It takes a rare kind of actor to stick with a touring production for years on end, enduring the rigors of travel — truck stop food, strange hotel rooms, driving for long stretches on the way to the next town — all to muster the energy to play the same character night after night.
But something about traveling is in Randall Keith’s blood.
At 44, the actor has spent a good chunk of his adult life on the road, performing in national and international tours of big-budget musicals, logging six years with “The Phantom of the Opera,” a year of “National Sunset” and, for the past nine years, “Les Miserables,” in which he plays the leading role, the fugitive Jean Valjean, and belts out some of the show’s best-known songs, including “Bring Him Home.”
“A lot of people burn out after a year or two,” Keith says. “But I never have.”
But the actor seems to have outlasted his show. As the touring “Les Miz” sets up for its weeklong stint at Tempe’s Gammage Auditorium — the run opens Tuesday night — it draws closer to its end. The tour closes in July, after which producer Cameron Mackintosh is mounting a revival on Broadway in November to mark the show’s record as the longest-running musical in the world.
For now, Keith says, the looming wrap-up hasn’t hit the cast in a bad way. If anything, it’s giving them a boost in the final stretch.
“I think it’s going to be very similar to the closing in New York,” says Keith, who was brought in to play Valjean for the last three months of the 16-year Broadway run. “There never really was a sadness even though people didn’t know what they were doing next. It was such an icon, it was an honor, and there was an excitement to it.”
“As we draw closer” — to the tour’s close, Keith adds — “as it was in New York, you may think you have two months left, but for the people who are seeing it, this is their last time. It becomes this electricity in the air.”
Still, the actor concedes he’ll be glad to put aside the trickier aspects of his role in “Les Miz.” Namely, that high-B he hits in “Bring Him Home.”
“I always have to be at the top of my game. I can never let my guard down,” he says. “I’m a baritone, and it’s a tenor role. I’ll be most relieved at not having to think 24 hours a day about hitting that note.”
If Keith is a road dog, he and his co-star, Jennifer Butt, are a study in contrasts.
Butt, 47, donned hairy mole and blackened tooth to create the role of Madame Thenardier, a vulgar con artist and wife to the musical’s biggest villain, when “Les Miz” debuted on Broadway in 1987. (“It was amazing to be part of that,” she says. “It’s one of those things where you go, ‘OK, not every job is going to be like this.’ ”)
She stayed with the show two years before moving on to other projects and, like Keith, was brought back to close the show on Broadway. The actress joined the tour in 2004, she says, because her schedule was open and reprising the role sounded like fun.
Fast forward a year and a half. Butt admits she’s “counting the paychecks” until the tour closes; this is the biggest tour of which she’s been a part, and touring life doesn’t sit particularly well with her. Especially the fact that she’s played opposite seven different Thenardiers.
“If I ever do (the role) again,” she laughs, “my contract is going to include alimony.”
After “Les Miz” ends its run in St. Louis, Butt is looking to pursue television projects — she’d love to do more television work — while Keith is keeping his eye on the road. Unless he can get a part in the Broadway revival.
“I certainly would be willing to go again,” he says. “I’ve never felt as close to a show as this one.”