By Darlene Donloe
There are lots of good reasons to go see Les Miserables at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
One of those good reasons is the fact that it’s a classic celebrating its 25th anniversary with an incredibly reworked production.
But one of the best reasons is Chasten Harmon, 25, a ball of talented energy, whose inclusion in this production is historic, impressive and thoroughly entertaining.
Les Miserables, set amid revolutionary ferment in early 19th-century France, is the musical based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, which had its premiere in London back in 1985, arrived on Broadway in 1987, won eight Tony Awards (including best musical) and ran 16 years. The original run was quickly followed by a Broadway revival (2006-08).
The show centers on Jean Valjean (J. Mark McVey), a Frenchman who in desperation stole a loaf of bread, but is eventually released from prison. Like an albatross around his next, his criminal record contributes to his being mistreated in the outside world. So, once again, he resorts to theft but, touched by a bishop’s kindness, vows to, and becomes a good man. He changes his name and begins a new life, becoming a wealthy factory owner and a small-town mayor.
Harmon, the only African American in the show, plays Eponine, the daughter of the despised and despicable Thenardiers (Shawna M. Hamic/Michael Kostroff). Eponine is secretly in love with a student protestor named Marius (Justin Scott Brown), who is in love with a woman named Cosette (Jenny Latimer).
Harmon, who received her training from New York University (NYU from 2003-2007), has appeared in Hair on Broadway and has done several shows Off-Broadway including Iphigenia 2.0, directed by Tina Landau. She has also appeared in Grind, Once on This Island, All Shook Up, Leader of the Pack and more.
When she’s not acting, Harmon runs a business she started last year called Space on White (www.spaceonwhite.com).
During a recent interview, Harmon, who lives in New York, talked about her breakout role in the show.
DD: I’ve seen this show several times. I’ve never seen a Black person in it before. You are the only Black person in this show.
CH: Sometimes it’s kind of a mental game. Sometimes I’m like, ‘wow.’ My look and vocal type is different from everyone else in the show. But that’s probably one of the reasons why they picked me.
DD: For those who are unfamiliar – quickly give them insight into your role in Les Miserable.
CH: My insight into Eponine the root of her is she is a Thenardier. She’s their daughter. She was raised to be tough. Difference between her and the Thenardiers is she is not selfish. She loves unconditionally. It’s her inner battle of knowing and feeling what’s right. She’s back and forth between being in a fight and delivering love letters. It’s her inner conflict.
DD: How did you go about developing her?
CH: She doesn’t know how to flirt or say, I like you. Her daily existence is, ‘how am I going to eat and how am I going to live? What I wanted to bring out is she is the daughter of the villains in the show.
DD: Talk about auditioning for the role.
CH: I got a call from my agent. They want to see me for Eponine. I hadn’t seen or heard about the new production yet. I was excited. I wasn’t extremely familiar with the material. I love the song, “I Dreamed a Dream.” However, I wasn’t familiar with the song I sing called, “On My Own.” I went in the audition room and sang it how I thought it would be. It was my interpretation. That’s why they liked it because it was different. The audition process was lovely. It was just like being in rehearsal. There wasn’t any fear or urgency. It was two callbacks later. I got a call and found out I was going to be touring the country. The whole process took about a month.
DD: What was the first thing you did after finding out you got the role?
CH: I called my parents and told them I was going on tour. My sister (Marja Harmon/Aida) is also in the business. I told her. It was really a big relief to get good news.
DD: Were you surprised when they cast you in this high profile role?
CH: I was. I was thinking they were going to go with someone a little more well known. They wanted people who were young and real. They cast a good group of people. We’re all lucky. This is a big step in our careers.
DD: What are the challenges of the role?
CH: Endurance. It’s Les Miserables. It’s an angst-filled role to conjure up everyday, sometimes twice a day. It’s a show that needs 110 percent from all its members. Sometimes it’s hard to get there to get to those emotions every day.
CH: I got very specific direction. It was more about storytelling and less musical. We focused on lyrics and the journey and eventually the shape of the song fell into place. I hadn’t listened to the original recording much. I’m glad I didn’t. Really all I can do is my interpretation of it.
DD: On opening night, your solo got a huge applause. Your voice is incredible. Talk about your vocal training.
CH: I’ve been singing since I was a little girl.
I grew up Columbus, Indiana. I took voice lessons all through school.
DD: How do you keep your instrument in shape?
CH: Lots of vocal rest. I drink lots of water. You learn to use it correctly. You want to make sure it’s healthy. You can blow yourself out if you’re singing the wrong way.
DD: How do you prepare to go on stage?
CH: Before the show I’m in my dressing room. I have a humidifier. I play music. I dance and sing. It’s an absent-minded vocal warm-up.
DD: Why did you want to be an actress?
CH: Because when I watched from the audience and saw things that inspired me, I wanted to give that back and show people it’s ok to feel and show your emotions. The least I can do is be myself and be human and be vulnerable. It’s a gift to show you can be vulnerable and honest and to love.
DD: What would you tell people who are hesitant to see the show?
CH: I think everyone should try to see the show. It’s inspirational. You can take a classic piece and redo it and bring even more meaning than it had before. This is a theatrical experience that no one should miss.