In Venezuela, Victor Hugo's 'Les Misérables' Resonates With Caracas Residents

Oct 23, 2019
Originally published on October 23, 2019 6:10 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's no sign of an end to the crisis in Venezuela. President Nicolas Maduro is still there, and so, for millions of people, is the struggle to survive. There are dire shortages of food, medicines and jobs. Violence disrupts daily life. NPR's Philip Reeves reports on an effort to change that using a little stardust.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?")

UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMER: (As character, singing in Spanish).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: If you're looking for the definition of optimism, try this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?")

UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMER: (As character, singing in Spanish).

REEVES: These are Venezuelans preparing to stage one of the world's most popular musicals in their capital, Caracas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?")

UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMER: (As character, singing in Spanish).

REEVES: Their nation's going through miserable times, yet do you hear the people sing?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?")

UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMERS: (As characters, singing in Spanish).

CLAUDIA SALAZAR: People think I'm crazy. That's the first question. Who's the crazy person behind this? And they can't believe it 'cause I'm young. I'm a woman.

REEVES: Claudia Salazar is 33. She's the producer. Salazar first saw "Les Miserables" 20 years ago and fell in love with it.

SALAZAR: It was like a turning point for me. When I saw it, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. And since then, I've been working towards "Les Mis."

REEVES: Salazar's from Caracas. The crime rate in her city's so high that many residents won't leave home after dark. Salazar hopes putting on a big show in the evenings will change that.

SALAZAR: We need to give Venezuelans an excuse to go out and take the city again. And if we all go out, I mean, they can't murder us all.

REEVES: Salazar admits some Venezuelans tell her this helps President Maduro by making his broken country seem a little more normal.

SALAZAR: Of course, they said it. But I always say I work for culture. It's not about politics at all.

REEVES: When people suggest she should not be doing this, Salazar has a ready reply.

SALAZAR: You're saying that our people, who are living the situation, are not worthy of this. And we are, not only as public - as creators.

(CROSSTALK)

REEVES: Rehearsal's underway in a classroom in a Caracas school. There was fierce competition to become one of these performers. Salazar says 700 people turned up for audition.

SALAZAR: And it was very pleasing and inspiring to see people coming from all around Venezuela who have talent.

REEVES: And there will be people who will be desperate for a job.

SALAZAR: Of course. Of course. And that's also something. My mission here is to make these job opportunities because there are a lot of artists. We are an artistic people.

REEVES: Those artists include Gabi Brett, who's 25. She was a lawyer until people found out she could do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON MY OWN")

GABI BRETT: (As Eponine, singing in Spanish).

REEVES: Brett plays Eponine, one of the star roles.

BRETT: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Brett believes putting on this show during a crisis conveys a message.

BRETT: (Speaking in Spanish).

REEVES: "It's, yes, we can," she says. "We can do this. Venezuelans don't give up."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON MY OWN")

BRETT: (As Eponine, singing in Spanish).

REEVES: There've been many obstacles to overcome. Producer Claudia Salazar again.

SALAZAR: I was supposed to open in 2018 to begin with, but then we moved the date to May 2019. And then our power came out for about a week.

REEVES: She's repairing the show's venue, the once prestigious but now run-down Teresa Carreno Theater, and adding a generator in case the lights go out again.

MARIANO DETRY: My name is Mariano Detry - D-E-T-R-Y.

REEVES: Detry's directed "Les Miserables" around the world, including in London's West End for six years. He's originally from Argentina. When he was tapped for the Caracas show, Detry says he was delighted. He set one condition.

DETRY: I said, listen; I'm all up for doing it. But, obviously, if it gets too crazy, I want to have the reassurance that I can take a flight out of the country at any time. And I've got that reassurance, and it actually happened.

REEVES: It happened in April. Violence broke out a day after Detry arrived in Venezuela for rehearsals. He flew right back to London, where he lives. Caracas is calmer these days, yet he's still careful.

DETRY: I don't leave the hotel when I'm here. I'm not venturing into the streets on my own. And I'm not crazy that way because it is a very, very, very dangerous situation this country is going through right now.

REEVES: Detry sees parallels between Venezuela's situation and "Les Miserables." The musical's based on Victor Hugo's classic novel set in 19th century France, yet its big themes - poverty, oppression, revolution - resonate with many Venezuelans. That includes the minority who still support the socialist revolution of Hugo Chavez and the multitude who blame his protege, Maduro, for unleashing chaos.

DETRY: It speaks to absolutely everybody, and that's what we need to do. But I'm not coming to any political conclusion. It's not my place. That's for the audience to decide.

REEVES: Even so, Detry says his Caracas production will mirror reality in Venezuela.

DETRY: So for example, you see these people running behind the bin bags to get something to eat, and we're putting that onstage in 19th century France. So instead of having a plastic bag, you will see a cart where the beggars are really desperate, trying to get something out of the rubbish of the rich. And that will be onstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?")

UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMERS: (As characters, singing in Spanish).

ELISA VEGAS: The story that we are telling through the music - it's going to be real for Venezuelan people.

REEVES: Elisa Vegas is a professional musician from Venezuela.

VEGAS: I'm a conductor - orchestra conductor - and I'm the musical director of "Les Miserables" in this production.

REEVES: Vegas is sure one scene in particular will chime with the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?")

UNIDENTIFIED PERFORMER: (As character, singing in Spanish).

REEVES: You can probably guess which one.

VEGAS: The barricades - it's so near to us. When you see the barricades and how it's going to be on the stage, you just feel like you are in Caracas two years ago and feeling how barricades were here.

REEVES: The show opens at the end of this month. Tickets cost far more than many Venezuelans can afford, so there'll be some free performances because in this country, at this miserable time, everybody needs art. Humberto Baralt plays Jean Valjean.

HUMBERTO BARALT: (Through interpreter) It's an opportunity for catharsis, for people to blow off steam, to cry, to feel things without fear of being judged. That's why we do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING HIM HOME")

BARALT: (As Jean Valjean, singing in Spanish).

VEGAS: When you are in these kind of situations that we're living here, when you go to something like this, you breathe. You get energy. And then you can go through your week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING HIM HOME")

BARALT: (As Jean Valjean, singing in Spanish).

VEGAS: At the end, you hear people telling you thank you. Thank you for giving us light. Thank you for giving us hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING HIM HOME")

BARALT: (As Jean Valjean, singing in Spanish).

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING HIM HOME")

BARALT: (As Jean Valjean, singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.