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A tale of two leading roles: As Cosette in ‘Les Miz,’ Emily Swalef goes from 17th to 19th Century France

Think you have a busy summer? Try the past couple of months for Emily Swalef, who is going from playing Belle in the Madera Theatre Project’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” to portraying Cosette in the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Les Miserables” faster than asking how much you can get for these gold candlesticks on eBay.

Swalef, who alternates the role of Cosette with Zelia Ankrum (see my video interview with her embedded below), had to miss two weeks of vocal rehearsals so she could fit in her “Beauty” obligations. But she’s thought about playing this role for such a long time and knows it so well that she was able to step in smoothly.

Pictured above at left: Emily Swalef, left, as Cosette, and Haileigh Anderson (her younger sister) as Fantine in CMT’s ‘Les Miserables.” Bottom center: Swalef with Taylor Brunzell (Marius). Far right: Swalef with German Gutierrez in Madera Theatre Project’s ‘Beauty and the Beast.’

Now in its opening weekend, “Les Miserables” runs through July 24 at Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium.

I caught up with Swalef in a phone conversation and email interview to talk about the show.

Q: I’m getting tired just thinking of your summer schedule: You just got finished belting your brains out as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” and now you’re playing Cosette. Does your voice ever say very softly, “Please be nice to me”?

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A: My voice gets tired just like any performer, but I do my best to take care of it! I’m getting better at learning my limits, and I always make sure to warm up before every rehearsal/performance.

Q: Seriously, though, you must have had overlapping rehearsal schedules for “Beauty” and “Les Mis.” How did you handle both?

A: Knowing I would be missing two weeks of a six-week rehearsal process was scary, but I tried not to stress myself out over it too much. It didn’t help that I missed several days due to covid either. Zelia, my double, was very good at keeping me updated on everything she was directed to do as Cosette, so all I had to do was familiarize myself with and memorize my music!

Q: I know that CMT had this “Les Miserables” scheduled since 2019, but then Covid came along. Did you worry that you would “age out” of CMT before getting to be in this show?

A: Yes, that was definitely a concern!! At 16 I was excited to be part of the show, but I’m lucky enough to be in it at all at 19 today. Covid set back theatre in many ways, and it especially affected all the young performers who missed out on some early opportunities simply for growing up in difficult times.

Q. This “Les Mis” is labeled as the “School Edition,” but there really isn’t much difference between it and the regular version. It’s not like they transform the prostitutes into candy stripers, right?

A: Nope! At first I was concerned that the “school edition” would censor and water down important parts of the story for the sake of being “family friendly” but that’s not the case at all! It’s important we tell this story in its entirety, and it’s a great way to introduce young performers to more “grown up” stories! It can’t be “Annie” and “Frozen” forever!


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Q: You’ve played Elsa in “Frozen,” Miss Honey in “Matilda,” Belle in “Beauty” and now Cosette. Which is the hardest role vocally? Which is the toughest in terms of acting?

A: I would say Elsa was the hardest vocally. Being a classically trained soprano doesn’t prepare you for the strain belting every performance will give you. I also didn’t have nearly as much control over my voice back then as I do now. When it comes to acting, cosette has been my biggest challenge so far. With other roles, I could relate myself to them, like Elsa’s tendency to push others away to keep them safe, or Miss Honey’s fear to stand up for herself. With cosette, there’s almost nothing in her story that I’ve quite experienced myself. But in the end, acting is acting, and who never needs a good challenge?


A VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH ZELIA ANKRUM, THE ‘OTHER’ COSETTE IN CMT’S ‘LES MISERABLES’


Q: You share this role with Zelia Ankrum. I’ve always wondered what it’s like to share a role in a CMT show. It’s not like you can avoid taking in the other actor’s take on a character, because you play in the ensemble at your non-starring performances. What is it like to be in that situation?

A: When you see someone in a role you have played or are currently playing, it’s impossible not to compare your takes on the same character. Zelia is very young, but has talent I never even dreamed of having at her age. I can’t speak for how exactly she sees Cosette, but I have definitely taken mental notes of the way she performs to incorporate them into my own performance! We can all learn from each other, no matter the difference in age or experience.

Q: Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?

A: This question is always so hard to answer since plans are constantly changing, but the overall dream is to be performing professionally, whether that be on stage or on film. I’m planning to major in theater arts, but that can only take me so far. I’ll have to figure things out as I go, I guess!

Q: This will be your final CMT performance. Any thoughts?

A: I’m sad to be aging out, but CMT was only one step on the path! I don’t plan on stopping any time soon, so I’ll use my experience with CMT as a way to get to the bigger and better! But from what I hear, CMT plans to do more adult-integrated shows similar to the likes of “Matilda” last year. So this probably won’t be the last CMT sees of me!

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: This cast has worked so hard to produce an amazing show, and I hope many people come to see all their hard work pay off. Theatre enjoyers of the Central Valley, please continue to support companies like CMT. It means so much to all of these kids and myself that we’ve had these opportunities to learn and shine. I’m proud of the work I’ve done with CMT, and I’m even more proud of the generations to come.


 

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (2)

  • Jackie Ryle

    This is a delightful interview, Donald. Really reinforces my desire to see it! Hope to feel well enough to get there.

    reply
  • Gail M. Marshall

    It’s exciting to see this level of talent development going on in Fresno; how lucky our community is to have this opportunity for our children. Good entertainment is a big bonus for the rest of us.

    reply

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