Drury Lane’s Duchak helped stars hit high notes
Roberta Duchak | ROBERTADUCHAK.NET PHOTO
Updated: January 9, 2013 2:51PM
If Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman are hitting all the right notes in the hit film “Les Miserables,” they have one hugely talented Chicago-area resident to thank for their vocal prowess.
That would be Roberta Duchak, the Jeff Award-winning musical director (“Miss Saigon,” “Ragtime,” “Seven Brides for “Seven Brothers”) at the Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook. Duchak, who owns a voice studio in Chicago and also teaches music at Columbia College, put the two megastars through their vocal paces from the audition through the actual filming, which in an unprecedented movie musical move, featured the cast singing live as the cameras rolled.
Duchak, who spent nearly four months in England for the filming, said fate may have played a hand in all of it.
“My vocal teacher Don Komasa originally got the call from the movie company,” Duchak said. “Russell was auditioning for the role — everyone had to audition for their parts. Hugh Jackman had a three-hour audition for the role of Jean Valjean! Don worked with them for a while but he was leaving for Europe in June or early July last year and he called and asked me to fill in for two weeks with Russell. So that’s what I did. Then a month later, Russell called me directly asking me to accompany him to his audition. So off we went. I played a few warm-ups with him, he sang a few songs, and then in came Cameron Mackintosh, the producers and director Tom Hooper. It was just us and a piano. Russell nailed it.”
Crowe is no stranger to music or musical theater, having starred as Eddie and Dr. Scott in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in Australia in the ’80s, as well as busking in the streets of Sydney as teen — guitar in hand — and more recently fronting his rock and roll band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts.
The first note heard in the film is Crowe’s high “F” as he sings “... bring me prisoner 24601” in the pouring rain, Duchak said. Getting to that note was a testament to Crowe’s unrelenting dedication to honing his vocal craft.
“Like anyone who walks into my studio for voice lessons, I warm them up to evaluate where they are so I know how to proceed to make them grow,” Duchak said. “‘Les Mis’ is among the three hardest musical theater pieces out there, in addition to ‘Ragtime’ and ‘Miss Saigon.’ Everyone in ‘Les Mis,’ from Fantine to Jean Valjean, has to have huge ranges. The cast in this film had range, but we had to push it even further.”
Duchak says she found Crowe’s voice fascinating from the get-go.
“He is a true bass baritone,” she said. “There are very few men who have that gorgeous bass baritone voice. It was exciting to see how deep it was. But the challenge was to make him into a high baritone. The most challenging song for Russel was ‘Javert’s Suicide,’ because it’s so rangey. In all, I ended up increasing Russell’s range by about four notes. That’s a big leap for a singer who isn’t used to singing every day. With Hugh, we added maybe three notes to his range because ‘Bring Him Home,’ is just unbelievably difficult; it’s such a fragile, emotional song. But both of these guys they were like Olympic athletes when it came to retraining their voices. Among the biggest challenge was getting them ready to sing 12 to 14 hours a day.”
Duchak, 47, started playing piano at age 3. Music was always in the house, she said, as her father was a professional musician. She went on to participate in choir, dance and musicals throughout grammar school and high school. At Indiana University, however, Duchak did not major in music, choosing instead broadcast journalism and theater. Her career came down to a choice between an internship at NBC or theater; Duchak opted for musical theater. In addition to Broadway, her local and national touring credits (as musical director or an actress) include Chicago Shakespeare, American Theater Company, the Goodman Theatre and Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre.
While “Les Mis” afforded her months to get her singers into shape, at Drury Lane Duchak said there is no such luxury; the pace is lightning-quick.
“I”m half-way through [Drury Lane’s upcoming production] ‘Sunset Boulevard’ which I started on as soon as ‘Singing in the Rain’ closed,” Duchak said. “I think musical theater in Chicago does what it does extremely well in an incredibly short amount of time, sometimes only three weeks, in between shows.”
Duchak had similar praise for her film cast, calling Crowe and Jackman two people “who I think will always be in my life as my friends.”
“All these actors were so brave to sign up for a musical that is being sung live,” she said. “We were making history and we all knew it. All they heard was a piano in their tiny ear pieces. The songs all sounded a cappella to the crew. To be able to act and sing in a musical when you’re hearing everything a cappella, that’s simply marvelous talent.”