In Part 2 of our series of interviews with the director and cast of Kensington Arts Theatre’s Les Misérables, meet Paul Tonden.
Joel: Introduce yourself and tell us who you play and where local theatregoers may have seen you perform.
Paul: My name is Paul Tonden. I live in Reston, VA and have lived in the DC Metro area for about 4 and a half years. Locally, I performed the role of Professor Callahan in Legally Blonde at McLean Community Players. Prior to moving to the area, my theatre credits were mostly in the Philadelphia Metro area after I earned my theatre degree from Rowan University.
Why did you want to be in this production and play the character you are playing? What do you admire or not admire about your character?
Playing Javert has been a dream role of mine since I was a teenager. The first time I saw the show was a national tour at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia and, like most everyone, I was completely mesmerized by the music and how much you feel for the characters. I think it may have been my first Broadway musical cast cd that I ever owned. I listened to it too many times to count and was always fascinated by the character Javert. I find him to be the most interesting, intriguing and complex character in the show. Even as a kid I was confused by the idea that Javert is a villain. Yes, he is overly rigid, obsessive and definitely has issues that would require therapy by today’s standards, but his reasoning is noble, honest and comes from a place that he believes is good and right and just. Even Jean Valjean tells him that there is nothing he blames him for because he has done his duty, nothing more. I am thrilled to be part of this production. KAT has a strong reputation for producing quality shows and since I have been playing Javert to imaginary sold out houses in my bedroom for over 20 years now, I wanted the opportunity to play him for a real audience. I am grateful KAT, Darnell and Stuart have provided me that opportunity!
What did you perform in your audition and when did you find out that you had the role?
For my audition, I sang “Anthem” from the musical Chess. I was then invited to a callback where we sang selections from Les Misérables. I was at dinner at a restaurant in Reston Town Center for Restaurant Week that same night when I got the call from Darnell [Morris] offering me the part.
What are your solos or ‘big numbers’ and what does the audience learn about your character when you sing these songs?
Javert has two solo numbers in the show, but also has a very important duet with Jean Valjean that also is very revealing. In the duet (often referred to as the “Confrontation”), Javert and Valjean sing simultaneously and go back and forth about why Valjean should or should not go with Javert to pay for breaking his parole. This is one of the only times in the show Javert reveals intimate and telling details about his life. He shares that he was born inside a jail to “scum” and he is “from the gutter.” Later in the solo “Stars,” the audience learns that Javert is so determined to track down Valjean and bring him to justice because, unlike his parents, he made a choice to “follow the path of the righteous” and be rewarded for a life lived in pursuit of what he sees as the unchangeable social order of right and wrong. Finally, in “Javert’s Soliloquy,” the audience sees the unraveling of Javert. He simply can not come to grips with the idea that everything in life is not black and white. The grey area that he now finds himself in where Valjean can be considered “good” and he, Javert could be seen as “bad” just doesn’t make sense. He wishes he had been killed honorably in battle while he was performing his duty, but now ashamed and unable to return to his life he decides to take matters into his own hands.
What have been some of the challenges preparing for your role and performing in the KAT space?
Challenges preparing for the role were mostly that there are so many different directions you can go with Javert (and the show), yet for people who know the show, there are some pretty intense standards and expectations that have been set over the years from original character interpretations, to production values and even ways to sing the songs. Darnell, Stuart, and I really set out to make this our own and not a copy or attempted recreation of someone else’s interpretation. Most importantly, I find it challenging to make him a real person. Delivering an honest interpretation while trying to sing well and in tune without coming across as two dimensional and “stock” is not easy. The space also dictated a lot of decisions. The stage at KAT is not very big and has very limited technical abilities. Since Les Mis takes place in so many different locations over so much time, much of the set and time transitions are minimal and will have to be either shown through projections or through the performances. Some of the decisions that were made were made because of the limitations of the space and the desire for believability and complete integrity. This will definitely be Les Mis like you have never seen it – with less focus on the grandeur and spectacle typically associated with the show and more focus on the intimacy, the music, and the characters.
Why do you think Les Mis is still so popular almost 30 years after opening on Broadway?
The music is so special. The music hold up and has a life of it’s own. It’s the reason the show does so well “in concert” for the anniversaries. The struggles that the characters go through are also basic human trials and tribulations personified. I think people really feel for the plights of the characters because there is an Everyman quality to each of them that every audience member can relate to in some way. Even the “villains” and “antagonists” are relatable at some level. Anti-heroes like Walter White in Breaking Bad are popular these days. Maybe Victor Hugo and Les Mis started it all?!
What character that you are not playing is your favorite and what song that you are not singing is your favorite, and why?
There are just too many amazing songs and characters in the show to give a truly honest answer to this because every time I think I have an answer I think about another one that I love! I have aged out of playing roles like Enjorlas and getting to sing “Do You Hear the People Sing,” and any of the female roles and songs I live for including the hilarious and awful Madame Thenardier providing comic relief in “Master of the House,” but maybe the most beautiful song in the show for me is “Bring Him Home.”
What is the best advice Director Darnell Morris and Musical Director Stuart Weich has given you about shaping your performance?
This is another question that is impossible for me to answer in any succinct way. I can not say enough great things about Darnell and Stuart as directors. They are so skilled, so smart, and such wonderful actor’s directors! They truly collaborate and listen to your ideas and interpretations and intertwine them with their vision for the show. They ask probing and thought provoking questions and push you to be better than you thought you could be. Advice that I got from both of them was to make it my own – to leave my own personal mark on Javert and not try to imitate anyone else, regardless of how amazing they were. Darnell’s staging is professional grade and Stuart is one of the best and strives to have the music be it’s own character in the show.
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Les Misérables at KAT?
I will be happy if audiences fall in love with the music all over again. I would love for them to leave caring about these characters and maybe even thinking a little bit differently about Javert. Mostly, I would love if they loved it so much, they come back and see it more than once and brought some friends along each time!
Les Misérables plays from May 2-24, 2014 at Kensington Arts Theatre performing at Kensington Town Center-3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (206) 888.6642, or purchase them online.
Meet The Director and Cast of Kensington Arts Theatre’s ‘Les Misérables’ Part 1: Director Darnell Morris.