‘Behind the Barricades at Toby’s’-Part One: An Interview with Les Misèrables Co-Director Toby Orenstein by Amanda Gunther

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Toby Orenstein.
Toby Orenstein.

The Great Revolution has arrived! The barricade has arisen at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia with the regional premier of Broadway’s 4th longest running musical, Les Misèrables. Winner of 8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score, this critically acclaimed musical epic lands itself in the round for the first time in the Washington DC- Baltimore Metropolitan area. I was given the distinct honor of sitting down with Founding Artistic Director Toby Orenstein, who is currently co-directing this production, and talking to her about what the process of creating genuine theatrical magic with this sensational show has been like.

Amanda: What made you want to direct Les Misèrables at Toby’s?

Toby: I’ve been waiting a very long time for this. It’s one of my favorites. I’ve done it twice before with the children, the youth performers at the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts (a program where Orenstein is also the founder and current Artistic Director) because the rights to the children’s version of the show were released to me a long time ago. Of course the first time we did it we did it at HCC with their turntable so we had that going and then the second time it was on a regular stage. So doing it here at Toby’s, in the round, that’s a huge challenge that I’ve always wanted to tackle. I love this musical, everything about it and it really is a favorite of mine, so getting to finally have it here is just wonderful.

I’m going to use a Sondheim quote here, “It’s both exciting and scary.” I’m excited and scared. Because it’s not only about singing and acting, but it’s the ability and strength of this cast to create this masterpiece on stage live before the audience. I love the story. I love the characters. And I love Jean Valjean because of the injustice he endures and everything he has faced along the way, and how he has handled everything he’s faced.

Of course, the question that everyone keeps asking when they ask about me choosing to do this show here is how we’re going to do that enormous barricade, and we’ve had to come up with a very clever concept that I am so excited about, but I just can’t tell you about! You’ll have to come and see it but it’s a whole new concept that’s never, to my knowledge, been used before. It’s going to be Les Mis likes it’s never been seen before. You have to come up with new ways of looking at things when staging in the round, and on top of that all of our scenery has to be mobile. Nothing can be a permanent fixture because of using the space for dinner before the show. So it’s incredible to see what we’ve come up with that really makes this show work.

What is one of the biggest struggles you had with this production getting it to opening night?

We need more time! I like to flesh out all the characters and the acting, it’s all about making pictures happen on the stage and then finding the motivations, so it’s a little working backwards, it keeps us on our toes because we stage it and we sing it and then we go deep into the characters.

There have been many many challenges, and we have really pushed every creative button to make that – I don’t want to say empty space, or barren space, but – to transform the flatness of that space, because if you’ve ever been in the theatre when there’s nothing in there it really is just a big empty square, but we have exhausted every creative resource and pushed every creative button to completely transform that space into so much more than you could ever imagine. David Hopkins, my set designer, is so damn creative with sets! It’s great working with him, because he comes up with some of the most amazing things. We (Steven Fleming, my Co-Director, and I) talk about what we need and then David makes the magic happen. Most people haven’t seen the “bare-walled square,” or the look of nothing in there, so they really don’t get that extra “ooh!” when they see all the actual magic that goes into these designs that he creates. Now that is a challenge.

What has been one of the most difficult things for you as a director with this production?

When you have pictures in your mind of a certain way you want things to look, or how you think things are going to be…taking those pictures and hoping to make them a reality is scary. Once we put that barricade up, I knew we had a lot of barriers to contend with. We were imagining all sorts of things. And making that idea for the barricade a reality was probably one of the most difficult things we dealt with the entire time.

When we did the first designer’s run, it was so complicated because we were just working through trying to get the timing right and we didn’t have the actual barricade to work with yet. So I have actors standing in the space, doing this climbing motion and throwing their hands up in the air to signal that they’ve reached the top of it so that the lighting people could get the cues right. It’s so complicated, because we know there are going to be ladders and the motion of going up and down isn’t the same as actually going up and down and it was really surprising because they got 75% of it right on the mark the first run.

Set Designer David Hopkins' barricades,
Set Designer David Hopkins’ barricades.

When we actually put the thing in there for the first time it was amazing because it actually worked the way we thought it would, and then the goal was just to keep making it work from there. I said, “Damn this is going to work!” Now, we just have to massage it and rehearse it until we open to keep it working.

I think the only other show that I’ve ever done here that was this technically involved with intense sets was Sunday in the Park with George, if you’re not familiar the entire action of that takes place inside of a painting, and trying to make that happen in this space was challenging. But with Les Mis, you really just get a chance to create and make it all happen because there’s so much of it. Les Mis has been the longest change over between two shows that I’ve ever had because I gave us two days to just work tech with the set, which we really needed to get everything right.

Is there a character that you find yourself closely relating to in Les Mis?

Not any of the women, certainly. Um, I can’t think of any that I’m really like. But I do respect and adore Jean Valjean, maybe I’m like him a little because I will fight for injustices, and for people who are being crucified, and I will go out on a limb and give people chance after chance. He has a wonderful heart deep down, and he just struggled at first because he’s made wrong choices along the way, but he deserves a second chance and I can relate to wanting to give people those chances. And he’s the exact opposite of Javert, because Javert is so rigid. He can only see things in black and white, he can’t see between the colors into the gray area where Jean Valjean’s character falls. He even says in one song that he was born inside a jail, raised from birth to view life that way, and the contrast between them is just amazing.

Is there a moment above the others that just moves you to tears every time you see it? What about a favorite moment?

Oh, I cry several times throughout. “I Dreamed A Dream,” that song gets me crying. And then at the beginning when Jean Valjean is singing “Who Am I,” when he’s just been released, it’s just this wonderful moment. And then the act one finale, “One Day More” they just sound wonderful. Favorite moments? I love the whole thing. I love the hospital scene because we’re doing something different with it. And another favorite moment is near the end, I’m sobbing, it’s when Fantine comes to get Valjean.

What was the audition process like for this show?

I have a rule. We saw over 250 people for this show during auditions. That’s the biggest number I’ve ever seen for any production in all my years of holding auditions. If you’ve worked for me before you didn’t have to attend the open-call auditions. And all the time people are saying I end up using the same people, but these people are the best of the best, they are just excellent all-around and their work ethic is just wonderful. My rule is that you have to be able to be better than these people, coming in, if you want to work for me. They are amazing. You have to be a better story teller, a better singer, a better actor. If you, Amanda, were going out for a part against say someone like Janine Sunday, you would have to be able to tell Fantine’s story better on top of being able to outsing and outact her.

When you think about the women I have in this ensemble, Dayna Quincy who has been Helen Hayes nominated, Jayne Boyle who just finished to major leading roles for me, Heather Beck who has done countless leading roles here over the last few years. And these leading ladies are all in the ensemble, so what does that say?

I love the people that I have working for me in this cast; they are committed and dedicated and talented. And I have worked with many of them before, but I know their work ethic and I know what they can do. I haven’t worked with Dan (Dan Felton – Jean Valjean) in over a decade, but he’s delightful. And I’ve worked with Larry (Lawrence Munsey- Javert) before and he’s just wonderful to work with.

And you’re going to see people who I’ve worked with before like you’ve never seen them before, like Larry, and especially David James. (playing Thènardier) you’re going to see him like you’ve never seen him before, it’s very different from anything he’s ever done. I just sort of imagine Thènardier and his wife as the oldest of old Vaudeville type people turned into the world’s biggest crooks. So you’ll get to see all that when you come see it, of course.

The thing I think I admire most about this cast is their ability to roll with the punches, literally and figuratively.

How has working on Les Mis helped you grow as a Director? What have you learned about yourself?

That’s an interesting question. Well see, I’ve always been— my expression is, are you familiar with the story of Gypsy Rose Lee? (For those that aren’t, Rose was always having epiphanies in her dreams because cows were coming to her with new ideas in her sleep). Because after Gypsy, my expression is “I had a cow last night.” I am very lucky beause right now I can close my eyes and see the story unfolding. I know in my gut when something is wrong, and that’s when the cow comes to me, because when it’s wrong in your gut you have to fix it.

When I was at Catholic University, I had this teacher who was a crude but very brilliant man. He was teaching this advanced directing course – What was his name? I can’t remember his name.” But anyway, I was taking his course, and I had my final directed scene to present, and originally when I had presented it he had told me it terrible. So I went back and I worked on it, and I worked on it, and when I presented it at the end after all that work, do you know what he said to me? He said, “You’ve taken this piece of shit and you’ve polished it and polished it, and do you know what you have now? You have polished shit.” And that was a huge awakening for me, it really taught me this lesson. And I learned how to trust my gut.

Because now I know if something in my gut tells me it’s wrong I will change it. The cow just comes to me. I’ll give you the perfect example. When I was directing Sunday in the Park with George, here, the opening wasn’t quite right. And I knew it wasn’t quite right and the night before the final tech night it just hit me, came to me at night. And I woke up and called the actor who was playing George at the time, and I called him and I said “How would you feel about doing a completely different opening? I can walk you through it tomorrow because what we have right now just isn’t working.” And he said “Boss,” because he used to call me boss. He said, “Boss, I don’t want to do that tomorrow, I want to come in and do it tonight!” And he did. And we changed it. And it worked.

So working on Les Mis has reinforced what I believe, you have to trust your gut and you have to change it until it feels right no matter how many times you’ve rehearsed it a certain way; it has to feel right if it’s going to be right.

What do you hope the audience will experience seeing Les Mis here at Toby’s?

I hope that the audience enjoys it. It’s most important to tell the story and to tell it clearly. To feel the emotions that the character are feeling, and this cast – they do it well, so I really think the audience is going to love it.

What about this production makes it a Toby’s signature production?

It’s unique. People say “What? You’re doing it in the round? But how are you going to – ” and then they come see it and they say  “Oh, that’s interesting!”  You’re just going to have to come see Les Mis as it’s never been done before. It’s a whole new concept from anything you’ve ever seen, and I cannot wait to share it with everyone out there.

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Les Misèrables plays through November 10, 2013 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia – 5900 Symphony Woods Road, in Columbia, MD, For reservations, call the box office (301) 596-6161, or purchase reservations online.

LINKS

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 1: An interview with Director Toby Orenstein by Amanda Gunther.

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 2: An interview with Musical Director Christopher Youstra by Amanda Gunther.

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 3: Lovely Ladies: Heather Marie Beck, Coby Kay Callahan, and Dayna Marie Quincy by Amanda Gunther.

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 4— an interview with Ben Lurye (Enjolras) by Amanda Gunther.    

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 5— an interview with Jeffrey Shankle (Marius) by Amanda Gunther.    

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 6— an interview with David James and Theresa Cunningham (the Thènardiers) by Amanda Gunther.    

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 7- an interview with  Katie Grace Heidbreder and MaryKate Brouillet (Cosette and Eponine) by Amanda Gunther.

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 8 – an interview with  Larry Munsey (Javert) by Amanda Gunther.

‘Behind the Barricade at Toby’s’ Part 9—An Interview with Daniel Felton (Jean Valjean) by Amanda Gunther

1 COMMENT

  1. You do such a wonderful job with all your productions. So looking forward to Les Miserables! Sharing tremendous theater, and scrumptious food is delightful! So grateful for Toby’s in my life!

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