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Keala Settle Is Les Misérables' Master of the House

The Tony-nominated actress discusses overcoming stage fright to play the boisterous Madame Thénardier.

Keala Settle dreamed the dream of performing on Broadway, and now she gets to do just that eight shows a week at the Imperial Theatre. After winning critical accolades (and garnering a Tony nomination) in last year's Hands on a Hardbody, she's following in the footsteps of Jennifer Butt, Jenny Galloway, and Helena Bonham Carter in the memorable comic role of Les Misérables' Madame Thénardier.

Before Broadway, however, Settle's breakout role came in 2005, via the bubblegum musical Hairspray, where she lit up that show's national tour as Tracy Turnblad. This led to a stint as Bloody Mary in the national tour of South Pacific, and finally, Broadway, where she landed in an ensemble role in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which starred her future Les Misérables Javert Will Swenson. In preparation for her first appearance in MCC Theater's annual Miscast gala (in which performers sing roles that they would never be cast in) on March 31 at Hammerstein Ballroom, Settle spoke with TheaterMania about her journey to Les Mis and the roles in which she would be horribly miscast.

Cliff Saunders as Thénardier and Keala Settle as Madame Thénardier with the company of the 2014 Broadway revival of Les Misérables at the Imperial Theatre.
(© Michael Le Poer Trench)

What was your first experience with Les Misérables?

This is my first experience with it! I had seen bits and pieces of the movie, and I've seen karaoke renditions of "I Dreamed a Dream" and "On My Own," and that's it. As much as there's so much music in my life, I never even thought of giving the score of Les Mis a chance just because it was everywhere. I did have to do research so that I wasn't going in blindly. When I showed up to the first day of rehearsal and heard the music I squealed like an infant. It was like the day I got nominated for a Tony last year. I heard the music and realized, "This is a legendary piece of work and someone had the nerve to ask me to be a part of it. You've got to be kidding me. What were they thinking?"

Is there an added pressure to perform this character in a certain way because of the fact that she is so well-known?

I think there's pressure on the whole show itself. It's very easy for us to notice people within the community saying, "Well, what's the difference between this and whatever productions have happened before?" I can honestly say that I don't know! All I do know is that whether I'm playing a factory worker [in Hands on a Hardbody] or I'm playing Madame Thénardier, I have to give my all and come from an honest place.

When preparing to play Madame Thénardier, what did you discover about her as a character?

This woman has no other way out but to stay in this messed-up relationship with her husband. But she's frustrated…They're just trying to survive…They're like chameleons with the changing times. They mold into each scenario, but remain true to the fact that they will financially rape everyone on the stage. They even say, "We're the last people alive, and you could be dead in your grave and we'll still rob you." What cracks me up is that audiences love that! All the things in society that are not good — like theft and debauchery — our audiences go nuts for it.

You're going to be performing in MCC's Miscast gala. What are some roles that you would have enjoyed taking on, but would have been horribly miscast in them if you had?

Lola in Kinky Boots. Just horribly miscast. I would have loved to play Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird. There's no music in it, but it doesn't mean I wouldn't want to do it! Miscast is a family affair. It highlights so many different aspects of the industry in that one night and it's a great evening.

You used to do a lot of work behind the scenes while you were trying to find your niche in the business. Now that you're in your third Broadway production, are you more comfortable onstage?

It's all about stage fright and whether you can fight it or not. When they start in on your lighting cues in tech or they have to fix your sound, I'm so scared of it. Sometimes I get frustrated with my own self because I'm such a perfectionist. I'm like, Man, if I was just behind an amp rack, all I would have to do is plug stuff up and not worry. It sounds weird, but I really don't want attention drawn to me. However, my appreciation for both sides is extremely strong.

Cliff Saunders as Thénardier and Keala Settle as Madame Thénardier in the 2014 Broadway revival of Les Misérables at the Imperial Theatre.
(© Michael Le Poer Trench)