In early 2013, Hayden Tee was in Pittsburgh performing in a musical called 1776, playing a strutting landowner with a chilling song extolling the slave trade. The US tour of Cameron Macintosh’s new production of Les Misérables happened to be in town at the same time and unbeknown to Tee someone from the company saw his performance.
Out of the blue, Macintosh’s London office asked him to record videos of him singing Stars from Les Mis and his song from 1776. Several auditions later, both online and in person in Australia, Tee landed the prize role of Javert in the Australian production, for which he has won rave reviews.
After six months in Melbourne and two in Perth, the production is currently playing in Sydney. Chatting in his dressing room at the Capitol Theatre, Tee is great company. He’s never been happier, he says, and he certainly exudes a tangible feeling of excitement, bonhomie and wellbeing.
He has done his dressing room up as a kind of home away from home for the next few months with a pink wall, red sofas, coffee table, lamp, photographs and several soft toys from fans including a Jabear (a small bear dressed as Javert) and a penguin.
New Zealand-born Tee began his career in Australia after studying at NIDA but moved to the US five years ago where his credits include the Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods in Atlanta, Freddy in My Fair Lady in Boston, Arthur in Camelot and Rutledge in 1776 in Pittsburgh and, most recently, Jack in a new musical called Being Earnest in San Francisco.
However, he leapt at the opportunity to return to Australia to play Javert, the implacable policeman who hunts reformed convict Jean Valjean (played by Simon Gleeson) across the years.
“I moved to America because I wanted to do new musicals and be the first to sing a song. But I got there are realised that in order to do that you’ve actually got to do a lot of crap, you know what I mean,” he says with a chuckle.
“The good ones come along very seldomly. In workshops it’s an amazing process but it takes time to hone something so it’s really nice to come here now for Les Mis. I think it’s absolutely my favourite role that I’ve ever played. I’ve wanted to do it for a long time,” says Tee, who in 2005 played the young, love-struck student Marius in London’s West End.
Tee sees Javert as more of “an antagonist” than a villain. “I’ve grown up with these characters, Marius at 25 and now Javert at 35. I love Javert. He’s not a villain. He’s written in such a way that he’s just a man doing what he thinks is right. I have to walk out there every night firmly believing that he’s the hero and he is trying to get Valjean off the streets to protect people,” he says.
“Javert doesn’t get to see that Jean Valjean meets the Bishop and has a real life change. He doesn’t get to see that Jean Valjean finds a new reason to live in this girl he looks after. When he finally sees an element of that in the sewers where he’s got Marius and he says, ‘let me go, the boy’s done nothing wrong’, that’s when the whole thing starts to fall apart for him.
“(The character) is so well written, it’s so multi-layered. I’m openly gay and very different to Javert so it’s personally rewarding to prove to myself and others that I can inhabit the particular type of masculinity required for a role like this,” adds Tee.
Born in a small New Zealand town called Maungaturoto (population around 800), Tee (who turns 35 in June) began acting in his teens.
“There was a very strong theatre group in the village where I grew up. My stepfather and mother and little brother are now involved. That’s where I started. I remember I was very shy growing up and my Nana thought it would be a good idea to boost my confidence by sending me along to the Otamatea repertory theatre – and it did.”
Mind you, he never suspected then that it could become a career. “People including myself didn’t think it was possible that you could get paid for doing that. My Dad now can’t quite get his head around the fact that it’s professional theatre. I think he still thinks I have a job and it’s kind of what I do on the side.”
He does, in fact, have another job that he has done between acting gigs and, for a while, alongside his theatre career: fashion make-up – though one suspects there won’t be much time for that in the coming years.
“I love fashion,” says Tee. “In New York I spend so much money on clothes. I feel a little bit guilty but I’ll just have to wear them now. That’s the world I got into in New York more because I’m a make-up artist as well. I designed 14 shows for fashion week in New York in February last year. For years I tried to keep them very separate and would never talk about the make-up stuff if I was acting and vice versa. I guess as I’m getting older, I think, ‘who cares?’”
Tee was first introduced to Les Misérables by his stepfather. “He was courting my mother and to get in my good books he bought me the video of the 10th anniversary production of Les Mis and I watched that on repeat until it fell apart. I didn’t know the show. I watched it and went, ‘oh my god, this is amazing.’ I just loved it.”
The original production famously used a revolving stage. This 25th anniversary production has replaced that with a stunning new staging, which includes projections inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo himself.
Tee, who knew the original staging intimately after his stint as Marius, describes it as “new and fresh. It’s almost like an homage to the original but at the same time it’s very different. I thought it might be a bit more scaled down but I think it’s actually more epic.
“I think getting rid of the revolve has really exploded the whole thing out in many directions. I love the new lighting and the new orchestrations. I think it’s much more epic in general. The new projections are beautiful. I think you really feel you are stepping into Victor Hugo’s version of Les Mis, the way he envisaged it.”
Tee has read Hugo’s epic 1862 novel on which the musical is based three times now – the first time when he played Marius and twice in preparation for this current production – and says that Hugo uses a lot of animal imagery, describing Javert as a tiger.
“I initially thought he’s a bit of a wolf. He’s very dark but wolves hunt in packs. After I read that I went and watched a few tiger documentaries. They are very still but when they go, they are decisive, and they are lone hunters. They are very solitary animals, which is absolutely what Javert is,” says Tee.
“I don’t think anyone knows him. He keeps up an absolutely façade. He was born to a gypsy prostitute mother and a convict father and I think he’s trying to hide that so people don’t know where he comes from. He has this kind of posh upper-class exterior but there are certain moments when he lets that animal inside him out, and the only that really triggers that in his life is this dude called Jean Valejan.
“I’m so lucky to have Gleeson. He’s such a generous beautiful man. And he’s so present (as a performer). He’s an absolute gift to work with.”
Some people have said to Tee that he’s too young for the role. “But Philip Quast was 29 when he started. I’m actually older than Philip was,” he says.
A “huge fanboy” of Quast, who played the role in the original Australian production, Tee had to pinch himself when he was asked to sing Lily’s Eyes from The Secret Garden with Quast at a fund-raising concert for the Hayes Theatre Co.
“He’s such an amazing man and such an amazing performer. I feel the pressure of his legacy and the way he did the role. I don’t want to copy him. We spent the whole day together (rehearsing at the Hayes). Philip brought in this truncheon for me to look at that he made himself (for Javert) and gave me lots of little tips that I came back and shared with my two understudies as well.”
As for Russell Crowe’s widely maligned performed in the film: Tee isn’t one to put the boot in.
“I honestly do think that Russell Crowe brought something new to the role I hadn’t seen before, a certain vulnerability. Whether or not that vulnerability was (him thinking) ‘I don’t know if I can hit those notes or not’, there were moments where it really did work, I think, like leading up to the suicide. I liked that part of the film. I could do without his voice but he is amazing actor. And he’s a Kiwi.”
Tee says that the show is attracting hordes of fans, many of whom gather at the stage door after the show, some of them in costume.
“The amount of middle-aged women I have coming dressed as Javert…. I love and adore them but it’s like, what’s with that? This one woman has every costume I have in every scene. It’s just one of those musicals. But they are very, very supportive, I must say.
“We had the same thing when I did it in London 10 years ago now. We had these fans, mostly women, who came like two or three times a week and they always came to the stage door. They had their favourites. There was one in London – Fred her name was – and she hated me. When I left, she bought me a suitcase and said, ‘pack it up’. Others loved me and they would get into fights. Very bizarre.”
Whatever Fred may have thought of Tee’s Marius, it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t be blown away by his Javert. He is superb: a commanding, dark presence, who stalks the stage with a contained yet ferocious power and his spine tingling rendition of Stars is one of the highlights of the show.
Asked whether there has been any interest in him playing the role elsewhere, he pauses. “Maybe…” he says with laugh.
You get the impression that he’d be happy to play the role for some time to come.
“I’m happier than I have ever been in my life at the moment,” he says. “I love playing Javert. I love it so much. I feel very lucky. It’s a real pleasure to come to work.”
Les Misérables runs at the Capitol Theatre until July 12. Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 558 878
A version of this interview ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 22