VALLEY WEEKEND : Veteran of the Revolution : After 5 Years, Kelly Briggs Is Senior on the 'Les Miz' Tour--and He Still Loves the Music

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some actors storm the barricades of the "Les Miserables" touring company for six months. Others work their way around the famed rotating stage for two or three years. And then there are people like Kelly Briggs.

Briggs has been crisscrossing the country, belting out his part of the three-hour-plus musical for five years, eight months--and counting. He's been from Singapore to Dayton, and as far as he can tell, his job is secure. No one is getting tired of "Les Miz."

"You hear people say over and over, 'This is my sixth time, and this one was the best,' " said Briggs, while gearing up for a five-show weekend in El Paso, Texas.

The London cast celebrated a decade of Miserable-ness in October. On Tuesday when the production opens in Thousand Oaks, the national company will celebrate seven years touring the show, set during a student uprising in Paris.

Briggs has the distinction of being the senior member of the touring cast. His biggest role is that of the Bishop, the catalyst for redemption of Everyman protagonist Valjean, but he also plays about a dozen ensemble parts.

That variety makes his job more enjoyable as an actor, he said. And, like many of the 41 million people who have seen the show worldwide, he is charmed by the music. Good thing, considering he's sung it 2,300 times.

"It's haunting," Briggs said. Sometimes, "someone will turn to me during the sound check and say, 'I never heard that part before.'. . .I don't know why it's that way. If I was doing 'Oklahoma!' eight times a week, I think that would become a little tiring to me."

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He is equally enchanted with the steady work. For years, he paid his acting dues waiting tables. He stood in line for hours at cattle calls to sing only eight bars of music.

"Every time you get a little frustrated with your job--just like anyone does with their job--you think back on that. And I think, you know, it's not so bad."

Not bad, but not glamorous either. Performers such as Briggs live in hotels. Every Monday they travel to a new city. They sing eight shows, Tuesday through Sunday. They get one week off every six months.

At that pace, it's difficult to keep a show fresh. The first people who will tell you that a show is getting stale, said actor J.P. Dougherty, are members of the audience.

Dougherty has been the touring company's Thenardier, Cosette's shady guardian, for more than five years. And yes, occasionally he asks himself, " How am I going to do this again?" But he guards against becoming a machine walking through the role.

"If I don't put out for the audience and make them chuckle. . .at the end of the night I get a mediocre hand. And I don't like that."

Of course, Briggs and Dougherty don't have to sit through the whole show. Associate Director Richard Jay-Alexander, who oversees all productions in the United States and Canada, has seen "Les Miz" more than 1,000 times.

"I used to think that I'd seen it more than anyone alive, but then I remembered that the conductors are in the pit every night--so they're really there," said Jay-Alexander, who is also an executive producer for Cameron Mackintosh Inc., the company that has produced other mega-musicals such as "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera."

A singer and dancer himself, Jay-Alexander thought he knew "Les Miz" by heart until he once had to play Javert during a run-through.

"You've staged it, you've heard it enough, you sing along. . . . But when you have to throw it out, and you're facing someone else, you don't know anything."

Jay-Alexander gets breaks from Miz-biz to work on other Mackintosh musicals, such as "Miss Saigon" and "Five Guys Named Moe."

Still, he said, he never tires of the music. After returning from a trip to Florida last week, he realized he hadn't heard "Les Miz" in a whopping 11 days. He thought he might stop by a matinee at the Imperial Theatre in New York, where the show has been playing since 1987.

The music is undeniably one of the show's draws. Producer Cameron Mackintosh got hooked in 1982 by the double album of the original "Les Miserables" by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg--in French.

He had a limited command of the language and vague recollection of the story, but by the fourth track, he knew he had something special.

If people just wanted music, though, they could buy one of the four compact disc sets. It would be cheaper. No, there's a universality to Victor Hugo's epic that pulls a heart string in everyone, said Jay-Alexander.

Hugo wrote in a letter to his publisher in 1862, "I don't know if it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbor slaves as well as the empires that have serfs."

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The story is still captivating even to Mackintosh. "A number of times I go to the theater and think, I must watch this scene, because some new actor is in it, or whatever. I suddenly look at my watch and instead of being there 10 minutes, I've been there 45," said Mackintosh from his office in London.

Jay-Alexander has read a lot of fan mail over the years, but he's hesitant to try to explain why some people will come to see "Les Miserables" 70 times. He will say this: " 'Les Miz' has challenged a lot of people to think--Will you join in our crusade? What is your life about?"

It will continue to issue that challenge for the foreseeable future. The touring production is booked through 1997. Mackintosh is finding that the company can revisit a city every 18 months without a drop in sales. The tremendous success of "Les Miz"--it has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide--astounds even the hit producer.

"I thought at the time that it would have a very good run, like a show like 'Evita.' I never thought it would be in the league of 'Fiddler on the Roof' or 'My Fair Lady' or anything like that," said Mackintosh.

By American standards, it is out of the league of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "My Fair Lady." It is the fourth longest-running show on Broadway, topped only by "Cats," the erotic revue "Oh, Calcutta" and "Chorus Line."

Mackintosh apparently is gunning for the "Oh, Calcutta" spot. And the waif Cosette, whose signature etching is often altered for special events, is getting ready.

"We're already working on Cosette wearing that towel," said Mackintosh. "She'll be lying on that slab with a bare bottom yet."

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DETAILS

* WHAT: "Les Miserables."

* WHERE: Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza auditorium, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd.

* WHEN: Dec. 12-23, 8 p.m. Monday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Additional matinee at 2 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 21.

* HOW MUCH: $19.50-$52.50.

* CALL: Ticketmaster at (805) 583-8700 or (213) 480-3232.

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