He is their sign, that rallies the people, that calls them to order, that brings them in line. In the fourth installment of the interview series, Behind the Barricade at Toby’s, we’re pleased to present a sit down with Ben Lurye, playing the leader of the student rebellion, Enjolras, and pick his brain about what life is like living in the barricade.
Amanda: Just to refresh our memories, where have audiences seen you most recently?
Ben: The last thing people saw me in was probably Hello, Dolly! back in the spring at Ford’s Theatre, I was Ambrose. I did understudy Cabaret at The Keegan Theatre, and I did have one night in as The Emcee, and the last thing I did with Toby’s was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, at Baltimore, I played Joseph. I also did A Year with Frog and Toad at Adventure Theatre, with a Helen Hayes Award nomination for Outstanding Ensemble.
Enjolras is blazoned with passion, what does Ben Lurye get passionate about?
Enjolras’ main passion is that he sees social injustice in the world and he wants to change that. And I’m similar. It’s not the exact same situation, but like the current situation and political unrest in Egypt, I wish I could help change that. The current situation with gay marriage and human equality is the same. If you’re a good person you deserve a chance.
I’m not saying they (the students at the barricade) deserved to lose, but they were hopelessly outgunned. And they really wanted the people to rise up and join them, but the people never came. Without outside help, they didn’t have much of a chance.
Do you find it easy to relate to Enjolras’ leadership quality?
I think I do see the same leadership qualities in myself. I feel comfortable in situations taking that kind of lead. I think Enjolras is more of a ‘you do what I say’ sort of leader and I’m more of a ‘let’s find what works best in this situation’ type. I was Chairman of the Board of Directors of Wildwood Summer Theatre, and last year we were in a tough financial situation. I helped lead us back to financial stability for their upcoming 50th season, so I have a little experience with leadership, although that example isn’t quite as revolutionary!
What was your initial reaction when you were offered the role of Enjolras?
I was very excited! Ever since I first heard Les Mis, it’s been one of my favorite shows. I had the opportunity to do it in high school, and of course I wasn’t a lead character then because I was only in 10th grade. But it’s always been a dream show of mine. Enjolras is so fantastic, all the stuff he sings, he gets to be in a lot of fun songs, and he’s the leader of an ensemble group, which I enjoy. It’s just fantastic!
So it sounds like Enjolras is the dream role for you, so is there another dream role in this show for you?
Jean Valjean. But not for like 20 years, I’m too young right now. But it’s nice to have a dream role down the road. I’d love to play Thénardier and Marius somewhere down the road. I’ve sort of resigned myself to the fact that I’m never going to get to play Gavroche. Each of those characters goes down a journey, and to get to take that journey would be incredible. When Toby’s revives this in 20 years, we’ll see, maybe I can do Valjean then.
During your days as a college student did you have any involvement in student causes or student rebellions?
I really didn’t. I was in the a capella group The Generics at University of Maryland College Park. Being an activist just wasn’t really my thing. I’m not against it – I just never got involved with it.
What was the most challenging thing for you as Enjolras?
I have to lead the students to victory — and the one caveat for us to win is that the people have to join us. And it’s not that Enjolras doubts that they will succeed, but he needs other things to happen in order for them to succeed. As Enjolras I can’t show weakness, because although I’m not too cocky to think we’re immune to defeat, I can’t let doubt infect my fellow students. I have to be brave for my fellow men because we need to do what we can do. So I guess the challenge is to show confidence to the fellow students despite having doubts.
How does Enjolras relate to Marius?
They’ve been friends for — well – since childhood. And up until this point, before Marius meets Cosette, they’ve shared views. So when Marius comes into the cafe for “Red and Black” with his news of love, I don’t want to be angry with him because I care about my friend, and you know “Yay, Marius is in love and we never thought that would happen,” but at the same time, I have to refocus him to what we’re doing. And it’s hard because now I want to celebrate with him, but I can’t because I have a bigger task at hand.
What is the moment in the show that moves you every night?
Oh wow, pick my favorite moment in Les Mis? I have a few. During “At the End of the Day” when the girls do their verse by themselves – they sing incredibly. I’m also hidden onstage for the end of the show, because I’m the person who starts off the final “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and I get to watch Jean Valjean die, and the way Dan does it is just so beautiful.
But my favorite moment as Enjolras is probably the death of Gavroche. It’s pretty fantastic I think because in that moment he realizes that he is going to die. And that is the first time that Grantier (played by Chris Harris) takes up arms. Up until that moment he has never touched a gun.
“Lamarque is dead” is an amazing moment too because here we are, searching for signs to rally the people and it’s the best/worst moment because he stood up for the rights of the people, and he was the only one. But then it’s announced that he has died and we’re upset at first, but it then it turns into something else – it motivates us to action.
When you experience Eponine and Gavroche’s deaths, what is going on in your and Enjolras’ minds?
When Eponine dies I’m more feeling sorry for Marius, because I don’t know the girl, but he is clearly affected by it, and I feel bad for him. It’s not how Enjolras expected the battle would begin, with the death of this innocent girl no one knows. Gavroche’s death is just complete disbelief because we’re grown men, and they can shoot at us because we’re adults. But how dare they shoot at a kid? And not only do they shoot at him, but they take multiple shots – they miss twice and still they continue to shoot. And it’s not rage – it’s utter disbelief and confusion and sadness because they would do that. It’s sad that that is what this world has become.
What is the most challenging song for Enjolras to sing?
“Do You Hear the People Sing?” because I am a tenor and the song goes very low. The end of “Red and Black” ends on a high G# and about ten seconds later I have to hit a low A – and that is the absolute bottom of my range. I was sick one day at rehearsal, and my range drops when I’m sick. I can sing to low C, and I half-jokingly thought that I should remember what that feels like in order to really hit that note. But what I really do is use one of the most valuable lessons that my college voice teacher taught me – I have to take a second to reset myself – physically and mentally – to prepare for the key change.
What is your favorite song?
I change my mind on this every night – so it might be “On My Own.” I just love that song so much. It’s very well written. MaryKate does it so well, and if I was a girl I’d probably want to play Eponine just so I could sing that song.
But my favorite male song is definitely “Bring Him Home, because it’s beautiful and I enjoy singing challenges. And it is easily the most difficult song to sing. And to hear Dan do it so beautifully every night, it’s just so great. It’s such a pleasure to work with him and to get to sit next to him in the dressing room. He’s just the nicest guy.
What has the overall experience of working on the physical barricade been like?
The first time we had it was tech week, and that’s always challenging. And the nature of Toby’s is that you can’t get the upcoming show’s set until the current show’s set goes away. So we had the first two months of rehearsal on the set of In The Heights. And then we finally get this set and it’s a big challenge. It was big and hard to move, but I’ve done jungle gym-type sets before in a production of Five Little Monkeys, so I had a little bit of knowledge of how they worked.
The first two days were difficult, taking everything we’d blocked without it and trying to make it fit, but then you reblock and you make it extra sure that everything was fine. But the first couple days of tech are always, always difficult, no matter what show you’re in or theatre you’re at, so this wasn’t really anything unexpected. I think the barricade is our friend now.
If there was a love interest for Enjolras, who would it be?
I have to completely make one up because in the book he completely cares not for women. He’s completely focused on his mission. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t have women on his mind, so if I have to make one up? Well, you can just pick one…the three women at the barricade are Coby, Jane, and Dayna. So go ahead, make up a story for yourselves!
What else are you doing in this show besides playing Enjolras?
I actually play six different other characters before I play Enjolras. Other people do more. And then after I die as Enjolras I play one additional character – the Major Domo at the wedding in the powder blue suit with the white wig.
But before being Enjolras? I’m a prison guard in the opening scene. I also play a member of the poor, twice, and then a sailor. I get to play around in “Lovely Ladies” a lot; it’s fun.
What have you learned as a performer about yourself from being involved with this show?
I enjoy working with Toby because in my experience, she lets you discover the character rather than tell you what you are or where you go. But she’s good at combining letting you try your ideas while still guiding you along. I enjoy that approach from a director as opposed to full guidance vs. no guidance. I enjoy the collaboration between the actor and the director, and having the ability to be able to discover your character in the scene.
I haven’t done a show of this length in a long time. So I think I’ve learned – or rediscovered – the amount of focus needed to do something this massive. It’s a mindset, and you have to understand what’s coming and be prepared for this three-hour thing you have to do. And it has to be new and exciting every time even if it is the 20th time for you.
The last thing I did that was this long was Parfumerie at 1st Stage and I wasn’t nearly on stage that long as I am for this. I am really just relearning focus.
Why do you want people to see this production?
I think Les Mis is one of the best musicals ever written. Every character has a journey. There’s something in it that most people relate to: lost love, injustice, being passionate about something, and there are so many different themes I can’t list them all.
You should see it here at Toby’s because you will have never seen Les Mis done before like this. I know it very well, but I never imagined it could be like this. We’re singing our faces off and its so much fun to perform it every night. It’s a dream show for so many musical performers.
Read the review of Les Misèrables on DCMetroTheaterArts.
Be sure to check out the ongoing interview series:
Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 1—an interview with Director Toby Orenstein.
Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 2—an interview with Musical Director Christopher Youstra.
Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 3—an interview with The Lovely Ladies of the Ensemble.