A young Canadian-born soprano was plucked from the chorus of an English opera production in 1985 and asked to join the cast of a new sung-through musical based on the Victor Hugo epic novel Les Miserables.
Rebecca Caine had appeared in a couple of Cameron Mackintosh musicals, My Fair Lady and Oklahoma, so she knew a few of the other actors when she arrived for the start of rehearsals with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
"A couple of them came up to me and said, 'It's crap, darling, we'll be off by Easter,'" Caine recalled the other day over the telephone from Toronto.
Of course, the darlings were wrong and Les Miserables has endured through every Easter since in London's West End. Caine performed the older Cosette for 16 months before returning to Canada to play Christine in The Phantom of the Opera.
"We didn't know when we were making it that it would become this huge phenomenon," says Caine, also a longtime opera singer. "We realized we were in a hit but we were too young to realize how rare that was."
Caine will be performing this weekend with fellow Les Miz alumnus Michael Burgess in a pops concert with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Each will perform a medley of songs as part of the Dream Concert before they will take to the stage together to do tunes from Les Miz and The Phantom of the Opera. Caine will sing the rarely heard I Saw Him Once, a Cosette song cut from the show.
The Regina-born Burgess played Valjean over 1,000 times in Canada in the early '90s. In 1995, on the occasion of the show's 10th anniversary, Burgess was one of 17 Valjeans to sing the concert's finale.
"I owe Les Miz one of the greatest theatrical experiences I ever had," says Burgess, who acted in Hamlet, as well as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1973. "I never got bored with it because it was always a great story to tell the audience."
Their pivotal involvement in Les Miz makes Caine and Burgess more than interested observers of the new big-screen adaptation, which was released Christmas Day. They are both thrilled that the movie is a big hit but are not all that enamoured by it.
"It's a flawed movie," says Burgess, also well known as an anthem singer at sporting events such as the World Series, the Olympics and hockey's Canada Cup. "It spends a lot of time in a million different close-ups throwing in our faces that these are actors, not singers. I did hope inside my soul that it would be sung beautifully and it wasn't, really."
The film's director Tom Hooper used movie stars such as Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert) and Anne Hathaway (Fantine) to sing live on camera rather than to pre-record their voices in a studio. Most have lauded Hathaway especially, while Crowe has been panned for his vocals.
"I think Russell Crowe let down the team hugely," says Caine, who lives in London. "Being a singing actor and being an actor are two different things. Singing actors have to time their acting to the music. I think that's something that certain members of the cast found very difficult."
Caine has watched over the years as Cosette's part has been cut and cut and cut. She has been further alarmed by all the recent anti-Cosette sentiment, while young female fans favour Eponine as their beloved character.
"She has become a zephyr of a romantic heroine," Caine says. "She doesn't have much to do or much to say. It's quite difficult to make the role stand out."
Being an original Les Miz cast member brings her plenty of cachet in musical theatre, but she doesn't much care for being called theatrical royalty, a term too grand for a show about a man just released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread.
Caine is still close with some of the Les Miz originators, including the first Eponine, Frances Ruffelle.
"It gives me some comfort to know that when we're dead, we will still be singing together (on the cast album)," she says. "I didn't have children so a little of me will go on and on."
The Dream Concert
Featuring Rebecca Caine and Michael Burgess
Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $23.75-$92 at firstname.lastname@example.org