Interview with H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program’s Bill Podolski on ‘Les Miserables’ by Eric Denver

I was so impressed by the quality of H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program‘s production of Les Misérables School Edition that I asked 
Director/Producer/Musical Director Bill Podolski to take us behind-the-scenes of putting this mammoth production together.

Bill Podolski.
Bill Podolski.

Eric: How much rehearsal time did you have before the show closed on January 31st?

Bill: We held auditions for the show the first week of October and then started rehearsals on October 16th. We had a 2 hour rehearsal every day after school October – December. We did not meet during Winter Break.In January we rehearsed every day after school for 3-4 hours, plus 4 hours each Saturday. The week of the show we ran the show on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and then opened on Thursday.The sum total of rehearsal is 160 hours.

Did everyone who auditioned get to be a cast member?

I believe that our musical productions are meaningful and powerful community events, which all students should have the opportunity to participate. With all of my musicals, all high school aged students who audition are given a spot in the cast. We make it work! But, we are a secondary school, meaning we have students in grades 6-12. Not every middle schooler who auditioned received an opportunity to perform for several reasons. One, there were thousands (exaggeration) of middle schoolers, particularly 6th graders, who auditioned, all of which thought they were worthy enough to be Eponine. Ultimately, there would be just too many middle schoolers in the show. Second, there is a maturity required, especially for a musical such as this, and so I try to limit the experience to high school students. And third, the middle school students will have their opportunity with Oliver!

What is the vocal range that Johnny Bowman uses when singing his role of Jean Valjean? 

The part of Jean Valjean requires a two octave range: low A to high A.

How many students were involved in this production of Les Misérables?

There were 55 cast members, 10 crew members, and 9 student orchestra members.This is my 6th production at HBW. I can’t account for how many students were in musical casts before my time, but my understanding is that we have more participants now than we did then. All 6 of my shows averaged around 50 cast members, but Les Mis squeaks by as the largest cast at 55.

What was your biggest challenge in directing this show and also conducting the orchestra? 

Directing the show and conducting the orchestra are both things I greatly enjoy. I am lucky to also have a great accompanist, Allan Decipulo, who was at many of the final rehearsals. By relying on him, I was able to still fulfill the role of Director as he kept the music going. The real challenge became the final week of the show. It is the last three rehearsals that we include the entire orchestra, students and pros, at which point I must conduct. It was near impossible for me to focus on conducting, focus on directing, and write notes, especially since the entire show is music, so my arms never came down.

In most shows, I can conduct a musical number, and then write some notes during the dialogue section. This was not an option. I did call some notes to people who were sitting by my side, or able to hear me through my radio. That was helpful. It was also helpful to have my Co-Director, Diana Haberstick, present as another set of eyes and ears. So the final week was the most challenging, but we survived!

Any advice for any school that wants to take on the onerous responsibility of performing Les Misérables?

For a school that is considering a production of  Les Misérables my thoughts would be that such a show cannot be an easy decision. Deciding to do this show, this year was very intentional. With no disrespect to any of my students, I knew that I had the wealth of talent necessary to pull off such a production this year, so that is why I went with it.

This is not a show that I would just ‘give a whirl.’ It must be a thoughtful decision. Second, to produce such a show requires a team effort. There are so many components that one person could not take it all on. Even our rehearsals were team-taught so that all cast members were working at one particular time. Third, I am so grateful for the private voice teachers of my students as well. Several of them receive private lessons, and these teachers helped in the preparation of these demanding solo pieces. Fourth, the greatest challenge of this score is the rhythm. We spent a lot of time making sure that rhythms were correct for they could sink the ship. These components are the recommendations that I would give. Thankfully, the resources provided by the distributor of the rights are wonderful, so that was very helpful.

The cast of 'Les Misérables.' Photo courtesy of H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program.
The cast of ‘Les Misérables.’ Photo courtesy of H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program.

What’s the difference between the School Edition and the original edition? What’s left out?

Regarding the difference between the original and the school edition, the way I sum it up is that nearly the entire show is there, but instead of doing several verses of a song,we sum it up in one. This is lifted from Wikipedia (I know…), but it is quite accurate: “The school edition cuts a considerable amount of material from the original show. It is divided into thirty scenes and, although no “critical” scenes or songs have been removed, it runs 25–30 minutes shorter than the “official” version making the total running time about 2 ½ hours. A few subtle changes of vocal pitch have been made: “What Have I Done?,”Valjean’s Soliloquy, “Stars” by Javert, “A Little Fall of Rain” by Éponine and Marius, “Turning,” and “Castle on a Cloud” lose a verse each. During “Fantine’s Arrest” Bamatabois loses two verses. The song “Fantine’s Death/Confrontation” is edited, and the counterpoint duel between Javert and Valjean is lost, as well as a verse by Fantine. “Dog Eats Dog” by Thénardier is heavily truncated. “Beggars at the Feast,” is shortened, with Thénardier losing a verse, and the song before it, “Wedding Chorale,”is excluded entirely although the rest of the wedding remains in place. Also, the drinker’s introduction to “Master of the House” is cut completely.”

Will you take on the same responsibilities in the May 9th and 10th production of Oliver!?

For Les Mis, I took the lead on this production, such as facilitating auditions, creating the rehearsal schedule, organizing the materials, leading the direction of the show, teaching the music, expressing the set design ideas, etc. Diana and others took their cues from my lead. For our production of Oliver!, that balance will shift more toward Diana. Diana will take the lead on Oliver!, and my role will simply be to teach the students the music, and ultimately conduct the pit. At this point I am returning to my usual role as the Director of Choral Activities. With a choral program of 180 students, five concerts a year, two spring trips, fundraisers and everything else, there is enough for me to do in that capacity!

Woodlawn’s next production is on May 9th and 10, 2014, when Oliver takes center stage.

Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one-15 minute intermission.


Les Misérables played January 30-February 1, 2014 at H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program – 4100 North Vacation Lane, in Arlington, VA.

Read Eric Denver’s review of Les Misérables.


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