Over the course of nearly two months, one of the most popular musicals in history, Les Misérables, will grace not one but two consecutive stages in Southern California: the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, where it is now playing through Sunday, September 10th and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, which will host the national tour based on Victor Hugo’s 1862-published novel between Tuesday, September 19th and Sunday, October 1st.
Since being adapted for the Parisian stage in 1980 by musician Claude-Michel Schönberg, and lyricists Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, Les Mis (as the musical has been informally referred to) has also become an American staple since being translated into English by producer Cameron Mackintosh and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. On Broadway alone, the stage production has earned more than half a billion dollars, in addition to the 2012 film which almost garnered that amount with $442 million. It’s not difficult to understand the commercial success; the story has a push-pull evocativeness that never lets go of its transfixed audience members.
The early 1800s-based conflict centers around ex-convict Jean Valjean (portrayed by Nick Cartell) who, upon fulfilling a 19-year sentence for purloining bread to feed his sister’s famished son, breaks his parole as a means to reclaim a new life for himself; however, this decision pits him against an unreasonable police inspector named Javert (Preston Truman Boyd). The protagonist and other characters might be compelled to ask: Does the government and its employees have the best interests of its citizens at heart? Questions like this, and about suffering, justice, redemption, and empathy percolate faithfully as themes against the backdrop of a French revolutionary fervor.
While Les Misérables subsists on mostly dramatic motifs, there is some laugh-out-loud antics to be had — a void that is filled by a riotously comical Machiavellian couple, the Thénardiers, who have no qualms about defrauding either their own customers (at an inn they run) or anyone else for that matter; in fact, there is no scheme too absurd for them to attempt. Many of these uncouth stratagems of extortion, but certainly no less hysterical, are devised by the masterminding Monsieur Thénardier who is depicted by versatile actor Matt Crowle who, for more than two decades, has impressed with one role after another.
Recently, Crowle graciously gave his time to LAexcites to discuss the inspiration for his approach to Monsieur Thénardier, how he perceives of comedy, his onstage chemistry with Christina Rose Hall’s Madame Thénardier, the musical number he looks forward to performing every night, why he’ll never forget a certain city he’s performed in, what happened when he found himself suddenly indisposed on stage, and finally, what Les Mis means to him.
How did you develop your version of Monsieur Thénardier? Were you inspired by other actors who inhabited the role on stage?
Crowle: I’d only seen the show once before, and that was over 25 years ago, so I didn’t have much reference beyond the words on the page. My inspiration in developing the character came through Thénardier’s lyrics, which are masterful examples of cunning wordplay. I found him to be intensely clever, reveling in the fun of innuendo and turns of phrases. Victor Hugo also used very helpful descriptive language for Thénardier in the novel which guided my choices throughout rehearsal. In the book, you’ll find words like ‘angular,’ ‘puny,’ and ‘a skinny little runt.’ For an actor, these are delicious ingredients to sprinkle into a character. I dropped some weight and worked on my flexibility as I prepared, because I wanted his physicality to present a man with feral, rodent-like qualities.
While Les Misérables is mostly a serious show, your thieving and overall deceitful character brings much levity to the plot. As an actor who is seemingly well-versed in comedy, having portrayed an array of funny characters like Leo Bloom in The Producers, how do you approach the humorous qualities of Monsieur Thénardier while at the same time remaining aligned with Les Misérables’ earnest themes?
Crowle: When it comes to comedic characters and scene work, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with and observe some of the greats. What I’ve learned in the past 20-plus years is the golden rule that never fails: The best comedy is the simple truth. This character is brilliantly written into situations and environments that are inherently funny — darkly funny — but still funny. Like clumsily bargaining the sale of an orphan, or crashing a wedding with the grace of a tornado. If the situation is funny, then you just have to play the truth and the comedy unfolds naturally. [Director] Mike Nichols would always say, during rehearsals for Spamalot, ‘don’t put a hat on a hat.’ I’ve never forgotten that. Don’t try to ‘be funny,’ just be honest in the midst of these ridiculous circumstances, and it will be funny. Trust and serve the situation and your scene partners, listen and respond honestly, and you will always win.
Reviews have pointed out that you share a terrific chemistry with Christina Rose Hall who plays your wife, Madame Thénardier, in the musical. Why do you think you two mesh so well on stage?
Crowle: Christina is a dynamic comedienne but, even more wonderful, she’s a generous and present scene partner. One of the keys to a successful comedic partnership, I’ve found, is treating the scene work like tennis. You have to know when you’re serving and when you’re returning the ball. Christina and I have worked on these scenes, and refined them over the months, to keep them as comedically streamlined as possible. The success in that task comes from knowing whether you’re the focus of the action or you’re in the co-pilot position of support. Flipping back and forth between these two positions is mathematical, and I love doing that dance with her eight times a week.
Among your musical numbers in the show, is there one that you find particularly challenging? Irrespective of the most challenging, do you have a favorite?
Crowle: I have to admit, Thénardier gets to have all the fun in this show. Being tasked with the role of a conniving scoundrel addicted to hijinks is the greatest gift in the world. He’s always up to something immoral and unsavory and it’s more fun than a frog in a glass of milk! I have to say, though, every night I get to do ‘Master of the House,’ I feel like a five-year-old climbing into a sandbox. It has been, and always will be, a career highlight.
Since you’ve taken on your role in the Les Misérables U.S. tour, is there a certain performance or city that stands out for you the most from either an individual and/or collective standpoint? And, if so, why?
Crowle: I got my Equity card in June of 2003 with a head full of dreams. Almost exactly 20 years later, there I was, playing Thénardier, one of the most famous villains in musical theatre history, at the Kennedy Center. For three weeks, I was living in Georgetown, walking along the Potomac River to work, convinced somebody was going to shake me awake and tell me it had all been a dream. There have been several cities and theaters that we’ve played in the past year that have been deeply and humblingly exciting. But taking the stage, in Washington D.C., and playing to a sold-out house at the Kennedy Center … I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.
Are there any fun backstage stories you’re able to share?
Crowle: One night, just before entering for the wedding scene in Act II, I got a terrible tickle in my throat. The kind of tickle that heats half your face to 300 degrees and your eyes slosh tears. So, I made my entrance, convinced that when I opened my mouth to sing my first line, I was going to explode in a coughing fit. I didn’t. However, all the focus on not coughing meant that my brain had lost the lyrics. They still came out of my mouth, with the exception of a couple Spanish words I substituted. I don’t know how that happened. I don’t speak Spanish.
Lastly, if you were to sum up the message of Les Misérables in a few sentences, what would that be?
Crowle: To me, I think the most important theme of Les Misérables is the virtue of compassion. So many people in the world are silently struggling. What we need to strive for is the patience and insight to understand that we don’t know everything about everybody. Leading with grace and compassion is the only way we’re going to help ourselves and everyone around us to see a brighter future.
For more information on the U.S. tour of Les Misérables at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre (now through Sept. 10), and to purchase tickets, please visit broadwayinhollywood.com. And for details on Les Misérables‘ run at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts (Sept. 19 – Oct. 1), visit scfta.org.