Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 6— David James and Theresa Cunningham (Master and Madame Thènardier) by Amanda Gunther

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Everybody raise a glass! Now, raise it up the master’s ass! The cheers go around for the comic relief— the master of the house! Or in this case…masters. Continuing on in my “Behind the Barricade at Toby’s” interview series I’ve sat down with the Les Misèrables comic relief actors David James and Theresa Cunningham, who play Master and Madame Thènardier; adding a bit of a sigh of humorous intrigue to this emotionally heavy, epic musical.

Theresa Cunningham and David James.
Theresa Cunningham and David James.

Refresh our memories. Where have our readers seen you last performing?

Theresa: They last saw me at Toby’s doing The Color Purple last fall. And then right after that I did Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Riverside Dinner Theatre. And now I’m here.

David: Right before Les Mis I was playing Motel in Fiddler, and before that it was Hot Nostalgia, right around New Years. Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol at the holidays and before that was the character man— a few different roles—in Legally Blonde, all at Toby’s Columbia.

What is it about Les Mis that universally draws everyone to either want to see it or want to be a part of it, so what is it that drew you both to want to be a part of Toby’s production.

Theresa: When I saw it the first time on Broadway, I was in 8t grade on our school trip, I loved every scene. It was sending such a powerful message. That message of “to love another person is to see the face of God” – I truly believe that. And it’s not about looking down but learning to look into the eyes of another; it’s those who we don’t look at, and ignore or choose not to see— that message, and how their lives and our lives are affected; it’s moving.

David: I am actually old enough to have seen the show in its pre-Broadway debut at The Kennedy Center. I saw it there on Christmas Eve—and they had to stop the show because of the turntable issues that night. Every 15 minutes they would come out and make an announcement that they were still trying to work on it and that if anyone wanted to leave and get a refund they could. And you know what? When they finally got the show started— the announced that not a single person had left. So that in and of itself was pretty amazing. But then just getting to see all of that…it was riveting. There are so many things going on and it transcends so many different levels of existence, the rich, the poor, and that’s what draws people to it, the relatability and humanity; the way people are so easily able to connect with it.

How are these roles different from other roles that you have played in the past?

David: This is not the norm at all for me. And a lot of people have said to me that this is a completely different sort of character from what they’re used to seeing me play. Even Toby said that. Yes – there is still the comic side to him but he also has a journey. And we’re playing the Thènardier’s in a very unconventional way, they’ve always sort of been played with animosity and loathing of one another and we’re taking that very differently. Theresa and I trust one another completely and that’s what really makes the relationship on stage work. We are taking it like these two characters actually love each other, and their little remarks and jibes at each other are just how they relate to one another after all this time, and that’s what really makes it work for me.

I’ve been doing shows at Toby’s for a long time, a lot of comic character roles, and this is extremely different from anything I’ve ever done, even though there is definitely still comedy in it. He has a darker side, a need to survive and that’s something that is new and challenging for me.

Theresa: This is different from anything I’ve ever done. One of the challenges about her for me was finding truth within her; she’s not just this larger than life comic character. I have to remind myself that “these are actual people.” And you know “what is my relationship to David” in this case. And finding that has really been a challenging work in progress – but I think I finally have her and she’s come a long way. I’ve really enjoyed the broader aspects of her humor, and getting a chance to find that grounding, balancing those two things I think has been most challenging and it took a really long time to find but we’re there.

David: You get to see these two differently because of how we’re playing them. For me it’s the scenes that we do together because when we do them, we’re approaching them as a team. We’re a unit – we’re not Master and Madam but an actual married couple – and I love that aspect of how we’ve gone about creating them. So getting to play that into these characters who aren’t usually seen that way is really great.

Tell us a little bit about how getting involved with this enormous production grew from dream to reality.

Theresa: So way back before we were allowed to announce that the “mystery show” was in fact Les Mis, this was during The Color Purple, I had found out that that was the sho  that they were doing and I just very casually one night said to Toby, “Madame Thènardier. Think about.” That was all I said and I never came back to it and time went by. So when I was called back, I actually went through two rounds of callbacks, during the second round I ended up doing the chorus for “Master of the House” about six or seven times but after doing it all those times, I ended up being offered the part, which was what I really wanted.

David: Les Mis was not something that I’d really seen myself doing. You know Toby has often said to me in the past, she’ll tell me what she has in mind for me in a certain show, not that that necessarily ends up happening or that I’m cast in that role, but just her idea in general. And I hadn’t really considered this role so when I got called back I was actually called back for three different roles, the Bishop, a member of the ensemble, and this.

So I started looking at the roll and I got more and more excited about it the more I looked at it. I started playing around with ideas as to how I could make him work and I did a lot of prep work for the callbacks. I really wanted to know it when I went in. And when I got called back, because I wasn’t expecting it, I was completely dumbfounded. But so grateful!

David James and Theresa Cunningham as the Thenardiers during "The Thenardier Waltz." Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
David James and Theresa Cunningham as the Thenardiers during “The Thenardier Waltz.” Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

How are you balancing the darker and grittier sides of these characters with their lighter sides?

David: You know, that makes me think of something else related to him…Mandy this one is especially for you, but you know how you’re always joking about how it’s written into my contract that I must fall onto the floor? Well when we were first blocking the chain gang scene— yes I start out in disguise in the chain gang scene at the very beginning—we were talking about how people in chain gangs drop over from exhaustion and fall to the ground…and I just did. I’m the one that falls, so that’s for you.

But as far as Thènardier having two sides…it isn’t that he’s two different people so much as— You know…it was one of the very first rehearsals where Toby said to us that she sees us as this old Vaudeville couple, but not ‘wah-wah-wah’ all the time. The humor has to come out of reality, we’re essentially crooks just doing what we can to survive. The irony of it is that we’re not clowns, we start off very real in “Master of the House” and then by the time we get to the wedding scene where we come out in the big wigs and makeup, we’ve evolved into those clowns and we really get to put some more of that physical shtick into our work there.

Theresa: Relationship. It’s all about the relationship. What I have realized most during this show is how much of a relationship actor I am, like I said before ‘what is my relationship to David?’ Who I am with David in that scene, and who I am with little Cosette, who I am with adult Eponine, and in finding all of those relationships I have found a level of love within her for all of those people. She is who she is because of how she relates to them, and that’s where the balance lies.

What is the most fun thing about essentially being the ‘comic relief’ of this epic emotional musical?

David: We’re the sigh of relief that comes after three hours long of this musical. Without having that release I don’t even know. At the same time a lot of the fun we have comes from that trust factor that I’ve built up with Theresa that I was talking about earlier. She’s someone I trust explicitly and we’ve stayed true to that through 50 performances. And those moments where we’re together— what you see on stage is what you’re actually getting— those moments where we make it work as a team and the laughs happen, I love those moments the most.

Theresa: It’s very challenging. But it’s also very important, these roles, and I have to remind myself why it’s so important. Like David said this is a long story, it’s a heavy story, and no one is going to get through it all if they don’t have time to breathe. And we’re the time to breathe. The Thènardier’s show is an alternate way to survival, a funnier way maybe, but it’s different from everyone else’s struggle. So it’s very challenging.

You know here Fantine just died and we come into the scene with this poor little Cinderella-looking kid and bam— let’s have some fun! We’re shifting everything from all the heavy that just happened – so it’s very challenging to get in and really shift that energy of the entire room and get them to follow along with us.

David: It’s not even hugely hysterical. In their realm of reality they aren’t laughing, just getting through, but it proves to be amusing for those watching.

Do you two have any pre-show routines or rituals that really help ground you into these characters before the show starts?

David: On a side note, my partner, Dan Felton who actually is playing Valjean in this production, said to me that in 11 years of seeing me perform he had no idea how really focused I am when I do a show. That surprised him. But I go off by myself for at least five or six minutes and just think about him, I do a little personal check-in, but otherwise he’s basically second nature to me. Thènardier is a good friend of mine.

Theresa: I’m praying all through the show. But right before I go on, I go inside my head and then I open my eyes and just like that I’m her.

David, what’s it like after such a long pause finally getting to do a show with your partner again?

I am so excited for him. I mean the process has been amazing, and this is a tremendous role for him, but I have never been more proud of him. And I get to see that gratitude in the audience every night when he takes his bow; just how he takes everyone on that journey; it’s been really amazing getting to work with him again.

Do you guys have a favorite moment?

David: Well once I get punched and go rushing back to Theresa…it’s just one of those moments where once again we’re playing as a unit, as a team. You know my eye is all broken and we just have this connection, she’s checking on me…and we’re our own little unit again. Any of those moments where we get to show that we’re that connected team.

Theresa: I think right after we get the money for little Cosette…and we just come together…like we’re on auto-pull and there we are. Together.

People have expectations in a sense for these iconic characters so what specifically are you doing to make these characters yours? To give them the extra special ‘David & Theresa’ touch?

David: You know I never—Toby always says that rooted in your character is you. That in order for your character to really work you have to be there and present in your character. And it wasn’t that hard to find where he and I relate because he’s out there trying to make a living and I’m basically doing the same thing with acting. I go out there just like he does and do until I can’t do anymore. We’re the same in that regard. Physically as he developed where those movements come from— and I don’t even know what people are talking about when they say ‘the way he moves’ because I don’t see it, I just am it in the moment— it’s how I feel. I’ve had audience members talk about that and I guess I don’t realize that I’m moving differently or in a funny way because when I’m on stage as him, I’m him and he’s me and how I feel at that time is how he moves.

Theresa: Usually once I find a walk for a character I’ve got it. But it took a long time with her. Toby pulled me aside and said “No!” for so many of the different things I tried when I was finding her. So we tried something else. I was really lost trying to find her so this was a true test for me. And this is a testament to Toby’s directing ability, her ability to really work with actors. One night she took me aside and she just said two or three sentences to me and suddenly it just clicked. I got it. I knew what it was I was looking for and there she (Madam) was. And she’s here now.

David: Toby is amazing when it comes to hurdles. If you’re really stuck when developing a character she is just amazing.

Theresa: This is sort of a first for me. Because I’ve been comic on stage but I’ve never really had a major comic role, or I have had comic roles but just not with this much physical comedy. So knowing where and how she sits and walks and balances…And the Thènardiers…they’re quick handed people, she’s fast moving and she takes up space with everything that she does.

I can’t say it enough, it’s really all about focusing on the relationship and how they feel about each other. You know how I feel about David.

David: I love you, my little sausage maker.

Theresa: He actually says that in the show. And then she winks at him.

David: And here come the customers so it’s game on and here they are.

Theresa: And I know I said it before the thing that separates David and I from other Thènardiers is that our Madame and Master really are in love with each other. And once we decided that things just grew from there.

David: You know normally when Madam sings her bit in “Master of the House” she’s alone and reflecting and it’s this bitter unhappy moment, but now the way we’re doing it she’s singing at me. Well we’re singing it to each other and it’s a joke, the way we flirt with one another really. This is who we are, and just how we get along, it sucks that her husband is a little dweeb but she loves him.

What is the most challenging thing musically for you in this production?

Theresa: “Little Cosette.” Oh my goodness…The song is actually called “Little Cosette.”  The intervals in that song they are so challenging challenging -challenging! From a musical standpoint, it’s those intervals and the repetition. And then our lines during “One Day More” they come up so fast, every single day before we go on for that number I’m running those lines because I need to make sure I’ve got that part just right. It’s also challenging because Chris Youstra (the show’s musical director) is very adamant about bringing out melody and rhythms. And we’ll be singing and he’ll say “David and Theresa you still haven’t gone far enough.” So rising to that challenge especially.

David: I think it’s having heard it so many times that when I’m singing it’s like, “Oh, that’s not actually how or where that goes.” And then finding those places and making it right. It’s also a physical challenge with the music for me because there is almost never a moment where I am just standing and singing, physicality and moving is what my character does. So I’m constantly running up and down the ladders and up on the tables and in the sewers and all over the place- so singing on top of all that moving gets to be tricky just trying to find the timing and make it all happen.

David, this one is for you because you’ve worked with Toby forever, but what was it like getting to work with her on this dream musical?

David: Toby and I do have a lot of history together. I actually had no idea it was one of her dream projects. But it’s been so great because she directs so few musicals these days, not like she used to. And it was really great to see the ‘good old Toby’ back in action. Back in the day we used to have what you called the “Toby’s Boot Camp” and you would go through boot camp where you learned Toby’s way of mounting a show in the round, starting in the ensemble and graduating up to leads, etc. And it came back for this show and I think it’s great that she’s doing it again.

It’s really just been amazing to see all of her fire and passion back in action because she is so passionate about her work and getting to be a part of that has been wonderful. And aside from getting to play this amazing role for her in this show, I get a chance to do what she asks of me and have so much fun with it. I love my time in the chain gang (watch for my fall!) and I love those scenes where I’m doing other little things because this is such a big show that you get to be a part of it in so many different ways, I get to be different and hone skills that I otherwise wouldn’t be getting the chance to do.

Theresa: While I don’t have the history that David has, Les Mis has certainly been a different experience that it was working with her for Color Purple, but I have definitely enjoyed it.

What’s the moment in the show that moves you every night?

DJ: “Bring Him Home.” It really is. I just love the message behind that song. It’s done so beautifully and it’s staged perfectly in the round with this incredible balance. That and the moment with him and Cosette at the end of Act I.

Theresa: The crescendo of the finale is amazing. To have that moment where you hear that line “…to love another person is to see the face of God…” that slow swell that just rises up after that with everyone slowly coming in for the final “Do You Hear the People Sing?” And Chris worked us so hard there. It’s amazing, It’s evident that he knows exactly when to bring in voices and when not to bring in voices to create this perfect sound and I love it.

David: It’s haunting.

Was this a dream role for you guys?

David: You know this was not even on my radar so I can’t say that it was, but I loved listening to it. At my age in the game I’ve done most of my dream roles…I’ve played Seymour in Little Shop and I’ve played Scarecrow in Wizard of Oz and I’ve played the Sergeant in Pirates…I mean there are still dream roles out there…you know I think at this point for me it’s the Emcee in Cabaret – but this wasn’t one of them. Does that mean I love it any less? No. I absolutely love this role and am so grateful to have the opportunity to give it my all each and every night.

Theresa: There was not really this dying urge to play her, but then again I don’t really look at roles in terms of ‘dream roles.’ I’ve been putting off working on my 1-person cabaret for a while now and I’m finally in a place where I’m no longer putting that off…now is the time for that to start coming together…but it’s still really wonderful to get to play Madame. And David and I just have so much fun together.

David: Yes, we really do.

Theresa Cunningham and David James as the Thenardiers during "Master of the House." Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
Theresa Cunningham and David James as the Thenardiers during “Master of the House.” Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

This is the question that always gets people – What is it that being a part of this production has taught you about yourself as a performer?

Theresa: It really has reminded me just how much of a relationship actor that I am and how much I needed a good reminder of that. I know I keep saying that but that really is it for me. The main lesson here was how important that is to me as a performer.

David: I’ve been in so many different shows where the level of professionalism is just not always there on the highest level that you want it to be – and being a part of this has shown me that I always want to be at the highest level of professional performance that I can be. When you get bored it’s time to stop. You can only bring to the table what you’re willing to commit and it isn’t always going to be your absolute best but you need to try like it is. We all raised our hands to be in this show and you have to treat the show like you really want to be here. There are hundreds of others who would have killed for a chance to do this show. I know at the end of the day I have to give them my absolute best and be that focused when I come into it, or else what am I doing it for? If not for the love of what I do?

Why do people need to see Toby’s production of Les Mis?

David: Personally – and this is one of the things she has going for her over all the other theatres who do this show – you are becoming the show. You are no longer just watching you are trapped in there with the students when they are dying at the barricade. You are involved in the daily struggles of everyone whose story is being told. And you’re amidst it all…there is no way to not become a part of it and that is something that you cannot get anywhere else.

Theresa: Any show in the round is worth seeing, but this show in the round -Oh my goodness – what you experience because of the way it’s set. You have to see it this way.

Just one more incredible reason to see Les Mis and there – are still a few weeks left to do so , not a show you want to miss; one of Toby’s finest productions. Be sure to follow along with the interview series as we round into the home stretch…up next Cosette and Eponine before we feature the final two…a face-off between Inspector Javert and Prisoner 24601!

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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 (301) 596-6161, or purchase them online.

LINKS

Read the review of Les Misèrables on DCMetroTheaterArts.

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.

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 4— an interview with Ben Lurye as Enjolras.

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 5— an interview with Jeffrey Shankle as Marius.