If you hear the people sing -singing the song of angry men, and hearts full of love, and one day more — then you’re hearing the musical genius of Music Director Christopher Youstra as Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia presents Les Misèrables. Continuing in the Behind The Barricade interview series, I sat down with the incredibly talented and award-winning Musical Director to discuss this mega-project from the musical side of the spectrum.
Amanda: Why did you want to be the Musical Director on this project?
Chris: Because it’s going to be my last show as a Musical Director for a while and what a show to go out on. I’ve been doing 10 to 12 shows a year and it’s taking its toll, at the end of 2012 I’d finished 9 months straight of shows, between Toby’s and Olney Theatre Center, with The Color Purple, Cinderella, Spring Awakening, and I decided that I need to slow it down. Les Mis is a nice show to end this portion of my career on, or at least slow down with. I’m still going to dabble a little with musical directing, maybe three shows next year. I think I’m going to be doing How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at Olney. And we’ll see what else.
What was the biggest challenge in working on a show this big?
I’ve done lots of big projects: Ragtime, The Color Purple, Titanic, these huge shows that demand a lot of musical work. I leave the big sets and stuff to Toby. The main challenge is getting a cast big enough to cover a story this huge, and making sure that they are the right singers to fit the parts that becomes the challenge. I like the big stuff. It was a little challenging only having five girls in the ensemble. I guess it’s five, and we have a few of the principle girls doubled up in the ensemble when they’re not in their scene. But the challenge was more so making sure we had enough men. The men sing so much more in this show. The sound of Les Mis is really more male. It’s the sound of the men that carries the show, so making sure that we had enough, and not just enough but enough of the right type of singer, was pretty challenging.
I think the biggest challenge outside of getting the cast in place was to then put the barricade in place. It ate a lot of time out of tech. It’s a lot of music. The sheer amount – it’s just a lot! When I’m playing the show, I get a five- second break during Act I and a seven-second break during Act II and that’s it. I’m playing the whole rest of the time. So on top of all that, with the barricade— it’s about making a musical despite these huge set pieces that become a huge focal point. You still have to tell the story of the music and not let the giant set get in the way of that.
What is the moment that without a doubt moves you every time you hear it?
I would say “One Day More” just because it’s a great story building moment. You have all these voices coming together, all the stories happening at once, building up to the big moment of how they’re going to move forward in the plot, everyone’s singing and the sound that comes out of this cast is just stunning when that happens.That song is theatre at its pinnacle. It’s the ‘moment of moments.’
As far as other moving moments, I do like the finale – it’s quite emotional – and then of course the opening. The middle of Act I and then the middle of Act II are not as well composed as the rest of the show. They sort of dropped the ball a bit there, and actually you really sort of notice that in the movie. The middle bits are where we’re getting all of the themes brought together, the swapping of the light motifs with Eponine and Fantine, and it’s such a great composition there. And I think here on the stage it’s beautifully song with Mar Kate and then Janine, and they really readdress those moments and make them moving.
What are some of the more musically challenging moments of this production for you as a Musical Director?
Well the barricade music comes to mind. It’s a complicated rhythm – 7/8 – to get right. Actually the singers do really well with it, so maybe it’s not that complicated, it’s just a lot. The hard intervals and tritones – there are a lot of those that people just don’t naturally wrap their voices around. So they take a lot of work. And then the recitatives, it’s everywhere – the hooker scene on the street probably pops into your mind when they’re bickering with Fantine – the ‘da-da-dat-da’ – “I’ll give you four— that wouldn’t pay for the chain!” But that’s in there like nine other times, especially with Valjean and Javert, they do it to each other a lot.
And then about two thirds of the way through Act I the meandering starts. With “A Heart Full of Love” and then “In My Life,” and it basically becomes this wandering ballad, so really trying to make sure the singers are getting the audience to stay with them, keeping them paying attention. There are just challenges everywhere, but nothing that we haven’t overcome.
What has it been like working with this particular cast?
What’s neat about this cast is that it’s a lot of the veterans of Toby’s. This was her special show and she worked really hard to get her favorites into it and it’s like a big old family reunion. Dan Felton, who plays Valjean, is just amazing. He did his claim to fame in three big Sondheim shows years ago at The Kennedy Center, and he’s one of my favorites. I was determined to get him back on the stage because right after he did his big three he sort of disappeared, and so having him back for this has been just great.
It’s really nice working with smart singers. This cast knows what they’re doing and how to uphold the integrity of the story while still making beautiful music. And I had pretty much worked with everyone in the cast before. Well almost everyone, I think the only one I hadn’t worked with was Will Emory, and also Christopher Harris, and I guess I hadn’t really worked with Katie Grace before, not like this, but they’re all really great to work with. Everyone is just so dedicated and works really hard to make this such a success. It’s great!
Every Musical Director is always itching to cut their least favorite song. Where would you make the cut if you could?
Oh boy…yeah, um, well I’d basically condense “In My Life/Heart Full of Love.” That song just goes on forever and it wanders and it happens at a point in the show where you run the risk of losing the audience’s attention. Actually, we did condense it a bit because the story telling really just stalls there. So now it works better, and what I have Katie and Jeff (as Cosette and Marius) do there they do really well together.
Your favorite moment?
The end of the show. It’s truly really beautiful. To whole idea tha, “To Love another person is to see the face of God” – that’s just amazing. And I think when you see this show you walk away thinking, or maybe hoping, that the kindnesses you’ve done in life to others are celebrated, and that you are remembered for the good things you’ve done and how you’ve helped others. That bit totally moves me – and maybe I should have said this for the ‘what moves me’ question.
How do you think Toby’s is making this production accessible to the audience?
I think it’s the intimacy of this theatre space. It keeps the story telling alive but brings back the level of singing this show requires. Again, like I said the movie was a bit disappointing. The thing there is that they pushed story telling over singing, which doesn’t lend itself to Les Mis because opera is the other way around. And Les Mis really is more of an opera – it just happens to also be in English. The musical skips so much detail – in the book you have a 100 pages to fill you in on how Valjean goes from being prisoner to mayor, and on stage you get a scene change. And I think doing this show at this theatre with this cast upholds the integrity of the story -so that you get those missing bits filled in when you listen to them singing.
You know going in I didn’t know who Lamarque was, and I doubt many people do. People are always getting this mixed up with The French Revolution, it’s not. It was a student rebellion that lasted maybe 24 hours at tops, and it’s just set against the French backdrop – all these little details that we miss. And that you sort of hope were going to get picked up in the movie, but that’s where the movie sort of again let me down.
And everyone complains about how bad the singing was in the movie — everyone picks on Russell Crowe, he wasn’t great, but more so they failed to use him correctly. They had a bad Music Director who failed to utilize him to his fullest potential. He can sing. He has a band. There were good singers in the movie, their young Cosette and Gavroche were exceptional, I liked the Thènardiers, especially Sacha Baron Cohen, I love Sacha Baron Cohen. The one that really disappointed me was Amanda Seyfried. And I mean Hugh Jackman was OK, but I’ve heard him in Oklahoma! – now that was amazing. They fell short in really telling the story. And that’s where we do better. We tell the story while singing, and that’s what makes it accessible to the audience. This is how you should see Les Mis if you’ve never seen it, or only seen the movie version, with all the real emotions and the storytelling unfolding on our stage right before your eyes.
What has been the most rewarding thing about getting to be involved with Les Mis?
I would say getting to hear everyone doing “One Day More.” The band is just churning it out and everyone is singing their lungs out, and it’s pretty freaking fantastic. It’s that rare moment that when I sit back and hear it that I’m reminded that I can keep going in my career as a Musical Director, and that, “Yes! I do want to get up and do this again!”
How has the show helped you grow as a Musical Director?
Ha! It tells me that I’m getting old. It has absolutely taken its toll on me. I’m doing this and producing A Chorus Line at Olney Theatre Center at the same time, and it’s a lot. Plus we did recordings for Big Nate The Musical this week, and the fact that Les Mis was opening while we were still trying to bump-in A Chorus Line, it’s just been so much, so I’m growing to realize that I can’t keep up with it all anymore.
Was it particularly challenging to work with a smaller orchestra than the original orchestrations were written for?
It’s hard. It’s always hard. But that’s the nature of the business. And it’s always difficult, whether you’re putting together a band for Toby’s or at Olney, you’re always, always, always reducing. You want to add more, but you just can’t do it. Cutting back the number of players becomes…necessary. But I’ve gotten better and better at it over the last 15 years. At least I think I’m getting really good at it. For Les Mis we’ve only got six.
Haha! Fooled you! I fooled you! It really honestly is only six people giving that amazing sound. So I’m right, I am getting better and better at this. ;-)
Any closing thoughts or hopes you have for the show?
I really just hope that everyone comes to see it. It’s a really great show, with a nice long run so there’s plenty of time to see it. Tell your friends. This is how you’re supposed to hear and see this show.
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.
Behind the Barricades at Toby’s’-Part One: An Interview with Les Misèrables Co-Director Toby Orenstein by Amanda Gunther.