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

0
22

“Now bring me prisoner 24601!”

The time is up—well, nearly anyhow (they close on November 10th), as the end of the epic run of Les Misèrables at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia approaches. How fitting we should save Jean Valjean to conclude this incredible journey. In the final installment of the Behind the Barricade at Toby’s interview series, I had the distinguished honor and pleasure of sitting down with Daniel Felton and discussing with him what it is like taking on the lead role of Jean Valjean, and how his life has changed for doing so.

Daniel Fenton.
Daniel Felton.

Amanda: So I am being told it has been a while since our audiences may have last seen you on stage anywhere in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. Where might we remember you from?

Dan: Well, it has been about seven years since I have performed anywhere and about twelve years since I’ve been at Toby’s. The last thing I did in the area was the last show in Signature Theatre’s old space, which was Assassins. I was in the ensemble. That was a Joe Calarco production, and it was fantastic. I think for the last week, or week and a half I went on for the role of Giuseppe Zangara. And prior to that it had been a year since I’d done anything, maybe a few shows in there, but I did do Pacific Overtures at Signature as well.

The last thing I did at Toby’s was Wonderful Life about twelve years ago. I did it twice, and was in the ensemble and I also covered George Bailey. And then Stephen Schmidt, he had originated the role at Toby’s, the second time we did the show he was an equity actor and I was an equity actor at the time, but he had to go do another show. So for the last month I took over and got to play George Bailey. I had turned equity when I had done my last show at Toby’s— 2001 I guess. I think I was equity before that but had come back to Toby’s under an equity contract, so I had this period where I was doing mostly DC theatre, but then that stopped when I started this other career path about seven years ago.

In college I was a musical theatre—a voice major. I went to a small school in Minnesota called Gustavus Adolphus, it’s a Swedish Lutheran school in southern Minnesota. I’m really excited to be back on stage again after such a long break.

What is it about Les Mis that made you want to come out of—I won’t say retirement—but off of your performance hiatus?

Well I hadn’t thought too seriously about it, but— and I don’t know if you’re familiar at all with the The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts (‘Theatre Lab’) down in Washington DC. I’ve been affiliated with them for a long time. Every year they do a student production class called “Creating a Musical Role” and it’s a three-month course that ends in six performances of a full-scale musical – full scale to the extent that Theatre Lab can do a full scale, so I had done a couple of those for a while, performing in one and I played in the band for a few of them. And they did Les Mis early this past spring.

It’s interesting because they were the first— and I don’t like using this terminology but it’s accurate— they were the first “non-professional” company given the rights to do Les Mis once they started sending the rights out. So I did that production sort of as a precursor because I have a good relationship with them.  And that got me thinking, once I got in the rehearsal process for that, then I started thinking about Toby’s. I was Valjean in that production so I’ve been playing Valjean since March. We started rehearsals for that back in March and the show for that was the first couple weeks in June. I’ve been singing it since March.

But I didn’t have a sense of it, I didn’t really think about it until I got in the rehearsal process at Theatre Lab, and then I said, “You know, I want to talk to Toby about this.” And I just went and talked to her. I had a couple conversations with her and I had a couple of concerns because I was doing the show at Theatre Lab and I know Toby has wanted to do this show for 25 years and I didn’t know how she would feel about a performer already working on it -like she wasn’t getting her hands on “fresh meat” as it were, but she didn’t have any concerns about that.

All the stars kind of alligned because I had a lot of questions about whether or not it was the right time for me. I had some things going on with my other job and I just sort of sat down for a month trying to decide if I could make this all work. I had some conversations with Toby, and then I finally decided that I was going to audition. And then callbacks and everything, and I was just lucky. The callbacks were interesting because when I came in for the first round of callbacks there were some really impressive people. They called all the Javerts and the Valjeans in early one Saturday morning and there were just some really great people there.

That was the first time I had gotten to hear Greg (Greg Knauf, the Valjean understudy/alternate in this production) sing and I didn’t know Greg was a singer. Greg had just started at Toby’s when I was doing Water For Life. He was a conductor, so I knew Greg as a conductor. But then I heard him sing and was like, “Oh my God!” And there were a couple guys who came in from one of the National Tours and they auditioned— and I was just up against some major talent—Russell Sunday and Larry Friedman, two people who I knew I was competing against, and I guess it just turned out right for me.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know if I could do it. I mean I’d just done it at Theatre Lab, but that’s very different— they did a bang up job, I’m not in any way diminishing that amazing production—but they’re a dramatic arts institute that had a very limited run as opposed to doing it for three and a half months at eight shows a week, I didn’t know if I could manage that. And I didn’t know if I could really get what Toby wanted. I’ll be honest with you there. I think I did, but we definitely had our moments where we were like, “Are we going to be able to get there?” And I think we did. It has been a pure pleasure working with Toby.

Is Jean Valjean the dream role for you?

Well that’s a good question. This is going to sound odd because of me having not been so focused on musical theatre in recent years, but I don’t know that I can say that it was a dream role. I have to be honest and say that I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I mean, I knew the show, I’d seen the show before. You want to know what a dream role for me would be? George from Sunday in the Park with George. That’s my dream role. That was the first show I ever saw at Toby’s, and I’ve done the show twice but never as George. That, to me, is a fascinating role to be in.

Now, Jean Valjean is like a pinnacle role of musical theatre, but I just hadn’t had my head set in it or really seen it that way up until I took the role on. I do love playing him.

Everyone in the interview series thus far has pinned the line “to love another person is to see the face of God” as one of the moments in this show that moves them the most. How does that line fit into your life as an actor in this role?

For me that’s what this whole show is about – It’s love – redemption and love; and to find that with this particular cast, this particular group of people both on and off stage is kind of— this is going to sound kind of corny— but I feel like it’s made me a better person. It’s enriched my life. I mean I have a great life, but to have that opportunity to get to see all that come together and then to be able to say a moment like that on stage? It cements what’s happening in the show but it kind of cements what’s going on in my personal life as well, with my partner David (playing Thènardier), with good friends, good people. It is the reality of my life.

I don’t consider myself a horribly religious person. I grew up in a religious environment. I’ve sung at church my whole life. God is something different for everybody. But if God represents the good in everybody, and the honesty, and the faith, then we assume that everything will work out. If you want to say “to love another person” means that everything will work out, that you’ll see the truth in people. If that’s God, then that’s God. It is what it is for every different person, but that’s what I see. That’s what love can do. At least for me that’s what it is.

I’m not sure how religious Jean Valjean is. I mean, he wears a cross, but he wears a cross because the Bishop—well the way we did it- the Bishop gave him the cross. But Valjean does good. And that to me is what represents God: that you do good and you help people out. And I like to think it’s that “pay it forward” thing. That’s what’s brought forward from this show for me, to be thinking about that kind of stuff in my day-to-day life. It enriches me in my personal life, but at the same time I pull some of that into the role.

And that’s what I took with me to my last meeting with Toby, before we waited and waited to see who got cast. I sort of lobbied her and I said, “Listen, have I been in jail? No. Have I had been away from my sister for 19 years like Jean Valjean? No.” But I told her I’ve had life experiences that I think I can bring to this role, I get what it is about trying to do the right thing; I get what it is about trying to find your way and to be able to know that you did the right thing. Not that you always do the right thing, but that you know you’re trying to do the right thing. I think that’s what Jean Valjean is all about. He’s just trying to do the right thing, he runs into a lot of hurdles along the way. And I think that happens to almost everybody, and that’s why I think this show and his character really appeal to audiences – because they’re trying just like him. It’s what everybody wants.

Very few people are evil. I think most people are intrinsically good people. People can lose their way but most people are good people. You just have to find a way to see that, don’t you think? And there are some evil people in the world, but generally speaking, most people are good people and that’s why I think people like that character and like the show.

Jean Valjean (Danile Fenton) rescues Marius (Jeffrey Shankle). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
Jean Valjean (Daniel Felton) rescues Marius (Jeffrey Shankle). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

What are some of the challenges you have faced trying to bring the audience along with you on Jean Valjean’s journey every night?

Well part of it is that it’s a little bit of a leap of faith every night. Before we come out in the first scene you just have to’ jump off’ and go -because it doesn’t stop. Once it starts, at least for me, there are very few moments where I’m off stage and I’m either making a costume change or trying to get to my next entrance. I’m not sitting at all. So you’re not getting that time to decompress, you’re just getting ready for the next moment. So from that viewpoint you just sort of have to take the leap of faith, and go with it, and hope the audience is with you.

But I also think the other thing is— and most people they look at me like I’m crazy when I say this— but I hear over and over again, “Oh my God, Jean Valjean carries the whole show on his back,” and I don’t see that. Hear me out, because I know it sounds crazy, but there are a whole lot of other characters in that story that if you take out one or two of those characters the whole Jean Valjean story isn’t going to work. And he’s on and off stage, in and out of the show where there’s other characters’ story lines— I mean there’s the Thènardiers, there’s young Cosette, there’s old Cosette, and the whole Marius/Cosette thing. There’s a lot of other stuff going on. Now, it happens to be intersecting what’s going on with Jean Valjean and Javert, but I don’t think the show would work if it were just about him.

The way I look at it, I think everybody carries the show on their back.  It just happens to revolve around Jean Valjean. I don’t even think it’s about being humble because it’s just about what that story is. Because that’s what Jean Valjean is— he is about all his interactions with all these different people that make him who he is. I’ve heard people say that they want to cheer Jean Valjean along, and they want him to succeed but he just keeps running into stumbling blocks all along the way. They want him to succeed because I think people want to believe the best in people and people would want that for themselves. They’re working their asses off to get through life and Valjean is just trying to do the same.

There’s a moment in the show when Cosette and Marius come back in just before I die and Jeffrey Shankle (playing Marius) says, “I lay down my life at your feet,” and for me as Jean Valjean – it’s a humbling moment. He doesn’t want to take credit for things, and what’s the point of trying to take credit for it? It doesn’t change anything. It just is what it is. I love that moment in the show because he wants to tell me he’d lay down his life, but I’m not worthy of that and I would like to have told him, “This wasn’t about me doing something to raise me up, it was about helping you.” Jean Valjean has a purpose for doing what does because Marius is his savior for Cosette.

Javert (Larry Munsey) and Jean Valjean (Dan Felton). Photos by Kirstine Christiansen.
Javert (Larry Munsey) and Jean Valjean (Daniel Felton). Photos by Kirstine Christiansen.

What has it been like playing opposite of Larry Munsey, who plays your antagonist, Javert?

Well, I’ll say Larry and I have done shows together in the past and they’ve been great, but this has been truly amazing. We have this chemistry, which when people generally think of chemistry they think of it as something positive, but it’s engaging and it’s been a lot of fun. I remember Larry saying in an early rehearsal, “I am in way over my head,” and I said to him, “You’re not. You’re going to be great in this.”

In some ways, I’ve said this before and people don’t agree with me, but I think in some ways that Javert is harder to play than Valjean because he’s a black and white character, and how do you play that and make those struggles along the way? He’s a hard character to play because he’s so religious to a fault and duty-driven to a fault. But I think Larry is very happy with the way it’s turned out, and he and I have had so much fun doing this together, and he’s just done so wonderful with it.

He’s consistent and he’s willing to go there on things with me. Like the fight in the hospital – we’ve tweaked it here and there but there are days when I really whack him hard on the back of the leg and he just loves that because that makes it really real. I go right back, panicking saying, “I didn’t hurt you, I didn’t hurt you, did I?” And he’ll say, “No, no keep doing it that way!” And it’s those kinds of things that are what keeps it fresh, and he’s just amazing to work with in that regard.

How do you as an actor make Valjean’s approach to the ‘gray area’ of life work on the stage?

I think it’s not clear for Jean Valjean in the show, that he’s really in the gray. From my perspective he becomes more black and white in a way after he realizes what his purpose in life is. That moment for me is when he realizes what he’s done to Fantine—by turning her out to the streets from the factory by letting his foreman send her away, and that she has a daughter that may die and that she’s going to go to prison or die. That is the point where I’m literally kneeling on the floor with her and she’s told me what I’ve done. And that is the changing point for me, and at that point I know what my mission is; I know what it is and it’s clear for me, but now how am I’m going to keep on the path as I go because of Thènardier and Javert and everything,? But my mission is clear: I will save Cosette to do right by Fantine. Before that scene I’m just trying to atone without a purpose.

What is the moment that moves you every night?

For me it’s before the “…to love another person is to see the face of God” line. If everything’s clicked right on any given night it’s when Fantine sings “Come to me…” and I’m not going to get the line right.  (I can’t believe I don’t remember the exact line I hear it every night!) But it’s after I’ve ‘died’ and stand up out of the chair. And she sings the lines about the chains and how everything is left behind me. And that releases me of my burden. And not the burden of Cosette and raising her, she wasn’t a burden. But that I’ve been redeemed for all I’ve done.That’s the moment for me. I’ve done what I was supposed to do, and I can go to heaven now.

Do you have a favorite song? Or the song that you enjoy singing the most?

I don’t know that I have an answer to that! I like “Who Am I?” because that’s a struggle song, it really is, “What am I going to do, what should I do?” It just depends on the night I guess. I like “Bring Him Home” when it clicks just right. That’s a fascinating song because it can take so many different interpretations.

I think from the audience’s perspective and where they are coming from at that particular moment, it can mean so many things. I know this is going to sound really weird, but a couple of people that I’ve talked to in the audience who have someone serving overseas in the military, it becomes that kind of song an anthem of their prayer to bring their loved ones home. I’ve also heard people say that if they have a loved one who is very ill, that the reprise of that song that I do at the end moves them because for them it’s about, “Take me, I am ready,” and it’s the “Bring me home” instead of “Bring him home” that is a release for them. I love that song.

You do sing so much in this show but is there a song that you don’t sing that you wish you could sing?

Actually it would be Larry’s ‘Javert’s Suicide’ number because I already sing that music earlier in the show. Some of the lyrics are very much the same. But it’s a totally different meaning behind what he gets to sing. The ending of those songs are complete opposite of each other. My song in the beginning is a choice to live and for him it’s a choice to die. So if I got to sing a different song, that would be the one -“Javert’s Suicide.”

And if it wasn’t Valjean in this show? Who would you be?

Oh Lord! I mean if I was younger, I mean I can’t play a student, but I think Enjolras would be fun to play. That’s another thing about the Jean Valjean role, which makes me happy – in the bulk of the show I’m age appropriate. It helps me relate to him better. We sat down and played with the script and looked at the novel and he’s probably about 60 when he dies, so I’m not there yet, but I’m there in the middle part of the show, and I like being the same age.

Valjean has many different relationships with many different people in the show. How do you relate to him touching and changing so many different lives?

That’s interesting because I was just thinking about that tonight. It’s a great question, but during the very last number, as I’m standing up on the stairs under Fantine and I’m looking around at everybody I realized I have moments with everyone. Previously, about two weeks ago, there were only two people in the show that I had no moments with. And I had to find a way to have a moment with them. I wanted to have those little moments somewhere in the show with each individual so that when I’m looking through everybody as I’m standing there up in heaven, and I’m seeing all these people, I can see all the relationships I’ve had and how I’ve touched people’s lives.

Obviously, some of the relationships are scripted so they’re going to happen, but there are others that are not and getting to create those are really fun. Tobias Young (playing Combeferre, a student at the barricade) and I worked out a moment last week, because previously I’d had no exchange with Tobias at all. And we were talking about trying something, just a little something at the barricade. And I said “OK, we can try this, but I have to have a moment with you before we can do that.” So you might see me do it the next time you come see the show, and you’ll know what it is when you see it, but it only works because we established that connection, that moment, before we tried it.

But that’s what’s interesting about getting to interact with everybody. You know he intertwines and intersects with all these people but they’re all amazing characters and they’re great people off stage, so that adds to it. That’s what I’m going to miss, the interaction, both on stage and off.

Jean Valjean's Journey Through the Years. Photos by Kirstine Christiansen.
Jean Valjean’s Journey Through the Years. Photos by Kirstine Christiansen.

That’s the next question, what’s going to be the hardest thing to leave behind when this production is over?

Well the whole thing, but it’s those interactions. Everybody has their different moments on stage and their exchanges with one another. I just want to be able to keep that after I leave because I’ll miss that. And it sounds kind of corny but the whole experience has made me a better person, and I just want to be able to take that and keep it and use it. Being able to know when you’re working with a bunch of good people in creating characters on stage and creating that journey for the audience that you’re doing it with people you’ve really bonded with – that’s something special -not recreating, but creating. We all want to believe we’re creating it every night, and with this group of people we really are. It’s new every night. And I’m going to miss that so much.

What was the biggest challenge about taking this role on?

Vocally. I hadn’t been singing as much as I used to, so it took me probably about 10 weeks to get my voice where I knew it needed to be. And my voice is not in a place it’s ever been either, so that’s been a real challenge for me. It’s taken on a different shape and it’s a different way than I’m used to singing. That was a huge concern at first, but when I got it together I thought, “This is kind of cool,” and “What am I going to do next?” It’s partially to do with my age because things have changed. The bottom of my range has gotten deeper and I’ve found high notes that I never used to have. But that was the biggest challenge for me, getting my voice where I wanted it to be, and then keeping it there.

We all have little tweaks we make to our character, be it singing or something we do to make it work better for us. I watched an interview with Colm Wilkinson (The original Jean Valjean in London and on Broadway) and he talked about some of the tweaks he used when he played Valjean because they worked better for him. Everybody does it.

You mentioned to me that one of your favorite moments was during “The Confrontation” because I go up on the notes in that one verse, well that was one of my tweaks. I don’t know that anyone’s ever done it like that before. But when you work with the score, oh goodness the score, and after having listened to all the recordings and you compare them and you realize that certain people are singing little things that aren’t written that way- or you’re seeing little things in the score that aren’t recorded that way. It helps you find the character and make him yours.

One of the non-singing changes with Valjean is the cross he wears. It was my idea, actually. I brought it to Toby at first and she didn’t understand it but then it was her idea to have Fantine give it back to me at the end of the show. But I liked the idea of having that connection with Andrew (Andrew Horn playing the Bishop.) I love that scene, I love working with Andrew because his voice is perfect for that role. And then I said to Toby, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if when I come into the hospital when Fantine dies, and Larry comes in and he sings the line ‘…you’ll wear a different chain…” What does that mean?” And I think we decided it means that he’s going to take me back to prison and put me in chains again. And I said, “Wouldn’t it be neat if as he’s saying that I was taking the cross off and giving it to Fantine like the Bishop gave it to me?” And it became this double entendre. And then it was Toby’s idea to have Fantine give it back, bringing it full circle.

What has being in this show taught you about yourself? As a performer or even just as a human being?

Well I think as I said before it’s made me want to be a better person. And I know I keep saying it sounds corny, but it’s got a great message. If everyone in their life could stick to their goals and their beliefs when it involves doing good for other people – trust me I’m not perfect – but to be able to strive toward that? Amazing. That’s what it’s taught me personally.

From the performer viewpoint, I’m proud. I’m not going to deny that I’m proud of what we’ve all done. I’m proud of what I’ve done. Am I going to do anything after this? It’s reinvigorated my interest in performing because right now I have this whole other career going on but to have this fit in and work with it. I’m really lucky. I guess for me, knowing that I was able to come back to it and still do it, well, it’s satisfying. The other message is that you can always find a way to redefine yourself, or define yourself the way you used to be. So for me that’s been great. I’m lucky.

What’s it been like getting to work with your partner, David James who plays Thènardier, in the show?

Oh it’s been great, a lot of fun. When I did that last show at Toby’s, Wonderful Life, and went on for George Bailey it was great fun working with David. He played Clarence at the time,so just getting to work with him on a night to night basis, it was such fun.

And I think when I read the interview you did with David, he mentioned this as well, but I mean I know how good David is as a performer and I know how focused he is, but that’s changed for him over twelve years since I’ve worked with him last. It’s only gotten better for him, and getting to see that night-to-night, with him constantly thinking about how we can tweak this or change it, or make it a little bit better, it’s really been wonderful. He’s never— I won’t say he’s not satisfied— but he’s always working toward a way to make what he’s doing fresh and new and interesting.

And that’s what’s been so fun about this show that it hasn’t yet – knock on wood – gotten stale. And I know people had said back at the beginning, “It’s a great show now, but what’s it going to be like in four weeks, or six weeks, or eight weeks?” We’ve got a great group of people and everyone is still exploring.

David James (Thènardier), Daniel Felton (Jean Valjean), and  Caroline Otchet (Young Cosette). Photo by Kirstine Christinasen.
David James (Thènardier), Daniel Felton (Jean Valjean), and Caroline Otchet (Young Cosette). Photo by Kirstine Christinasen.

Why do you want people to see Les Mis at Toby’s?

You know a part of it is what we talked about – the intimacy. Certain shows are better suited for that setting and when I heard Toby was going to take on Les Mis I said, “Good for her,” because I knew it was the type of show that lends itself to this space. I’ll tell you one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at Toby’s was Ragtime and I’ve seen several productions of Ragtime, including one at The Kennedy Center which then went onto New York, and the production at Toby’s was by far the best because that show doesn’t need to be on this huge set. It’s about the story, and that’s where Toby finds the connections with the audiences.

And she’s always saying, “Tell the story! Tell the story!” But it’s true. You don’t need incredible costumes all the time, incredible lights, incredible sets, incredible special effects, because if you can tell the story you have all you really need.

To be able to sit this close, like during “Bring Him Home” when we’re all in the barricade? That’s the closest I ever am to the audience and right before that I have my gun and I walk around and I’m right there in their faces – and you’re not going to get that in a lot of theatres – you’re just not. Even in the bigger theatres with the proscenium, you’re 20 or 25 feet away, you’re not two feet away like you are here. And you just get so much more of the story that way.

You’re going to see a production of Les Mis which you haven’t seen before, and I mean you’re going to see that any time you go and see a production of Les Mis, but here you’re going to be drawn into it more. I can tell the audiences are drawn in. I’ve only done one other show in my life, and David was actually in that show with me, not at Toby’s, at Signature, where the audiences were this drawn in, and it’s overwhelming.

That’s what I would tell someone who hasn’t seen this show. That they need to come see this show here at Toby’s because we will draw you in and you’ll experience something you’ve never experienced before, and you’ll walk away happy that you came to see it.

728x90-LesMis1-3

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.

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.

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.

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 6— an interview with David James and Theresa Cunningham as the Thènardiers.

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 7— an interview with MaryKate Brouillet as Eponine and Katie Grace Heidbreder as Cosette.

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s Part 8— an interview with Larry Munsey as Inspector Javert.

Behind the Barricade at Toby’s Part 9— an interview with Daniel Felton as Jean Valjean.