Every epic musical has a broad range of characters, including the love-struck ingénue type. Les Misèrables at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia is no exception. Continuing on as the 7th installment in the Behind the Barricade at Toby’s interview series, I’m sitting down with Katie Grace Heidbreder and MaryKate Brouillet, who play Cosette and Eponine respectively, to find out just what it’s like to take on the role of young, lovestruck, ingénue in this larger-than-life musical.
Amanda: Let’s catch the readers up on where they may have seen you last around the area.
Katie: Most recently I performed as part of the ensemble in My Fair Lady at The Kennedy Center’s spring gala. Before that I did Fiddler on the Roof here at Toby’s, I played Chava. Before that I played Martha in A Christmas Carol, Kate/Chutney in Legally Blonde, both at Toby’s Columbia and Amber in Hairspray at Toby’s of Baltimore.
MaryKate: Before Les Mis the last shows I did in the area were Legally Blonde here at Toby’s, I played Serena and I did Spring Awakening at The Keegan Theatre in DC as a member of the ensemble.
What is it like to find depth in these lovestruck ingénue type characters and to make them women that the audience wants to care about?
Katie: Well, for me, my biggest pet peeve about this role and how people look at it is that she’s a ‘cookie-cutter’ ingénue and that there shouldn’t be any depth and she should be very face-value, pretty girl, boring. But the text lends itself to that, she asks so many questions because she’s going through things. She wants to know what’s going on. This girl has been traded from her mother— who she doesn’t remember—to these crazy people and then to this man who is taking care of her but isn’t her real father. So that’s very confusing and would create a very interesting person. You know what I mean? She’s not going to be a bland ingénue because, she has questions to ask.
I just think it’s important, for me anyway, to give Cosette some layers instead of just making her a dumb ingénue.
MaryKate: I think where Katie’s challenge is finding the depth, I think in my case it was just focusing on the simplicity of Eponine and that being in love with Marius is really all she has to look forward to. The sun rises and sets on him so that’s really all she has to be excited about. So that’s really all it was for me. We also both read the book. Can’t say that we read the whole book—
Katie: Not the whole book, the larger pieces that focused on our characters. At least to just get familiar with them because the book does flesh them out a lot more than the musical does, clearly, or it would be a really long musical.
Is this the dream role for you? And how does it compare to other roles you have played in the past?
Katie: I mean…when MaryKate and I got the call we hung up and then called each other and started crying. We were so excited! Like literally just crying on the phone, and I was running around my apartment screaming. I was sobbing. But it’s really very different from anything I’ve done in general. I don’t really get to play the ingénue or the soprano role, I’m usually plugged into these character funny-gal things. So it’s been really fun to be challenged to do something else.
MaryKate: For me, well I talked with Katie right after I got the call too. But it took me a while to process it. It didn’t hit me right away like it did with Katie. I definitely stuttered on the phone with Vickie, but I was just thrilled. Katie and I talked with Nick (Nick Lehan playing Feuilly) and he was like “don’t forget this moment, don’t forget this feeling, how happy you are right now, like nothing else in the world matters.”
And Katie you were hoping for Cosette and MaryKate you wanted Eponine?
Katie: So badly. We went through the whole audition process together, holding hands and hoping.
MaryKate: It was really like a dream too because I was rooting for her and she was rooting for me-but in my mind I was like,“Tehe’s no way we’re both going to get it.” I knew either she was going to get it and I wasn’t or vice versa, but then we both did and—
Katie: It was like “WOW!
MaryKate: Right. And that never happens in this business. So we were both so thrilled.
Katie, we see Cosette get introduced to Eponine later in life. Do you ever think she ever realizes who Eponine actually is?
Katie: We’ve actually talked about that because there is a moment where he (Marius) literally says, “…my friend, Eponine…” and he shows her to Cosette. And we’ve made it a moment where we do look at each other straight in the eye and we have a moment of “Who are you? I know you. I know your face.” But that’s all we have. That’s the only moment that I see Eponine. And after that she’s out of sight, out of mind.
MaryKate: Prior to that moment where I know who she is we do, like Katie said, stare each other down. But Eponine gets to go somewhere with that because there’s a line about how we grew up together and what she’s become versus what I’ve become, but that’s really it, mostly.
What are the emotional challenges that are cultivated with these characters and how do you find yourselves relating to them, and fleshing them out for the audience?
Katie: Well I think the hidden challenge Cosette faces is that she has only known one type of love. The love for her father, Valjean, and so refocusing her love on somebody else is a challenge for her because she doesn’t want to lose sight of loving her father. But it’s a different type of love and she’s so overwhelmed by that feeling, she’s never felt it before.
MaryKate: And I think both of us, just on opposite ends of the spectrum, our worlds—our character worlds—are very limited. You know where she’s very sheltered, and I, Eponine, is more street savvy, but she is limited in terms of relationships and doesn’t have a whole lot in her life, and doesn’t have love at all really. It’s all imagined for her. And it’s also just unrequited love, and I think for me we’ve all experienced that in some shape or form.
What is it that keeps Eponine motivated to stay with him if for her it really is all about the unrequited love?
Katie: People groan in the audience.
MaryKate: I know, I know, they do. When he gives me the letter and then I take it to Jean Valjean, I hear people react to that. But I think she’s a fighter and when that’s all you have in your life you’re going to stick to it. And she’s stubborn. But still at the end of the day she loves him and she’ll do anything for him.
Katie: It’s really sad.
What is it about Les Mis that speaks deeply to you, that drew you to want to be a part of it?
Katie: I think the lyric “…to love another person is to see the face of God…” is Les Mis in one sentence. That sentence makes it all. It’s so important and it just really, at least for me, hits home.
MaryKate: It does for me as well and I think it’s just such an incredible story. Jean Valjean’s journey – there’s nothing like it.
What has been the most challenging thing about this show for you?
Katie: For me there are certain vocal things that I struggled with. You’d think it would be the high stuff, but it was actually the lower recitative stuff that’s just spoken in sentences in a lower tone of my voice that is sometimes a little hard when you’re up in ‘Soprano-land.’
MaryKate: I think the challenge for me, a challenge but it’s also fun,was finding new moments; Just not letting it get stale and also not being completely overcome by the emotion. And a lot of my lyrics are kind of almost translated literally as “woe is me,” so it’s a challenge to fight and stay positive as much as I can. Sometimes by the epilogue I’ll think back to the beginning of the show and I’ll be like—
Katie: The journey we just took!
MaryKate: And wow— that was tonight? That felt like yesterday! Keeping the audience with us and getting the audience to feel all of those emotions every night, that’s literally Toby and Chris, I have to say, it’s Toby and Chris.
Katie: That’s what Toby and Chris were worried about. They told us from the very beginning that there are moments where you could completely lose the audience into their ice cream bowls, but they really did a good job of cutting and keeping the pace.
MaryKate: And it’s really cool that we’re in such an intimate setting and I don’t think a lot of people really get to see it done that way.
Do you have a favorite moment if you could just pick one…
MaryKate: Well, I have a lot but every night it gets me, I get a little emotional during “One Day More” when I’m standing up on the platform. And it’s not even during when I’m singing. I’m done singing at this point and I’m just listening to the ensemble come in gradually and their sound is so powerful that it blows you away.
Katie: I have to agree. I also really like when—and I’m not involved in this either— but when I’m reading the letter, without fail the moment I hear Ben (Ben Lurye as Enjolras) by himself start the round that goes around the theatre for the finale version of “Do You Hear the People Sing” I stop breathing. It’s the most emotional thing I have ever felt on stage. It is so amazing being in the center of that. You hear each person start and it’s just brilliant, it’s ridiculous. It’s just so good. That’s Chris, again, Chris Youstra, ladies and gentlemen.
What is the song that is your absolute favorite to sing and the song in the show that you aren’t singing but desperately wish you could?
Katie: I like “Heart Full of Love: Reprise” It’s nice to come in after all that’s happened, even people in the audience are crying and it’s nice to come in and kind of be the light. Cosette is constantly the positivity if there is any in Les Mis. So it’s nice to hold Marius’ hand and tell him I’m there for him and I’ll always be there for him, I like that.
I want to sing “Master of the House!” I love Madam Thènardier – she’s my girl, and I love that part! I think it’s so funny, and there’s so much you can do with it. So I would love some day to play that part.
MaryKate: My favorite song that I sing would probably have to be “Little Fall of Rain,” just because I do find new moments in it almost every night and it’s really bittersweet. It’s a tragic ending for Eponine, but it’s also in some ways a happy ending.
I think it would really be cool to sing the “Confrontation” between—well with someone else – Valjean and Javert – the hospital scene confrontation. I would want to sing that as either Jean Valjean or Javert, either one and it doesn’t matter.
What has it been like playing opposite Jeffrey Shankle in this love triangle?
Katie: Well, as you know Jeffrey and I were opposite each other a couple months ago…we’ve been there, done that. I feel like we just click. We speak the same language, he works the same way I do – so there’s never any questions. I feel so comfortable around him…maybe a little too comfortable, ha ha! We just have a blast. So it’s delightful and I have a lot of respect for him as an actor. I look up to him.
MaryKate: This is my first time playing opposite Jeffrey and he’s just a joy. He really does make me feel so comfortable and so at ease. Because it is such a…well you know we have to be very intimate with each other. And he’s great. He’s a pro.
What is going to be the most difficult thing to say goodbye to as Cosette and Eponine when this run of Les Mis comes to a close?
Katie: This is actually going to be a very difficult goodbye for me because I’m not sure when I’m coming back to Toby’s. So it’s like I’m ending on a high note, because if you have to go out this is the way to go. However, it’s going to be very emotional because these people are my family.
MaryKate: I have this relationship now with my character, with Eponine. I played her ten years ago in Toby’s Student Edition the first time they did it. It was the area premiere for the student edition; they were the first group to get the rights for the student edition. So I’ve had this decade-long relationship with the role and the show, and it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye to that.
At the end of the show, it’s a long emotional marathon, so what is going through your mind, and how do you decompress it all?
Katie: It’s difficult because for the whole show – like I said – Cosette is so positive, but then she watches her father die in front of her, which is incredibly emotional. It depends on the day, sometimes all of us—I swear to you—we have all just walked back stage and cried because the audience moved us so much the way they got on their feet and stuff.
MaryKate: It’s just a very emotional show and at the end of the show I kind of have front row seats for Katie and Dan (Dan Felton as Jean Valjean) in the epilogue as they’re singing to each other.I have the perfect view of Katie singing to him and I have to keep myself from getting choked up right before I come in to sing. It’s emotionally draining sometimes by the end, and other times I just get a surge of energy.
Katie: We all definitely have each other’s back there. We all know how lucky we are. We wanted to be in this show so badly and we all have our moments where we are like, “We are so lucky to be a part of this and this is amazing to be a part of something like this.” It is the coolest feeling in the world; it’s something you dream for.
What has being part of this show taught you about yourself as a performer?
MaryKate: Its taught me that a lot of times I need to revisit things and start from scratch and forget what I know – and just start from square one with the character, the music – everything. Because when I had learned this part ten years ago I may have learned things a certain way and then revisiting now I was like, “Oh my God, I was singing the wrong notes here,” or, “I was phrasing it wrong,” or, “This didn’t really mean what I thought it meant.” It was kind of seeing the part through new eyes which was cool. And having a new cast, a professional cast was such a blessing. Being able to watch the way everyone in the cast works taught me a lot, so I just feel very fortunate that I got a ‘do over’ with this show.
Katie: It’s been a big learning lesson to breathe. I think there is a certain amount of pressure that the females receive in Les Mis because it is such an epic show and these are such epic roles; everybody has preconceived notions of what Eponine, Cosette, and Fantine should be. And just for myself, I think quite frankly, I give myself a really hard time. And I’ve had many cast members be like, “It’s ok, give yourself a break. It’s alright.” Especially Dan, and I thank him because every night because he’s such a grounding force. He will literally hold my hand and be like, “You’re doing great. Calm down.” So I’ve learned to breathe and let things go.
MaryKate: I second that as well.
Why do people need to see Les Mis at Toby’s?
MaryKate: Obviously the staging is entirely different because it’s in the round -which is really cool. And you’re not losing any of the power. And you get to see people’s stories just a little bit closer.
Katie: This show…you won’t see Les Mis like this anywhere else. Without a doubt you won’t because as an audience member you’re inside the story. You’re so close you practically sit in the barricade with them. You are one of the students, or you are one of the street urchins in the middle of France. Most productions of Les Mis are carefully protected by 50 feet and an orchestra pit, so the action is far away and little moments can potentially get lost in the grand scheme of the show. It’s the most intimate version of Les Mis you will find.
Read the review of Les Misèrables on DCMetroTheaterArts.
‘Behind the Barricade at Toby’s’ by Amanda Gunther:
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 (Enjolras).
Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 5— an interview with Jeffrey Shankle (Marius).
Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 6— an interview with David James and Theresa Cunningham (the Thènardiers).
Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 7- an interview with Katie Grace Heidbreder and MaryKate Brouillet (Cosette and Eponine).