Local Personality BloggerRiley Children’s Foundation, Trisha Shepherd
A conversation with “Jean Valjean” about parenting, performing and forgiveness
May 03, 2014 | 12:53 PM
I apologize for my longer-than-usual absence from this blog. My life has been swallowed by Les Miserables. I'm in the ensemble of the production that's in its second weekend of a three-week run at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre.
Juggling work, kids, travel baseball and nightly trips to the barricade has taken just about every ounce of my time. You really have to love this musical theatre stuff to make the kinds of sacrifices it requires. And your family really has to "get" that addiction in order to support this crazy habit and forgive your lengthy and frequent absences. This show in particular has taken an extraordinary amount of time and energy, and I am grateful to my family for allowing me to have this unforgettable theatre experience. this is a "dream show" for me, and I am a kid in a candy store every night we step on stage.
Les Miz is a show about grace, forgiveness and second chances. The theme hits close to the heart for our "Jean Valjean," Matt Branic. Matt is a lawyer by day, a performer by nature and the dad of a beautiful 2-year-old daughter. His voice casts a spell on his fellow cast members and the audience. (I feel like I should be paying someone just for the chance to hear him sing "Bring Him Home" on the barricade each night!)
During rehearsals, Matt was one of several parents in the cast and crew who I chatted with for support, especially on the hard days that made me question if I was doing the right thing. Matt's journey and perspective were so unique and reflective that I asked him to share some of it with me for this blog.
Here are excerpts from our conversation "behind the barricade" of Les Miserables:
Trisha: How has fatherhood transformed you as a person and a performer, and how does that tie in with your character, Jean Valjean, and the themes of Les Miserables?
Matt: First of all, Les Miz at its core is about mercy and forgiveness. I really do understand forgiveness. I'm eternally grateful to my wife, Shannon, on so many levels. She shows me grace and forgiveness in our marriage every day. She has supported my doing this show, which has taken a lot of patience and grace. She's had to answer our daughter Lily's questions when she says, "Where's Daddy?" But she is a performer in her own right, and she gets the "fix." My ability to do this show has been because of her grace in saying, "I want you to do this.
Trisha: And what about the father-daughter relationship between Jean Valjean and Cosette? Has fatherhood transformed you like it did him?
Matt: I think any man who has a daughter gets it. My relationship with Lily has been unique. Because I was away performing for a lot of her first year, the bonding took longer. Before she was born I had been working long hours for a law firm and not performing much at all. I hit a breaking point and decided I needed to chase my dream of performing on Broadway. I still carry a lot of regret and shame about how much I missed during that time when I was on the road trying to be a full-time, professional performer. I really did feel like it was "me against the world." I felt like I had something to prove; like nothing was my fault. I was wrapped up in me: my anger; my dream; my ambition.
Then, all of a sudden, it changes. You fall madly in love with your child, and you realize they have leapfrogged your own ambitions. There is a deep connection between a dad and a daughter, and I'm sure that's what Victor Hugo was drawing from when he created Valjean. Cosette softens him. She becomes his fulfillment. He starts to see the goodness in people instead of the darkness in the world.
Trisha: Isn't it crazy, how radically your perspective shifts? But then again, if performing is part of you it's not like you have to abandon it because you are a parent. Music and theatre can fit into the picture, it's just never perfect.
Matt: Right, it's not an all or nothing proposition. But when I began bonding with Lily, that's when it all came full-circle. I realized I don't need Broadway to be successful. I need my family. I need to be an honorable, loyal father. I could still walk through a Broadway stage door someday. I'm not going to turn it down, but I don't need to chase that to define who I am.
Trisha: This is reminding me of Dorothy and the yellow brick road. So many of us have to travel down some crazy path just to realize "there's no place like home" and figure out our true priorities.
Matt: If you are a parent and your priorities are in the right place, your child's achievements are going to mean more than your own. I've had the chance to perform as a soloist with some of the best symphony orchestras in the country, but I was more fulfilled by the duet of the "ABC's" I sang with my daughter in our living room in my pajamas. That's the God's honest truth. Shannon caught it on video, and I have probably watched that video dozens of times.
Every day, I get these little moments of joy. Those mean more than anything.