Cole Burden is a long way from Paris, but he still finds himself climbing a barricade and fighting for French independence eight times a week. As Courfeyrac in the hit musical Les Misérables, which has launched its 25th Anniversary tour, he is part of a band of idealistic students who rise up against the oppressive government. Given the current climate of union-busting and stripping rights from public employees, Les Misérables couldn’t be more timely.
Set in the early nineteenth century, Les Misérables is Victor Hugo’s epic story of love, revolution and redemption, centering on Jean Valjean, a former prisoner, who spends his life trying to help others, but is pursued by Inspector Javert, who vows to bring Valjean down no matter how long it takes. A love triangle develops between Cosette, Valjean’s adopted daughter, Marius, an idealistic student, and Eponine, the daughter of the cruel couple who raised Cosette before Valjean rescued her. The show’s staying power has always been its gorgeous score, featuring songs like “I Dreamed a Dream”, “On My Own”, “Bring Him Home” and the comedic “Master of the House.”
“It’s nice to stay on the go. I like that lifestyle,” Burden explained. The handsome twenty-seven year old actor gave up plans to sing opera when he realized that he would be relegated to doing the same few roles due to his vocal range. “I’ve always been drawn to acting, in film or on stage. I just happen to be able to sing.” Musical theater fulfills him more. He has been in workshops of Yank!, the musical about gay soldiers in love during World War II, and played Buck Barrow, Clyde’s brother, in the new musical Bonnie and Clyde by Hunter Foster of Urinetown fame.
“I think I’m the only actor in musical theater who had never seen Les Miz,” Burden laughed. “It’s such a rewarding show to do because I do a lot of workshops of new musicals and you’re trying to get a feel for what the audience thinks. With Les Miz, it’s so great because it’s such a ‘sure thing’ every night. The audience is singing the finale with us every night. I think every actor needs to experience what it’s like to do such a hit, because that’s not always the case. It’s nice to do something that everybody loves.”
Being in the ensemble means that Burden is working non-stop. “I think I have fifteen costume changes,” he explained. “It’s a lot of fun. I get to be a little bit of everything. I’m a sailor, I’m one of the poor at the beginning of the show, and I’m Courfeyrac, one of the students, who’s told, “Courfeyrac, you take the watch”. I’ve started a blog on my website called “Taking the Watch” where I let people know what’s going on on the tour. I also understudy Bamatabois, who’s one of the fops. I get to put on a lot of make-up and beat up on (downtrodden heroine) Fantine, so that’s a lot of fun.” Burden’s blog gives a rare look behind the scenes at an actor’s life on the road, including one incident where the infamous iPhone Daylight Savings glitch made him late to a performance. “I just want to talk to people about life within Les Miz. Nothing personal, but there are so many fans of the show that I think they’d love to hear stuff that goes on. It’s such an epic production, I think that there are lots of interesting stories that one can tell.”
Burden devotes a lot of his time to raising money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “It’s so important as an actor to stay abreast of what’s going on, for lack of a better term, ‘in the real world’.” He is committed to making sure that people continue to fight the spread of HIV, and is proud that they as a cast have already raised more than $75,000. “Just the difference (in attitudes about AIDS) as a gay man between being twenty-seven and twenty-three... it’s like there’s a complacency about unprotected sex. I just don’t understand where that comes from. I guess we’re just getting away from an understanding of how it all originated. It’s very scary, actually.”
He’s glad that Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, a play about the early days of the AIDS crisis, is back on stage in New York. “I draw a correlation between that play and what happens to the students in Les Miz. It’s about standing up and fighting, literally going into the streets and fighting for a cause that you believe in. In Les Miz, it’s about children and education and the decline of Paris and we have to take control and get it back together because the government is not going to. I relate more to seeing a film like Milk and seeing what Harvey Milk really did for the gay community. That’s something as a person that I can relate to, that I’m passionate about.” Burden hopes that people of all generations can take the message from Les Misérables that you have to stand up and be willing to fight against those who want to keep you down.”
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.