Among fans of the musical version of Les Miserables, one of the many ongoing disputes is the one over which was the best Javert of all time, the candidates usually being Terrence Mann and Phillip Quast. Quast was a more imposing Javert, emphasizing the inexorable and unyielding qualities of the character, but he arguably came across as too strong in his portrayal. Let’s face it—Javert is ultimately weak enough that when faced with the reality of moral ambiguity and complexity that he had shut out all his life, he couldn’t bear to go on living and drowned himself. It’s hard to imagine the iron symbol of the law that Quast portrays doing that. But as one commentator once said of Mann, “This guy makes Javert sound…human!”. It’s worth remembering that what makes Javert the villain of the piece is not what he does…as a policeman, he would have had to do essentially the same thing even if he hadn’t considered Valjean guilty…but what he believes. Like Willie Loman, he took the great lie of his job home with him…in this case, that the law and the legal system were infallible and that everyone punished by them completely deserved their fate. Mann brings out this conflict, usually sounding more belligerent than commanding, constantly lashing out against the world for failing to reflect his stubbornly-held belief system. Even his version of “Stars” was less serene and more self-righteously angry than most versions, and his suicide aria captures his broken inability to accept the truth perfectly. Mann has a somewhat higher-pitched baritone than the deeper voices usually favored for the role, which might be the reason some prefer Quast in the part, but I’d argue that the higher voice is ideally suited for a character who is ultimately more a petulant, deluded fanatic than the intimidating soldier of the law he seems on the surface. And oddly, Mann’s more honest portrayal of the character’s weakness makes him much more sympathetic than any other portrayal I’ve encountered, because, as stated above, he seems like a human rather than a symbolic stand-in for the legal system as a whole as some production of the musical tend to make him.
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