As a teenager, Jessica Humphrey played the part of Cosette, the young child orphaned in the story and adopted by Jean Valjean, the main character in "Les Misérables."
Cosette’s signature song, “Castle On A Cloud” is a favorite among musical theatre enthusiasts and is near and dear to the singer. Humphrey will once again play the iconic role in San Diego State University's production of "Les Misérables in Concert" when it opens in the Don Powell Theatre on Dec. 4.
“I'm very excited to be a part of something so large scale, especially in my first semester in the graduate program,” she said. “I am looking forward to collaborating with undergraduate students, fellow musicians and faculty I wouldn't normally have the opportunity to work with, and am excited to sing under Robert Meffe's baton. I hope to give audiences a fresh look at the role of Cosette.”
Why is musical theatre such a passion for you?
Musical theatre has always been a part of my life. I don’t remember a time without it. I was brought up not only with classic movie musicals, but also going to shows from a young age. I started out as a ballet dancer, but I also sang in church and school choirs, took piano lessons and performed around the Dallas area.
Ultimately, I decided that my future was not in ballet. I found I could combine my passion for dancing and singing by training in musical theatre. It didn’t become a passion until the end of my high school career and further developed in college. Even then I was scared to fully commit to leaving my loves of singing and dancing, so I was a music major in musical theatre rather than a theatre major like everyone else in the program.
I have a great support system. My parents, grandparents and friends have never once questioned why or how I would make a living doing this — there was always an expectation of success.
What kind of impact are you hoping to make by getting your degree at SDSU?
SDSU is a unique program because it combines training in the performance aspects of musical theatre with an emphasis on scholarship and research. I approach any role I am performing or any song I study from an academic place — it just seems logical that I continue training that way. I also have a passion for teaching — especially high school seniors and college freshmen.
I was a part of a small, but quickly growing college musical theatre program and was able to learn how to run a program firsthand — what worked, what didn’t and how some classes could be more efficient.
I think I can make a difference for universities with rethinking the college audition process, making sure that graduating students are well educated as to what to expect in major markets like New York and Los Angeles, giving students opportunities to explore how their musical theatre degree can help them outside of the actual theatre. I am very excited because my time here at SDSU has already helped me with working toward these goals.
What would you like people to know about musical theatre that they might not know already?
I liken training in musical theatre to being an athlete (mostly because everything was compared to athletics in my house growing up) in that we both work long hours, train for years and years, and the right combination of talent, hard work and contacts might get you a job with a reputable company or team.
I think some people mistakenly think that what I do is a hobby, and it is far from it. Of course I love my job, and that is wonderful, but it still is work. I also think people don’t understand how strenuous the audition process in New York actually is. I have people say all the time “So are you going to go be on Broadway?” and I have to explain that it doesn’t work like that.
Some days I would be up at 5 a.m. to go wait on the street, outside an office building, to get into the building at 8 a.m., wait in the same line from the street in a tiny hallway until the audition started at 10 a.m. and hope I get a decent number. Then wait for hours until my number was called in a tiny, hot room with at least 100 other women who are talking and singing only to finally go in to audition where I sing for about 30 seconds and then leave.
Most of these auditions have 300-plus girls going for just one or two roles. It is brutal. You never get used to the rejection. But I love it! So I get up the next morning and try again, and someday(s) you book the job!
How do you prepare yourself for such a heavy piece and story line?
With any piece I do, I approach it from the music first. That is how my brain works. I learn the music and let the accompaniment and orchestrations inform my acting choices. I then take a deep look at the lyrics — do they really reflect my thoughts and who am I speaking to?
With this piece, I play a lighter character. She needs to be aware of some heaviness, but ultimately her music is much more cheery and romantic than most of the show. My acting choices and everything that I bring to the production has to reflect that mood.
As a teenager, you also played Cosette in the production of "Les Misérables." What makes this role so special to you?
I first played Cosette when I was 16 years old, as a junior in high school, at Garland High School in Garland, Texas. It was a great production, especially for a high school, and I have friends that still talk about it to this day. It was interesting because I was the same age as the character, but I hadn’t experienced having a boyfriend, much less falling in love at that point in my life. I feel like, even though I look the same age, I can bring much more honesty and knowledge to the role now that I have experienced more of life and some of the situations Cosette went through.
It is difficult vocally to revisit a role, because it is easy to slip into old habits and rely on autopilot. It has been a nice challenge to use some new vocal techniques and styles I’ve learned since I last played the role. There are many people who blow Cosette off as a silly, traditional ingénue, but she has real depth and struggle to her story and I hope to portray that in this performance.
Your upcoming performance is the concert version of "Les Misérables." What are you hoping the audience will gain from experiencing just the music?
I think that the audience might actually gain a clearer understanding of the story by being “forced” to sit and watch the acting of the piece while clearly listening to what the music is telling the audience.
The music is so moving and paints the story clearly, so pairing that with amazing voices suited to the material and informed acting choices — I think this is really brilliant. I also am very excited to get to work with the School of Music and Dance along with the School of Theatre, Television, and Film. This is really a combined effort and I hope the audience will appreciate how much everyone is giving to make this piece a success.
Humphrey is a native of Dallas and received her bachelor's degree in music in musical theatre at Western Carolina University. After graduating in 2011, she moved to New York City and performed in many regional shows including the debut of "The Boy from Oz."
She decided it was time to further her education in musical theatre at SDSU where she received support from the Roscoe-Tiffany MFA Musical Theatre Scholarship and the Marion Ross Scholarship. “I like this program because it has a split focus on both scholarship and preparing students to teach,” Humphrey said.
After graduation, her goal is to lead a theatre program at the university-level, while still remaining active and up-to-date in the professional musical theatre world. “My goal in teaching is that I am an educated professor, meaning I know what’s going on in the industry,” Humphrey said.
“I want to be constantly updated as to what’s going on in New York and what trends are happening in auditions — that way I can adequately prepare my students.”