England-What Comes to Mind

When you think of England, what is the first thing you think of. For a lot of people, they would be thinking about London. London was the first place I knew that existed in England. When I was younger- I think back in elementary school, I wanted to go to London just to see a guard. That sounds odd, but I was only young after all. When I think of London, a LOT comes to mind. July 31st-August 10th were meaningful: those were the dates that created the Bristol Pilgrimage.

Five years ago on the 28th, my family left for London. We went from Charlotte to Atlanta to London. My family took my sister and I early to get used to the time change and to get more out of London. We arrived the 29th at Heathrow Airport, but I did not even believe we were in London. I had to see West End filers to know that we were actually in London. Before leaving the airport, my family walked to Costa Coffee- we did that to make sure we met the other pilgrims at the right place. We ended up having coffee and food at Costa. We would have arrived what felt like the middle of the night.

The 29th and 30th felt we were just tourists. All we did on the 29th was walk around the Westminster Area- I did get to see a guard. It was actually the 30th where it felt like we were doing something. Our first stop was Platform 9 and 3/4 at King’s Cross Station. My sister and I were raised on Harry Potter- we both love the series. After that, there wasn’t much time to do much more- lunch, and then time to go back to the hotel, but first a stop at Paddington Station. After arriving back at the hotel, my mom and I had to get ready for Les Mis- not only did we have to get dressed, but also had to figure out how to get to the West End.

“I Dreamed a Dream”

Seeing the Queen’s Theater was surreal. I thought I was imaging. While getting a quick bite to eat for dinner, I kept on looking at the Queen’s Theater. I did have culture shock in the West End- we were buying souvenirs and was surprised that the playbill had to be purchased. I also ended up with a poster and t-shirt. My mom and I also got a souvenir for a church friend, whose favorite musical is Les Mis. From seeing the theater to buying souvenirs to realizing I had an understudy for Valjean to seeing the set to seeing how close we were- all felt not real. But then, I heard them- the first notes of the orchestra. I do see the orchestra as a character- the orchestra did tell me something- that it would be more than expected. Those notes were not wrong: it was more than expected- not just by cast, but by the ensemble and staging. I literally stood up right away during the curtain call. The revolve was one of the best parts, and the same with the barricade- in terms of staging. That cast- I never once detected I had an understudy, and they were brilliant.

I actually had my first stage door experience. Originally I did not want to, but my mom convinced me to. I actually met Adam Bayjou, who was Jean Valjean. He signed my playbill and got a picture of him. To get a picture with the actor who was the main character was exciting. It was my dream to see Les Mis in London. There was one more thing I loved about that evening: I loved that my dad and sister got their own date with my mom and I were watching Les Mis. I was an emotional wreck- and did find new emotions in characters. I was also was laughing every once in a while.

The 31st- my family had to go back to the airport to meet the rest of the 72 pilgrims at Costa Coffee. Most of them left the same day I saw Les Mis. To from Valjean’s spiritual journey to my own- that actually made the musical more meaningful. We started at Windsor Castle. August 1st and 2nd consisted of a walking tour of London, Evensong at Westminster, Eucharist at St. Paul’s, and Tower of London (we didn’t have time to go in, but had time to walk around. I was nervous living London- I did not know anything about Bristol. It was chaotic living London.

Do you what London reminds me of? It reminds me of NYC, but a spread out version of NYC. One of the things I loved about being at Bristol was looking for Shaun the Sheep. I never once thought I would go to all the church services, but I did. From Bath to Berkeley Castle to Stonehenge to Old Sarum to Salisbury Cathedral to Tintern Abbey to Chepstow Castle- we went to places in and around Bristol. The Stonehenge day was when the church choir was off- so we were able to do more that day. Stonehenge was my mountain-top moment. That day actually seemed like it was going to rain, but the clouds gave Stonehenge an incredible atmosphere. I do not think that the things we did were the best part of the pilgrimage. In my opinion, the fellowship that was created was the best part. Our church has a stronger fellowship all because of the Bristol Pilgrimage. Some of the things we did had a stronger impact than others, but everything added up to the meaning behind the pilgrimage.

The last two days were spent in Bristol. So the pilgrims had free time until the church services. My family visited St. Mary Redcliffe, and by being there, I thought of the perfect motto for the Bristol Pilgrimage.

Those lyrics from the Servant Song are perfect- the song now has double meaning (Kanuga and the Bristol Pilgrimage). We really were travelers. We were pilgrims. We did help each other. We were at a number of places. There was only one time we weren’t in England- we were in Wales for Tintern and Chepstow. A lot of them were places I wasn’t familiar with. I actually was in tears twice in England. The first was at Les Mis and the other time was the final Evensong. When the final anthem was sung, I was in tears, and through that reaction, I knew just how transforming the pilgrimage was. The Bristol Pilgrimage was an important part of my spiritual journey. My family mainly wanted to go up early because of Les Mis- what was crazy about the stage show was that I did see it every other years. 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2019 were the years I saw the stage show: four theaters and three ways (community college, West End, and US Tour).

Do you know what the difference is between a tourist and pilgrim. A tourist actually just looks while a pilgrim looks much deeper for the spirituality and sacredness of a place and look deeper in themselves. I think the reason why I was able to find the spirituality in Les Mis is due to having a strong spirit. I accidentally mistook is for being too depressing when I first saw the movie, but for whatever reason gave it a 2nd chance.

Importance of Ovens Auditorium

Blumenthal Performing Arts is home to about seven theaters. Their main theater is Belk Theater. At Belk, you can see operas, musicals, symphonies, and ballet. I saw Sound of Music, Miss Saigon, Aladdin, Lion King, Newsies, Pippin, Rent, Come From Away, Mamma Mia, Porgy and Bess, and La Cage at Belk. As for operas and ballet, saw La Bohème and Nutcracker there.

Despite Belk being the main theater, it isn’t even the largest. That really surprised me when I learned that Ovens is actually bigger- Belk may have more levels, but Ovens is wider and deeper. If Ovens didn’t exist, there is a good chance many musicals never would have made it to Charlotte. Ovens is able to host musicals when something is happening at Belk. So Ovens allows for a lot more availability.

While I did not see many musicals at Ovens—–I am glad that Ovens does exist or else none of them might have made it to Blumenthal. I saw Addams Family, A Christmas Story-The Musical, Les Mis, and Wicked at Ovens. Whenever I think of Ovens, I think of Wicked: I was able to catch that musical three times on tour. The latest time I saw Wicked, I was watching it with my school. When I saw Les Mis at Ovens, it was a date with my mom: that was our 2nd date to Les Mis: the 1st was in London.

I did not like ALL the Blumenthal shows I saw, but defiantly liked most. Addams Family, Porgy and Bess, and La Cage were musicals I did not even like.

Musical Movies I Would Recommend

If you live outside of a place that isn’t well known for musical, there still has to be a way to exposed to musicals. Well, this is when musical movies and filmed stage shows come in handy. In addition, musical movies are one of the easiest ways to fall in love with musicals especially during this crisis. What are some of my recommendations.

Les Mis

Well, the 2012 movie was how I fell in love with Les Mis. What I really loved about this movie is how the actors were singing live on set. It has a combo of film actors and stage actors. Yes, the plot can seem confusing at first or even too heartbreaking. But if you search deeper, you will realize the musical is also uplifting and inspiring. It is the easiest to start with the movie: to get used to the plot and fall in love with the songs.

Phantom of the Opera- 25th Special

Well, I saw both the film and 25th special. The 25th is the actual stage show- as in the Original. You have incredible actors. Les Mis may have the 25th and 10th concert films, but not the best way to start with Les Mis. Phantom of the Opera is hauntingly beautiful- the songs show that.

The Greatest Showman

Even though it is not a stage musical, it still is an incredible movie musical. Hugh Jackman really shines at P.T. Barnum: he actually was better in this role- he was Jean Valjean in the Les Mis movie, but shines a lot more as Barnum. The spectacle, the talent, and the songs together are why I would recommend this musical.

Newsies- The Filmed Stage Show

The stage show is SO much better than the movie. It makes the main character, Jack Kelly, more complex and with the addition of Katherine, you get a strong female voice in a cast that is extremely male-based. The filmed stage show has some Original Cast Members. It also is home to mind-blowing dance.

Sound of Music

If you want to start with Rodgers and Hammerstein, I would recommended Sound of Music. It has the incredible Julie Andrews playing Maria. From its exciting numbers to the heartwarming story about music and family to the incredible batch of characters. If you actually fell in love with this movie, I would recommend heading towards Oklahoma, South Pacific, Cinderella, and King and I. Nothing can go wrong with Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Aladdin- Live Action

Disney is an incredible way to start seeing musicals. What I love about the live action movie is that it actually develops well-loved characters further. With the addition of “Speechless”- it makes Jasmine a much stronger character. The actors who play Jasmine and Aladdin are incredible. It is one of the most magical Disney films.

Beauty and the Beast- Live Action

This is such a magical movie. It really shows how “beauty can from within”. It mostly takes place in a castle with enchanting objects. The dance between Belle and Beast is one of the most magical scenes in Disney. With the addition of “Evermore”, it makes the Beast even more complex.

Rent-Final Broadway Cast Film

Rent is truly a story about how to live life. It is talking about living your life in the moment and in love. It focuses on a life of friends in a year during the HIV/AIDS epidemic . Because this is the Final Broadway Cast, you have an incredible cast. It is extremely relevant to now- considering the crisis we are in the middle.

If you are looking for a feel good story, then Mamma Mia is for you. Based on the songs of ABBA, you have an incredible collection of songs. Played by incredible actors. In addition, if you are looking for another feel good story, I would recommend Singin’ in the Rain as well.

Conclusion:

I included a lot of incredible musicals to start with. It has the musicals from the feel good stories to more heartbreaking stories. I also can recommend the musical movies of Oliver, Music Man, and Fiddler on the Roof. That is what I have for now.

What musical movies can you add to this?

Five Years Ago- A Dream

Well, what is hard to believe is that I was in England five years ago. My family arrived on July 29th. When we landed in London, I did not even believe I was actually in London. It took until seeing West End fliers that I actually knew for a fact we were there. One of the first things we did was get some coffee at Costa Coffee. We ended up being the same Costa my family would be meeting the rest of the 72 pilgrims: just so we would know where that was.

However, what is exactly the significance about July 30th, 2015. That was the day when it actually felt like my family was doing something. It all began on Platform 9 and 3/4 and getting Harry Potter souvenirs. After getting some lunch and visiting Paddington Station, we had to go back to our hotel. For the 29th and the 30th, my family stayed at a nicer hotel.

We had to go back kind of early to the hotel. That was really important for my mom and I. That summer, my mom and I already had one theater date: to Pippin at Blumenthal’s Belk Theater. But on July 30th, my mom and I had a 2nd theater date. This time, I was seeing a musical in The West End, but it was Les Mis. I think things came full circle from the time I saw Wicked on Broadway to the time when I saw Les Mis in the West End. My family had to get back to the hotel kinda of early afternoon to get dressed and to figure out how to get to The West End from our hotel.

There are multiple things I loved about that night. I am glad that my sister and dad got their own date. My sister is not into musical theater like I am. My mom loved musicals growing up- that is why we have been to as many theater dates we do. For another- this actually happened one day before the actual Bristol Pilgrimage. Still, how did this production end up being in 2015, two years after seeing the stage show for the first time. Well, I didn’t start convincing my parents to take me to Les Mis in 2013- there was no sign yet of going up early. But I was told it would be two days early November of 2014, but it was December of 2014 when I was told I would see a show in The West End: but which was it. I had to wait until June 2015 to figure that out: my mom texted me French Flag and Musical note Emojis, and I was confused. I then was told to check my email, and the moment I read Les Misérables, I ran up to my mom crying.

Well, the moment I saw the Queen’s Theater, it felt surreal. From that to buying souvenirs to noticing how close I was to seeing the set, nothing felt real. But the moment I saw that I heard the the first notes of the orchestra- I knew for a fact that this dream was becoming reality. Those first notes also told me that this production will be more than expected. I had one cultural shock in the West End: buying the playbill- I am so used to being handed the playbill at the door: not buying it.

“I Dreamed a Dream”

Since I am so used to the US Terms, I barely use the word Stalls to describe where I was seating. My mom and I were in the 9th row from the stage. I actually had an understudy this night= for Valjean. Little did I know I would see some of those actors again- just not in person.

My West End Cast:

Valjean-Adam Bayjou (understudy)

Javert- Jeremy Secomb

Fantine-Rachelle Ann Go

Cosete- Zoe Doano

Marius- Rob Houchen

Eponine- Carrie Hope Fletcher

Enjolras- Bradley Jaden

Thenardiers- Phil Daniels and Katy Secombe

My thoughts on the Cast:

This cast was brilliant. They literally were more than expected: that ranges from the ensemble to the principal actors. I might have had an understudy as Valjean, but it never felt that way. This cast will always be special to me due to living a dream with them. At curtain call, I never stand up until a lead comes, but this time, I stood up right away. This cast was actually my 2nd stage show- but 4th cast all together: that is if you include the film and 25th concert. Les Mis means a lot- Wicked might have sparked a love, but Les Mis transformed that love into a passion. Growing up I did not know the West End existed- it actually was Central Piedmont Community College’s production that ended up being the motor for wanting to see Les Mis in London. I never really get to see Big Name actors/actresses- usually I see actors that are not Big Names, but have the potential to become one.

There was something that was really new about this production. In the past, I NEVER found common ground or sympathy for Javert. But when I saw Jeremy Secomb as Javert, I finally could feel that sympathy that was missing. That is a huge reason why Adam Bayjou/Jeremy Secomb was my strongest Valjean/Javert dynamic so far. Well, my strongest love triangle dynamic was found in London as well: I find it interesting that your strongest dynamic for a subplot may not individually consist of your favorite actors/actresses for a character. That was the case for my West End love triangle.

Before this production, I already knew who these characters were. After all, I spent a lot of time watching the film, reading the book, and researching the musical. I already knew who I had an emotional connection with: Valjean, Fantine, Eponine, and Enjolras and the students- those are my core favorite characters. I started being an emotional wreck right after Valjean was released- and that lasted till the end. There were emotions I felt in characters that was never felt before. I think I know why: it wasn’t just because of the actors, but due to reading the unabridged book the same summer and living a dream were huge reasons why.

Here is what I did after seeing the West End Production. I made the decision to not compare future casts to these actors. That would be unfair especially if you have an understudy. In addition, you wouldn’t be able to see the casts for who they are. The US Tour followed after- in 2017 and 2019. I originally thought it was in the West End where I was the most taken off guard, but it wasn’t. It actually was found within the US Tour. Here is what is fascinating about three of my stage casts- my 2015/2017/2019 casts all had an understudy: Adam Bayjou as Valjean, Talia Simone Robinson as Eponine, and Andrew Maughan as Valjean.

The love triangle sure took things for a turn in 2017/2019: usually, Eponine is the strongest actor or ends up being just as good as Marius, but not in the US Tour. Due to who I had as Marius and Cosette- Joshua Grosso and Jillian Butler, I was able to explore Marius and Cosette at a much deeper level. Especially who I had as Marius: Joshua actually made that character almost a core favorite. I saw these two paired with two Eponine actresses- it was interesting seeing how the love triangle could change with just one character.

How many Les Mis casts do I have? I have eight Les Mis casts- the film, 25th concert, community college, West End, US Tour- 2017/2019, 2019 Concert in Cinemas, and 10th concert. Who the Les Mis characters became is a combo of book/musical/my actors/actresses. It is kinda of odd bringing up the film and the 2019 concert- I experienced both in cinemas, but my opinion of Les Mis was different. When I first saw the film, I literally did not know how to respond, react, or feel: I wasn’t told Les Mis was a tragedy so that why I would go- I was no where close to being an emotional wreck. By the time I saw the 2019 concert in cinemas- I already was an emotional wreck and already obsessed with Les Mis. In some ways, I might have a 9th cast- if I decide to include the PBS Masterpiece Series.

Let me just say who my favorite actor for these characters are:

Valjean- can’t decide

Javert- Jeremy Secomb

Fantine- hard decision

Cosette- Jillian Butler

Marius- Joshua Grosso

Eponine- Samantha Barks (has the advantage of being first)

Enjolras- literally, like ALL Enjolras actors are fantastic

Thenardiers- Katy Secombe and Phil Daniels

Conclusion

Still can’t believe I was in London five years ago. As souvenirs I got the playbill (that was a cultural shock), poster, and a t-shirt. It actually was fitting that I saw Les Mis in London- the next day, the Bristol Pilgrimage would begin. So went from Valjean’s spiritual journey to my own. So, some of my favorite actors for these characters might seem puzzling, but you still have to keep in mind I live in the US.

The Importance of This Date

Today is July 28th. You might be wondering what is so special about a particular month and day. Well five years ago to this day, my family left Charlotte to go to London. We went from Charlotte to Atlanta to London landing in London on July 29th. When we arrived in London, I did not believe we were there. Eventually, I found the West End filers, and from those alone I really knew for a fact that we were in London. I ended up choosing the Les Mis filer because I would be seeing Les Mis on the 30th.

What are the things my family did in London?

Platform 9 and 3/4- my sister and I have seen Harry Potter growing up.

Les Mis- there are multiple things I loved about this night. Now only was my mom and I watching Les Mis, but my dad and sister got to do their own thing. Seeing Les Mis in the West End was my dream, which fit perfectly into what I was doing in England. From Valjean’s spiritual journey to my own.

Below are two pictures from London.

Windsor Castle- this is the first thing my family did will all the pilgrims. In total, there were 72 pilgrims. It started with changing of the guards before entering.

Walking Tour of London- while on the 29th, my family did walk around the Westminster Area, this time felt different. But this tour made me see things that were not seen and others closer. This is how I was able to see Buckingham Palace, and closer to the London Eye. We saw same of the same areas from before, but a closer view

Evensong at Westminster- all the pilgrims sat in the quire at Westminster. We went to Evensong to help prepare us for what to expect in Bristol.

Eucharist at St. Paul’s- we actually got to sit under the beautiful dome. After, there was some free time. My family walked to the Millennium Bridge for more Harry Potter fun- that was the bridge the death eaters destroyed in Half Blood Prince.

Tower of London- while there wasn’t time to go inside, there was still time to walk around. My family first walked on the Tower Bridge. While walking around Tower of London, I was able to see some jousting. .

Leaving London- I actually was kinda of nervous leaving London: the two buses met everyone at the Tower of London. One bus was used for choir members and the other family, parishioners, and friends. Everyone arrived to Bristol late all because it was chaotic leaving London. Here is what I do know: if I ever go back to England, I want to stay in London the entire time.