PHILADELPHIA — Josh Davis was steaming his voice and resting while preparing for another performance of “Les Misérables.”
And it’s no wonder, as he’s taken the stage six times a week for the past four months as the law-abiding-to-a-fault Javert, who spends much of the musical tracking down protagonist and bread-stealer Jean Valjean.
It’s a role he’s been drawn to since he first saw the show in high school when his drama teacher took the class to see it.
“It kind of blew me away, actually,” said the Columbia native of the first time he saw “Les Mis.” “[Javert] goes on a fun journey of being so sure of himself and so right to being utterly confused in the end, it’s fun to play that. Plus, I get to wear cool suits.”
He got the chance to play the role in 2007, first in Salt Lake City as an understudy, and then again in 2013 when he was cast as Javert at the same company and then in Flat Rock, N.C.
Then the tour came around.
He had five or six auditions for the production, at one point singing for acclaimed producer Cameron Mackintosh.
This is the first time Davis, who grew up attending a Reform congregation, is playing the villain character, though Javert isn’t necessarily the bad guy in the traditional sense — unlike other anti-heroes he would love to play in the future, like Sweeney Todd or Scar.
“Even though he’s the bad guy, he’s not a villain per se because he truly believes what he’s doing is correct and he truly believes it’s for the best, for the greater good,” Davis said. “He just doesn’t understand that people can redeem themselves.”
He’s played more fun roles in the past, such as comic parts in the original Broadway cast of
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”
When he auditioned, he didn’t know what he was getting into.
“I didn’t know I was auditioning for a Broadway show when I auditioned for it. It was just some show about Carole King that I had never heard about,” he recalled. “It changed my career trajectory. It was an incredible experience.”
He performed at the Tony Awards and met King herself when she surprised the cast and the audience by coming to a performance, which she previously said she wouldn’t do. Plus, Davis added, he “actually got paid to live in New York and be an actor.”
His affinity for theater started early, stretching back to his childhood when he played characters in performances for Purim. He says the importance of storytelling and entertaining in Judaism resonated with him.
“That was probably my first stint as acting was dressing up as those characters,” he laughed.
Davis sang and did theater performances in high school, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that he began to pursue acting professionally. He studied business marketing at the University of Delaware and started acting when he lived in Washington after he quit his job. He moved to New York in 2004.
With “Les Mis,” he gets to play a character who is resolute in his convictions and ways of thinking, which presents a different side to the audience.
“There’s something about just playing a character who was literally written so long ago — you get that in Shakespeare and all these other older shows, but he’s an important character because he shows a definitive side and type of thinking,” Davis said. “Especially in today’s age, there are certain types of thinking I think are dangerous, and he’s one of them. He doesn’t allow for any gray area and I think it’s important to see how he ends up and what that does to his life.”
(Spoiler: It doesn’t go well for him.)
If you ask Davis, the show’s longevity — it’s been around since 1985, or 1862 if you’re counting when Victor Hugo’s novel was published — is mostly due to the music.
“The music really touches people in terms of the emotions it’s trying to convey and also the story itself,” he said, “which is credit to Victor Hugo and also credit to [composers] Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg for pulling out the real humanity from the show and turning it into what the audience is seeing. It’s something they can really relate to and the themes are really important.
“What’s most rewarding is being able to be on stage with these actors and singers who are just incredible talents,” he said. “The other thing is being able to play this character that a lot of people really like, even though he’s the bad guy. A lot of people say it’s their favorite character and it’s an honor to get up there and try to do it right.”
Marissa Stern is a staff writer at the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.