If Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman are hitting all the right notes in the hit film “Les Miserables,” they have one talented Chicago area resident to thank for their vocal prowess.
That would be Roberta Duchak, the Jeff Award-winning musical director (“Miss Saigon,” “Ragtime,” among many others, and the upcoming “Sunset Boulevard”) at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. Duchak, who owns a voice studio in Chicago and also teaches fundamentals of musical theater singing at Columbia College, put the two megastars through their vocal paces, working with Crowe from the audition through the actual filming — which in an unprecedented movie musical move featured the cast singing live as the cameras rolled.
Duchak, who spent nearly four months in England for rehearsals and filming, and three weeks in Australia at Crowe’s request to augment his training, said fate had a hand in all of it.
“My vocal teacher, John Komasa, originally got the call from the movie company,” Duchak said. “Russell was auditioning for the role — everyone had to audition for their parts. Hugh Jackman had a three-hour audition for the role of Jean Valjean. Don worked with them for a while, but he was leaving for Europe in June or early July last year and he called and asked me to fill in for two weeks with Russell. So that’s what I did.
“Then a month later, Russell called me directly asking me to accompany him to his audition. So off we went. I played a few warm-ups with him, he sang a few songs, and then in came Cameron Mackintosh, the producers and director Tom Hooper. It was just us and a piano. Russell nailed it.”
Duchak recognizes that not all the commentary about the cast’s vocal abilities (she also did on-set vocal warm-ups with Anne Hathaway, Samantha Barks and Amanda Seyfried) has been positive, something she said is very misguided.
“There have been a lot of opinions, and yes, criticism of the live singing in the film,” Duchak said. “I feel like we, within the industry, should embrace the live singing and hope that this becomes the industry standard. It enhances the storytelling with an intimacy we’ve never seen. Honestly, auto-tuning, ghosting voices and lip synching seems cheap and antiquated. I think Tom Hooper has elevated the art of making movie musicals.”
Crowe is no stranger to music or musical theater, having starred as Eddie and Dr. Scott in an Australian production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in the 1980s, as well as busking on the streets of Sydney as guitar-in-hand teen, and more recently fronting his rock ’n’ roll band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts.
The first note heard in the film is Crowe’s high “F” as he sings “… bring me prisoner 24601” in the pouring rain, Duchak said. Getting to that note was a testament to Crowe’s unrelenting dedication to honing his vocal skills.
“Like anyone who walks into my studio for voice lessons, I warm them up to evaluate where they are so I know how to proceed to make them grow,” Duchak said. “ ‘Les Mis’ is among the three hardest musical theater pieces out there, in addition to ‘Ragtime’ and ‘Miss Saigon.’ Everyone in ‘Les Mis,’ from Fantine to Jean Valjean, has to have huge ranges. The cast in this film had range, but we had to push it even further.”
Duchak says she found Crowe’s voice fascinating from the get-go.
“He is a true bass baritone,” she said, noting that his favorite warm-up song was the hugely demanding basso classic “Ol’ Man River” from “Show Boat.” “There are very few men who have that gorgeous bass baritone voice. It was exciting to see how deep it was. But the challenge was to make him into a high baritone. The most challenging song for Russell was ‘Javert’s Suicide,’ because it’s so rangey. You’re hitting that F-sharp over and over again. In all, I ended up increasing Russell’s range by about four notes. That’s a big leap for a singer who isn’t used to singing every day.
“With Hugh [whom Duchak began coaching eight weeks into the filming], we added maybe three notes to his range because ‘Bring Him Home’ is just an unbelievably difficult and emotional song. But both of these guys they were like Olympic athletes when it came to retraining their voices and getting them ready to sing 12 to 14 hours a day. Because all the singing was done live, if you did a take multiple times, you sang it over and over again. I don’t know of many musical theater veterans who could even do that.”
Duchak, 47, started playing piano at age 3. Music was always in the house, she said; her father was a musician. She went on to participate in choir, dance and musicals throughout grammar school and high school. At Indiana University, Duchak majored in broadcast journalism and theater.
In addition to Broadway and national tours, her local credits as musical director or an actress include Chicago Shakespeare Theater, American Theater Company, the Goodman Theatre and Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre.
While “Les Mis” afforded her months to get her singers into shape, at Drury Lane, Duchak said, there is no such luxury; the pace is lightning-quick.
“I think musical theater in Chicago does what it does extremely well in an incredibly short amount of time, sometimes with only a few weeks in between shows,” Duchak said. “That’s a real testament to the high caliber of talent we have here.”
Duchak had similar praise for her film cast, calling Crowe and Jackman two people “who I think will always be in my life as my friends.”
“All these actors were so brave to sign up for a musical that is being sung live,” she said. “We were making history and we all knew it. All they heard was a piano in their tiny ear pieces [Duchak played piano for Crowe during his turn on ‘Stars,’ per the actor’s request]. The songs all sounded a cappella to the crew. That’s a very cool and different way for a cast and crew to ‘hear’ a musical. To be able to act and sing in a musical when you’re hearing everything a cappella, that’s simply marvelous talent.”
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