production. I auditioned for the first one just to spend more time with her. But once I was bitten by the acting bug, that was it - I was hooked."
Shifting to Auckland's Avondale College for his final two years of high school, Tee continued his theatre education at the likes of Centrestage and Auckland Music Theatre. NIDA, he says, "was a beautiful accident".
"I went to do a triple-threat, one-week course there and they were just introducing their musical theatre programme. I was one of two people asked to audition for a spot and five-weeks later I was moving to Australia. If I'd thought about it more, I probably wouldn't have done it. I hadn't even got my head around the fact that people get paid to do this."
Two albums and many stage productions later, Tee has certainly proved his worth in the profession, but while he has dabbled with the likes of opera and dramatic plays, he still cites musical theatre as his first love.
"It's the ultimate escapism. To sing in a believable way the emotion has to be heightened to a point where speaking something is not enough anymore - it has to be sung. Like when you're strongly in love or you strongly disagree with someone. As an artform there is nothing else like it."
Humble and grateful for the opportunities he has had, Tee says he feels just like a big kid.
"I literally get to play dress-ups and make believe for a living."
Les Miserables, Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, Tuesdays to Sundays until at least mid-October. For more information, see lesmis.com.au