Even in the middle of a revolutionary uprising, a few laughs can help break the tension. This advice comes from someone who should certainly know: actress Allison Guinn, who plays the scheming mistress of the house, Madame Thénardier, in Les Misérables.
Guinn heads to Fort Worth June 25-30 with the touring production of the beloved Broadway musical's revival. She took time out from bringing life to the innkeeper Les Miz fans love to hate to tell CultureMap why a bit of comedy makes the drama all the sweeter onstage.
A new Paris
The characters and songs remain as we know and love them in this revival, but Guinn says to expect some beautiful surprises in the staging. Gone is the revolving stage that helped to transport characters across space and time, and instead set designer Matt Kinley uses backdrops and projections based on the actual artwork of Victor Hugo to bring the streets of Paris to the theater.
"They look like watercolors, landscapes of different countrysides of Paris. It's beautiful," says Guinn. "The moodiness of it alone is breathtaking."
But just because beauty is all around her, don't expect a nicer Madame Thénardier, the conniving innkeeper and probably one of literature's worst foster mothers — and there's a lot of competition in that category. Guinn first saw Les Misérables when she was a preteen growing up in Tennessee, and loved the character even then.
"I thought to myself, 'I want to be the one that makes people laugh,'" she says. "She left the biggest impression on me."
Being a bad girl
But why Madame Thénardier?
"When playing a comedic villain, you can lean into that deliciousness, that love-to-hate factor," Guinn says. "If you're playing a villain in earnest, that villain is not self-aware. They don't know that they're bad. You have to play for their goals and objectives. You don't get to add the element of humor. She knows she's bad and she doesn't care. That's so wonderful and freeing."
In fact, Guinn thinks the moments of levity the Thénardiers bring to the story and music are vital for the audience, and perhaps one of the reasons we can't get enough of the drama and tragedy.
"It's in the name — the miserable ones — and the audience is put through so much. Then they get to have this little refresher, this rest of levity. I'm grateful to provide it," she says. "I think you need that palate cleanser, otherwise, you're in for a stressful trip. You need the full spectrum, the comedy to make that drama bearable."
Guinn has felt the call of drama several times in her career, especially when she was in school studying and doing scenes of Chekhov and Sam Shepard, but she found comedy an inherent gift.
"I really delved into drama and tried to deny my natural goofiness," she says. "But I stopped trying to fight it, embraced it, and that's been a blessing."
From the French revolution to HBO and Amy Schumer
That comic touch has earned her guest stints on Inside Amy Schumer and HBO's Divorce.
Besides helping to make audiences a little less miserable, Guinn has another rather special skill. She's a master of the autoharp, a favorite instrument of her grandmother, and says she continues to play in honor of granny. Unfortunately, there haven't been many Broadway parts written for comic actors with autoharp proficiency, though she tells quite a terrifying tale of trying out for the bluegrass musical Bright Star, in front of creator Steve Martin.
"I wasn't prepared for him to be in the room, and I walked in with my little autoharp and there he was. I was just gobsmacked," she describes with laughter. "I think I rambled on for too long about how much I appreciated the show. I think I said something like, 'thank you for representing the Appalachian culture in a positive light.' I couldn't stop talking. I played well, but I think my babbling scared him."
Guinn proves even in her own life, a little misery can be very funny.
Broadway at the Bass presents Les Miserablesat Bass Performance Hall from June 25-30.