Les Miserables director takes on a smaller project

Highgate writer and director John Caird is set to create a ‘chamber musical’ with just two characters and six musicians

He directs operas and helped wrestle Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables into one of the most successful musicals of all time.

However, Highgate writer and director John Caird has now scaled down his ambitions to create a ‘chamber musical’ with just two characters and six musicians.

Set in turn of the century New England, Daddy Long Legs tells the story of orphan Jerusha Abbott who is put through a writing course by an anonymous benefactor.

Required to send a monthly letter to her imagined elderly sponsor, she invents the pseudonym Daddy Long Legs even as she strikes up a friendship with the uncle of a college room mate.

The 64-year-old is in Texas directing Puccini’s La Boheme when I catch up with him.

“It’s a story about a girl growing, through education, from youth and innocence to maturity and satisfaction.

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“It’s a domestic chamber musical, a small story based on an epistolatory novel, which, if you blew it up bigger, would seem very empty and wouldn’t sustain the delicacy of the story.”

Caird argues the intimate two-hander allows greater audience investment in the characters’ thoughts, feelings and stories.

“Usually in musicals the hero makes his statement then leaves the stage for 25 minutes. You appreciate what he wants but you aren’t really involved.

“The lovely thing about this is, because of the extraordinary proximity to what’s going on, the audience becomes totally caught up in what the characters are after, it makes them root for them throughout the evening.

“The girl is an adorable character who starts at 18 and goes to 22, which are such interesting years for a young person. Things change so quickly and are felt so intensely.”

Caird doesn’t believe audiences demand scale and grandeur from musicals and says both he, and they, are “pleased to see something more intimate”.

He adds: “In La Boheme I have eight principals, 50 chorus, eight non-singing actors plus an orchestra and 16 children, and somehow have to make them all co-exist on stage in a way that looks real.

“Sometimes I think this is not a job for a grown-up. It feels like human flower arranging.

“I prefer detailed emotional work with character. In Daddy Long Legs you can go into extraordinary detail of their emotional journeys.”

Caird’s most famous large- scale project was co-directing Les Miserables in 1985 with Trevor Nunn. The man who also helped tame the overlong book into the version we know today says he’s “very proud” of the show, which has run continuously ever since and is soon to be a big-budget movie with Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe.

“It looms rather large over me and one feels slightly bound to it like a wheel of fire, yet I can’t complain. It’s too pleasing and proud-making for me to feel anything other than positive about it.”

At the time, Caird says it never felt a Herculean task to bring Hugo’s book to the stage.

“It never felt difficult or impossible, it felt challenging, thrilling and exciting. What none of us could imagine is that it would run forever. We thought we would have a great big show that may or may not be critically received and would close after a few weeks. The thought that it would run for 27 years would be preposterous. It is preposterous.”

Caird delights in the way that musical theatre like Les Mis uses melody to broaden the characters’ emotional power.

“Of course it’s not naturalistic and audiences take a big jump in believing these characters sing but, in allowing them music to go with their words, you are giving them the sound that goes with their feelings.

“The music gives a visceral sense of a feeling that’s too complex or intense for words.”

With Nunn, Caird also co-directed the landmark nine-hour RSC production of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980 and says sometimes the biggest challenges are the most exciting.

For now, though, he’s looking forward to returning home from a place where the temperature rarely dips below 70 degrees.

“I can’t wait to walk through Highgate with a light rain falling on my face and feel the wind blowing from the Urals.”

Daddy Long Legs runs at St James Theatre in Victoria until December 8.