BWW Interview: Allison Guinn, Mme. Thenardier in LES MISERABLES at the Palace Theatre, Waterbury
Editor's Note: I conducted this interview with Allison Guinn two years ago when this LES MISERABLES tour was just beginning. The upcoming performances at the Palace Theatre in Waterbury will be her final in the role. In honor of that, I am republishing our discussion from October 2017 (with edits to bring it up to date). Enjoy!
LES MISERABLES is one of those musicals that people simply love. Over the years the story of young students staging a revolution in Paris has become a pop culture staple, so audiences should be excited, then, to know that the Palace Theatre in Waterbury, CT will play host to the touring production of the show December 3 - 8. Playing the scheming Madame Thenardier when LES MISERABLES stops in Waterbury will be Allison Guinn, who sat down with me to talk about playing her dream role in this iconic musical.
BWW: Allison, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today. We are really looking forward to LES MISERABLES!
Allison: Me too!
Can you start by telling us a little bit about how you got started in the theatre?
I'm from a tiny town in East Tennessee where there is a not a lot of theater. My mother was a public school teacher and she knew I liked to act in plays, so when I was in school we went to see the touring company of LES MISERABLES in Knoxville, which was one of the first musicals I ever saw. I identified right away with Madame Thenardier, which is odd for a fourth grader. Not Little Cosette or any of the other kid parts, but it was one of the first roles that made me think I could do musical theater. So this is a full circle little kid dream come true for me to play this part - thanks to my Mom!
LES MISERABLES has been part of our popular culture for so long. Can you tell us a little bit about this particular production? Especially for those who are familiar with the show.
Our director really wanted us to make sure this wasn't a museum piece. He was adamant about making the characters unique to us, and ensured that we read the book and that we understood what Victor Hugo had intended with the characters and to be as true to that as possible. I applaud him for that because it is so easy to fall back into what the last person did, or what the last production was like because it is safe. But he is pushing his actors to make unique choices and to do their research and to make this piece interesting and different from the others.
And is this your first time in LES MISERABLES?
Yes, the very first time I have been old enough to play the character I wanted!
Talking about Madame Thenardier, what do you like most about playing her?
I like that she's so complex. On one hand you are like, "oh thank goodness, a chance to laugh", but on the other hand, if I play her right, she is really the worst of humanity. She is kind of "who not to be." She is so terrible that you can't help but laugh. It's an interesting tightrope walk between pure evil and comedy. In the book they describe her as an ogress, which I think is a great way to describe her.
What do you look forward to the most before you step out on stage each night?
From the down stroke of the baton, it is just such a thrilling thing to be a part of. It is such a wonderful story about being the best version of yourself. I love being a part of that. I love being a part of theater that teaches you how to be a good person. It's so rare that we get to act in pieces that we feel so passionate about. On a large scope that is what I am proud of and what I am most excited about. My favorite character to watch is Javert, so I make sure I peek over the curtain to watch his parts.
And is this your first tour?
I was actually on tour with HAIR in 2009. I was in the Broadway company and then we followed it to the West End and then we went on a national tour.
What do you think is the best and the most challenging part of touring?
I love to see the different reactions of the audiences. Some people may react differently in Grand Rapids than they do in Huntsville, Alabama. You never know what resonates with someone. That is interesting to me and exciting. Most challenging, I think, is finding your way around a new city every week. I sometimes have stress dreams about getting lost in the theater and not being able to get on stage and missing my cue.
You were exposed to LES MISERABLES as a child, but being part of the show now, as an adult, how is the piece different for you now?
Just from reading the novel and watching the musical, it is not so black and white what is right and what's wrong. It's about choices that people make, and it's a lot heavier. Especially in this climate where people are so at odds politically. It is interesting to see this and realize you don't ever want to see society to come to this, but it might, you never know. It hits home a lot harder.
It also gives you a chance to think about the people behind the characters and what were they really thinking and feeling.
Yes! Instead of just saying that guy's a bad guy. Maybe not. Maybe the Thenardiers are just trying to survive. In terms of building a barricade and having a revolution, just how bad do things have to be in order to get to that point of desperation? Please don't let society now get to that point!
I think the set is such a big part of the LES MISERABLES experience. What is similar or different about this production?
This set is very similar to the latest Broadway revival, but what's unique to it is they used Victor Hugo's paintings as projections on the backgrounds which are breathtaking. It is really beautiful to see. And there is no turntable, which, as a clumsy person, I am thankful for!
So thinking toward the future, do you have another dream role that you would one day like to play?
I would be thrilled to play Mrs. Lovett (SWEENEY TODD) one day. Bella in LOST IN YONKERS would be great. She has always been one of my dream roles too. I did COWBOY MOUTH a long time ago in college. I really love Sam Shepard. FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE - I would love to be in that one day.
Do you have any advice for young performers looking to make it into professional theatre?
Get as much information as you possibly can. And ask for help. Growing up I had no idea how to audition. Reach out and find your resources. Study up. Rehearse. I think there are a lot of people who say "don't get into theatre unless you really want it", but perseverance really is key. And to know that rejection comes with the package. You will hear no a lot more than yes, but just keep going and have faith in yourself.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know?
Even if you have seen LES MISERABLES before, I would encourage you to see it again. The cast is so great and it is so unique and passionate and so specific. It is relevant and it is so worth the time. It is a good night at the theater. Every night it just brings that special ache that touches you when you see important theater. It is really something special.
LES MISERABLES runs at the Palace Theatre in Waterbury, CT December 3 - 8. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday at 1:00 p.m., Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. To purchase tickets visit www.palacetheaterct.org, call 203.346.2000, or in person the Box Office 100 East Main Street, Waterbury. Ticket prices start at $46.50.
Top Photo: Allison Guinn
Middle Photo 1: The company of LES MISÉRABLES performs "One Day More." Photo by Matthew Murphy