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This Miss loves Les Miz

Actress Susan Gilmour still enjoys character after eight years

By Jamie Portman
Calgary Herald

Susan GilmourSusan Gilmour was just a young aspiring performer from Edmonton the day she saw her first Broadway show.

It was the musical Dreamgirls at the historic Imperial Thatre.

As she sat in the audience, caught up in the wonder of that production, she made a vow, "One of these days, I'm going to be up on that stage."

Ten years to the month that pledge came true when Gilmour joined the Broadway company of Les Misérables in 1993 and found herself on the Imperial stage reprising her role as the wronged factory girl, Fantine.

It was a character she had previously played for 2 1/2 years - first in Toronto, where she made her debut as Fantine in 1990, and then on a Canadian national tour. But as it turned out, Broadway was only the midway point. From New York she went to play the role in Los Angeles, and then, in 1996, she embarked on a 10-month international tour that took her to Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul and Capetown, South Africa.

Now she is back in Toronto, portraying Fantine in a revival at the Princess of Wales Theatre.

When Gilmour started calculating the total number of months she's done the role she was astonished to come up with 42.

At eight performances a week, that adds up to approximately 1,350, yet Gilmour still approaches each presentation of the blockbuster musical with the same excitement she felt when she played Fantine for the first time more than eight years ago.

"For most shows, I think it would be very difficult to sustain a role for that long," she says. "Normally after six or eight weeks I'd be ready to move on to something else. I think it's maybe because the story is so strong adn I have such an emotional connection to it that I'm still able to go out there every night as though it's the first time and see it through to the end."

Few performers can claim this kind of ongoing relationship with a single musical. And now that she has performed it on three continents, she has an even deeper understanding of the power of this story of a petty thief, Jean Valjean, who desperately tries to escape his past.

"It doesn't matter who you are or what country you're from or what language you speak. The show deals with humanity. It deals with struggle. It deals with things we all deal with in life - how to feed ourselves and clothe ourselves and protect our children. It's about trying to get ahead in life against all adversity."

Gilmour has now played Fantine opposite six Jean Valjeans, including Canada's Michael Burgess (whom she later married) and Colm Wilkinson, who originally created the role in London and on Broadway and who has been brought back for the current Toronto revival.

Each of the Jeans has brought his own spirit, his own interpretation, his own strengths. But it is an honour to be working with Colm because he was the original Jean Valjean."

Wilkinson's presensce in the Toronto production has sparked unprecedented interest internationally. Mirvish Productions announced that out of 130,000 advanced ticket orders, more than 50,000 came from distant countries - among them Argentina, Australia, England, Israel, Germany and Japan.

Last year, the long-running Broadway production marked it's 10th anniversary with the premiere of a new version mounted by the show's original directors, Trevor Nunn and John Caird. The New York changes have been incorporated into the production on view in Toronto.

"How do you change something that has worked so well initially?" asks Gilmour with a laugh. She then supplies an answer: it's basically a way of giving the show a recharge.

"There have been changes in the lighting. There are major music changes. They have tightened up some moments and they have added a whole new section that wasn't there before. I love what they've done."

Les Misérables hasn't dominated Gilmour's life completely over the past eight years. She has found time to do a number of other projects, including Evita in Calgary and a role in the Livent Toronto production of Kiss of the Spider Woman.

But the place that has a special place in her affections is the Citadel Theatre in her hometown of Edmonton, where director Robin Phillips brought her in for three shows: Oliver, Man of La Mancha and The Beggar's Opera.

"Until then, I had never worked at the Citadel. When I lived in Edmonton, I couldn't even get an audition there. They wanted to bring in people from the outside - They didn't want to hire little girls from Edmonton.

"But Robin hired me sight unseen for Man of La Mancha. I wrote him a letter and told him how much I would love to be in the show and that I had done the role once before at the Neptune in Halifax with Brent Carver. And he hired me - the first job I ever got that I didn't need to audition for.

"Working with Robin was one of the most significant things that's happened to me. He is such a fine teacher and I learned so much from him - so much that a lot of what I'm able to bring to Fantine now has to do with my experience in those other shows."

When she thinks of what's happened to her over the past decade, Gilmour remembers what she said in her old high school yearbook. "I said:'I want to sing, I want to be happy, I want to travel.' Well, it's all happened for me. I love what I do, I'm so lucky in what I do. I believe it's a gift from God..."