The son of Filipino immigrants, Devin Ilaw always had a hankering for the theater. He realized early on, however, that landing a lead role in a Broadway musical might be unlikely.
“I really didn’t think that this would happen for me, and I feel blessed to have the opportunity,” said Ilaw, who plays Marius in the national touring production of “Les Misérables,” coming to Proctors for six days beginning Tuesday. “This is the show that I’ve always wanted to be in. I saw ‘Les Mis’ on Broadway when I was in middle school, and Marius was my favorite character.”
Ilaw is a native of Bayonne, N.J., and a 2007 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University. He played Thuy in the touring production of “Miss Saigon” that played Proctors in 2010 and most recently performed as Billy Bigelow in Baayork Lee’s all-Asian production of “Carousel” at the Playwrights Horizons in New York City. Those were great experiences, according to Ilaw,
but he still wondered whether or not he’d get the chance to play a non-Asian lead in a major mainstream production.
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 2 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: SOLD OUT
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
“I saw Lea Salonga playing Eponine in ‘Les Mis,’ but while they might do that for women occasionally, they don’t typically cast multiracially, and never for the men,” said Ilaw, referring to Salonga, the Filipino soprano who has played both Eponine and Fantine in ‘Les Mis’ on Broadway. “It’s been very interesting for me to deal with this over the past few years. My look is interesting. I don’t necessarily play 100 percent Asian, and sometimes I have trouble getting into Asian shows. But I’m clearly not white, black or Latin. Hopefully people just see me as a human being.”
Ilaw was heading for a career as a classical pianist until a tip from his piano teacher got him started on a different path.
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“I’ve played the piano my whole life, and it was my instructor who told me if I started singing, I would understand the melody more, and it would improve my piano skills,” said Ilaw. “That was in high school. But my mother was a singer, my cousin — I come from a very all-around musical family.”
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Ilaw was immersed in musical theater by the time he auditioned for the theater program at Carnegie Mellon. His audition number was “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” a song Marius sings during a powerful moment in “Les Mis.”
“I used it for all of my college auditions because it’s a song I really connected with,” said Ilaw. “Anything that has a strong bond with family and friends, and for me that song is so emotional and terrifying. It really allows you to explore your feelings. One of my teachers told me that it doesn’t matter if everybody’s heard the song before. You want to use something that showcases what you do best, and I feel like that song does that for me.”
“Les Misérables,” the musical, was created by producer Cameron MacIntosh and opened on the West End in London in 1985. An adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic French novel set in the Parisian underworld between 1815 and 1832, it tells the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant sent to jail for 19 years for having stolen a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child. Claude-Michel Schonberg wrote the music, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel did the original French lyrics and Herbert Kretzmer provided the English-language libretto. Despite initial bad reviews, “Les Mis” became a hit in London and then opened on Broadway in March of 1987. The show won eight Tonys, was nominated for four more, and ran until May of 2003, making it the second-longest-running Broadway show in history at that time.
‘Each piece fits’
“The thing I love about the show is that there are so many different and intricate story lines being told, and yet they all come together perfectly in one story,” said Ilaw. “Each piece of the puzzle fits, and what a beautiful picture it is. Then there’s the music. It is glorious.”
As Marius, Ilaw plays a young Frenchman who fights at the barricades and is saved by Valjean after all of his comrades are killed. He is part of the story’s romantic triangle, being loved by Eponine and in love with Cosette. In the 2012 movie production, the part of Marius was played by Eddie Redmayne, and Ilaw is comfortable with all comparisons between the stage version and the Hollywood film.
“I think the film brought a larger audience to musical theater than we would have had before, and I think people went and saw the stars doing it and left seeing a great piece of art,” said Ilaw. “I think the movie probably encouraged people to go see it live on stage, because three hours of people dying and misery is not what our country needs right now. I think it’s really cool to be compared to the movie. I think we’re having a good hearty competition with them.”
Ilaw would remind people, however, that in the film the actors did it once, and while they perhaps captured something wonderful, they didn’t have to repeat it eight times a week.
“There was all this hubbub about how they sang live in the film, and yes, Anne Hathaway was brilliant,” said Ilaw. “But the mode of singing is so different between film and the stage, and there’s so many things you can do with a film that you can’t on stage. But we do it live every single night, and you’re never going to beat the sound of a beautiful live orchestra.”
Peter Lockyer, who played Marius on Broadway in 1997, is Jean Valjean in the national touring production. His other Broadway credits include Joe Cable in “South Pacific,” Chris in “Miss Saigon,” and the title role in “Phantom of the Opera.”
“He was playing Marius when I saw ‘Les Mis’ on Broadway,” Ilaw said of Lockyer, a native of Westbrook, Conn. “Now that I’m in the show and he’s playing Jean Valjean it’s just amazing.”
Ilaw joined this production of “Les Mis” in Chicago in November, and is scheduled to stay on as Marius until August of this year, when the tour ends in Las Vegas.
“I love this show, but it’s also revitalizing to do something new and different,” said Ilaw. “I do get bored easily, and while I’m certainly not bored doing this show, typically I can’t wait to see what’s next. I miss New York. I miss my studio where I give voice lessons. I’m also not taking any vacation time between now and August, so it will be nice to be at home for a while.”
He does remember Schenectady fondly from his five-day run here in August of 2010 for “Miss Saigon.”
“A beautiful theater, I had a great dresser there, the best in my whole life, and I loved that little street across from the theater,” said Ilaw, referencing Jay Street. “I remember Schenectady very well.”