Allison Gunn believes a Broadway musical is a magical thing. “When it’s done right,” she says, “it’s successful because it captivates you and the music stays in your brain and your heart forever!”
As an actress who has been singing one of Broadway’s most unforgettable songs over the past year and a half, she should know.
The song is “Master of the House.” The show is the iconic “Les Miserables” which returns to Dayton’s Schuster Center April 2-7 as part of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Broadway series. The musical has been labeled “a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit.”
Gunn, in the delicious role of the villainous Madame Thenardier, has sung the catchy tune “Master of the House,” more than 500 times and will be singing it for Dayton audiences next month. Seinfeld fans will remember it as the song George Costanza can’t get out of his mind after seeing “Les Miz.”
The popular musical is based on a 1862 novel by Victor Hugo. It features a score by Claude-Michel Schonberg, who wrote the book with lyricist Alain Boublil. Among the other unforgettable show tunes are “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” “Bring Him Home,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “One Day More.”
Along with the Oscar-winning movie version, “Les Miz” has been seen by more than 130 million people in 44 countries and in 22 languages around the globe, making it one of the world’s most popular musicals. A national tour has come through Dayton four times; the show was last here in 2011.
The newest production was created in honor of the musical’s 25th anniversary.
The plot, set in early 19th century France, revolves around the character of Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. After serving 19 years of his sentence, he breaks parole and is relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert. Valjean takes another name and becomes a factory owner. He promises one of his workers, Fantine, that he will protect her child, Cosette. The musical’s famous emblem is a portrait of Cosette superimposed on the French flag.
The story also incorporates an idealistic group’s attempt to overthrow the government at a street barricade.
Adding comic relief
Gunn is paired on stage with her innkeeper husband. “They don’t necessarily love each other, but they need each other,” she explains. “The thing that binds them together is their greed and love for money.”
The couple comes up with a scheme to get money from Fantine by taking in young Cosette. “They say they’ll treat her like their own daughter, but they use the money they’ve received from Fantine to buy dresses for their own daughter, Eponine,” Gunn relates. “I compare them to a pageant mom. They make their child all pretty and frilly while Cosette is in tatters and rags.”
The Thenardiers provide comic relief to a show that’s otherwise quite serious. When “Les Miz” opened in Florida, drama critic Jan Sjostrom of the Palm Beach News noted that Allison Guinn as a grasping wife “can make you laugh as well as shiver with repulsion.”
That’s exactly what the actress has in mind. “She’s described as an ogress in the book and I want to create a character you love to hate,” Gunn says. “It’s kind of this wonderful tightrope you walk. I love her duality; she’s so funny and so horrible. The audience can think one thing about her one moment and think she’s a terrible character the next. It’s like Miss Hannigan in ‘Annie’, she’s hilarious but a terrible person.”
Gunn believes”Les Miz” has earned its place in musical theater history because of its amazing music and epic story. “No matter who you are you can find someone in the show to identify with,” she says. “It takes place in a volatile time when the government lies and I feel we can all relate to that. One of the themes is that what’s black and what’s white isn’t always so simple. For example, our hero gets jailed for stealing a loaf of bread for his family.”
Gunn says “Les Miz” changed her life. “When I was a little girl growing up in Knoxville, I saw a touring company of ‘Les Miz’ and thought I could play Madame Thenardier,” she recalls. “She made musical theater possible for me — seeing a character that owned the stage and could make people laugh.”
There have been some dramatic changes in the show’s staging since Gunn’s Knoxville experience. If you’ve seen “Les Miz” over the years, you’ll recall the large turntable on stage that permitted Valjean to walk from one side of the barricade to another. Instead, this new production opts for backdrop projections inspired by Victor Hugo’s art.
“They’ve really hit a home run with these projections,” says Gunn. “Victor Hugo did several watercolors of the French countryside and aspects of French life that are displayed; some of them are animated. It’s breathtaking to look at and it enhances the music and the feelings. “
Another change from the original production: the convicts at the beginning of the musical are on a boat instead of a rock quarry, making the overall design moodier.
Gunn says that even though “Les Miz” is a dark show, her hope is that audiences leave feeling uplifted. “It does leave you with hope,” she says. ” I love that final quote from Victor Hugo, it’s a powerful message to end with — ‘To love another person is to see the face of God.’”