TOWNSEND -- "Who are you singing to?"
It's one thing for a young aspiring actor to get that question from a stage director or cast member after completing a big musical number, pouring their hearts out through flexing vocal chops only to be asked a seemingly basic but ultimately vital question. It's another thing to get asked that question after nervously standing before someone starring in one of the most acclaimed musicals in the history of modern culture.
Nick Cartell, star of the current national tour of Les Miserables, talked with kids in the Pepperell Community Arts Program on Thursday about his career, his process and his current gig playing Victor Hugo's haggard but hopeful ex-con Jean Valjean.
Speaking after performing over 550 shows of "One Day More," Cartell is used to long days of rehearsals and repeated spectacles. His stacked resume includes Cirque Du Soleil's first Broadway musical, Paramour, Kathie Lee Gifford's musical biography Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson and other theater classics including The Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ Superstar.
For his current role, Cartell said first rehearsals for Les Miserables took place over four weeks from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"There are days where I can be tired," he said. "But then you know everyone wants to be doing what you're doing and then you say, 'I'm pretty lucky.'"
A graduate of Arizona State University with a bachelor's degree in theater, Cartell has traveled as far as Japan to further his career.
"Do everything you can in the theater," Cartell said. "I've also worked in technical crews, lighting crews and costumed departments. It makes you more appreciative of everyone in theater."
Not only did Cartell score the professional role of a lifetime, played by everyone from theater legend Colm Wilkinson to Hollywood heavyweight Hugh Jackman, but he also gained personal development through it as well. He said that Jean Valjean really "bled" into his life and improved his own character.
"I didn't used to stand up for myself a lot," he said. "Now I stand up a lot more for myself and for my fellow actors. Nobody should tell you that you can't do something."
Four of the attendees took that to heart as they took to Performing Arts Center's stage and performed songs in front of Cartell.
Katie Poirier, 12, offered a sweet rendition of "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid due to how "relatable" the song is to her own ambition of seeing the world.
Sofia Santoro, 14, brought the spunky confidence needed to, in her words, "be bold and get the point across" for the Funny Girl staple "Don't Rain on My Parade."
Aren Truex, 15, sang "King of the World" from Songs for a New World while taking Cartell's advice of looking above the heads of the theater director, usually seated below the stage, to directly connect with the audience while singing. "It was really inspiring to be onstage with him," Truex said of Cartell. "It makes me appreciate this community of theater people who comes down to help us."
Zac Barnaby, 18, chose to sing "Heaven's Light" from the musical adaptation of another Victor Hugo book: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Barnaby made a last-minute change to his selected song in honor of the Notre Dame Cathedral, which suffered major structural damage from a fire that broke out on Monday.
"I thought I'd do an ode to Paris," he said. "It's a very hopeful song."