As Austin prepares for the amazement of Broadway-level talent to grace the stage at Bass Concert Hall, fans of the theatre are buzzing about with anticipation for Les Miserables. With Les Mis (or Les Miz, depending on which team you’re on) poised to have a week-long engagement in Austin, I was able to get backstage with Allison Guinn, who plays Madame Thénardier in this production.
If you’re unfamiliar with Les Miserables, fear not. Guinn believes that the story hits deep enough to touch the hearts of all audiences and provoke the minds of those who reflect on the messages of the show.
“Oh gosh, it’s epic! That’s the biggest thing. Epic,” she exclaimed. “In terms of theme and score, it’s the stuff of legend. It appeals to everyone because it brings up the universal themes of sometimes it’s not clear what is right and wrong. So you have to look within yourself and find the best in you. It’s very sweeping and very grand, but it’s personal enough to touch everyone at the same time.”
Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Miserables tells a captivating story of broken dreams, unrequited love, and sacrifice as Jean Valjean, a peasant, strives for redemption after serving nearly two decades in jail. Despite the difference in time, the struggles of Jean Valjean resonate with current events in other parts of the globe according to Guinn.
“The protestors in Hong Kong in the airport sat down and started singing Les Mis,” she recalled. “They started singing ‘Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men, it is the music of a people, who will not be slaves again.’ It is so resonant and so important. It really rings true to what’s going on today both in our country and worldwide.
As Les Mis makes its way to Austin, theatre aficionados will notice visual differences compared to the quintessential turntable and massive sets. Traditionally, to get from scene to scene, Les Mis productions used a rotating stage. But early in the Les Mis legacy, during the December 28 matinee performance in 1986, the stage’s turntable stopped working properly. Due to “glitches … in the controls,” it could only rotate at the full speed, which was “much too fast to be safe.” Although this risk isn’t the reason for Cameron Mackintosh’s change to the production, it does make for a fun tidbit to impress your theatre friends with.
“The new set design came about around 2012,” Guinn explained. “The old set and the old design had been with the production since the 80s when it first came out. So we are a reimagining of that. It’s been interesting to see so many die hard Les Mis fans. It’s very polarizing, but I think for the most part everyone really enjoys this new staging because it gets your mind off of what you typically see and think and it refocuses the story onto the characters. I think everyone really really appreciates that and likes it.”
Les Mis loyalists shouldn’t be dissuaded; despite the visual differences in this production, the show is sure to stun.
“This one is all of the grandeur, but on a smaller scale. It’s more focused,” she continued. “The turntable is taken away and it really focuses on the characters and the music. It actually does something really cool with Victor Hugo’s artwork. He was a painter, I had no clue until I saw the set design for this. He was a watercolorist, he’s done a lot of beautiful landscapes of the French countryside and living in Paris when he did a lot of cityscapes too. They took a lot of that and projected it onto our set and animated it and it really enriches the whole experience and makes it so much more moving and, I think, beautiful.”
“I’ve never seen a more talented cast honestly, and I’m really lucky that I get to be a part of it,” she admitted. “I play Madame Thenardier. If there is a villain of the piece, other than the misfortune of mankind, she’s it. She’s an opportunist, she and her husband, the Thenardier’s. They are opportunists of the worst kind. They will take everything from you, they’ll take what’s not nailed down. They represent the worst of humanity where Valjean, our hero, represents the best.”
For Guinn, the process of creating the wretchedness of a woman so wicked is an adventure into the devious depths of her mind. For her, Madame Thenardier embodies the impulsive and unhinged aspects of humanity.
“It’s very interesting getting into character because you think of someone without scruples, but deliciously so,” Guinn explained. “I know that’s weird to think about, but think of knowing that you shouldn’t eat that big ice cream sundae, but then thinking ‘I’m gonna eat all of it and enjoy every single bite of it even though I shouldn’t.’ That’s what helps me get into character. That’s weird to think, but it’s someone that indulges themselves to the point of almost total destruction. And the makeup helps too.”
“What I love about Madame Thenardier is you love to hate her. She is one of those characters that is not without humor. She is so terrible that you have to laugh about it. That was the key for me in getting into her. Just doing things that are so off-the-wall-despicable that you have to laugh because you’re like ‘No one is like this are they?’ It separates the audience; it takes the audience out of ‘oh my gosh these people are despicable’ and you laugh at them until you see them doing something truly horrible and you’re like ‘oh no they’re bad people.’
Guinn was bit by the performing bug at an early age, growing up in Appalachia in North East Tennessee with the help and encouragement of women in her life. As she grew inter her own to landed roles in large productions that include Comedy Center’s “Inside Amy Schumer” and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” as well as taking the stage in works like Hair in 2009 and On The Town in 2014.
“There wasn’t a lot of theatre opportunities, but there was a lot of singing opportunities,” she stated. “My grandmother really indulged me in my willingness to get up in front of an audience and make a fool out of myself. So I guess I have her to thank for that, and my mother, of course. Any opportunity I could get to be in the arts when I was growing up, I would do that. I wasn’t into musicals until college, up until then it was all singing in front of a church, in a church choir or at school or something like that.”
Les Miserables will be performed at the Bass Concert Hall Tuesday, September 10 to Friday, September 13, 2019. Tickets start at $30 and are available at BroadwayinAustin.com, texasperformingarts.org, the Bass Concert Hall ticket office.
Nick Bailey is a forward thinking journalist with a well-rounded skill set unafraid to take on topics head on. He now resides in Austin, TX and continues to create content on a daily basis.