'Les Miserables' actress is 'dreaming a dream'

Shawna Hamic "dreamed a dream in time gone by," but unlike the destitute young mother Fantine who sings those words each night in the new Broadway tour of"Les Miserables,"Hamic has lived to see hers realized at a very young age.

Hamic, who plays the bombastic, unscrupulous Madame Thenardier in the musical based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, was born in Oregon and raised in Southern California from a young age.

"I actually got into theater because my parents would take us to see the national tours when they came into Los Angeles," Hamic said. "I never got to go to New York as a kid, but for me, 'Broadway' was the national tours.

"'Les Mis' was one of the first shows they took us to see. Literally in the middle of that show, 25 years ago, I leaned over to my mom and said, 'Mom, I'm going to be Madame Thenardier someday.' That really was the tour that set me on my path."

"Les Miserables," like its predecessor novel, has become a cultural touchstone over the past decades — a musical that makes everyone from hardened businessmen to cynical hipsters laugh, cry and ponder their own humanity. It explores topics like justice, mercy and love against a backdrop of revolution. The new show's staging was inspired by Hugo's own paintings, and has received top praise worldwide.

Hamic said the hardest interview question — “Tell me about ‘Les Mis'” — though simple, is anything but.

“There is no short answer for it,” she said. “I think what it comes to overall is that it's about redemption and the choices [protagonist] Jean Valjean makes throughout his life, and the way others affect his life and he affects theirs. I think people love the new show because of its all-new staging. The sets are so lovely and it's all very cinematic in approach. In the factory scene when Fantine is singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream,' if you look closely, you can see smoke coming out of the smokestacks.”


'On My Own'

Hamic first joined the show as a member of the ensemble at its precursor version in Houston, which was created by the same set designer.

"I had heard a rumor in that production that they were talking about taking it on the road as a new production for its 25th anniversary," she said. "It was probably two and half or three years later that it finally came about."

Hamic was desperate to be in the production.

"I knew I was supposed to be Madame Thenardier," she said. "But my agent at the time thought I was too young, so he didn't put me in for it."

The common belief is that the character is in her 40s or 50s, Hamic said, although in the book she is much younger; when she is first introduced in the show, her daughter Eponine is quite young.

"So I went on my own time to an open equity call, and sang her song," Hamic said. "I got it on my own, basically."

And the agent?

"That agent is no longer with the agency," Hamic said.


'Who Am I?'

"I think part of the reason I said I was going to be Madame Thenardier all those years ago is that I somehow intrinsically knew who she was going to be," Hamic said. "I just knew who I would be as her. I always think of her as a 'glamazon.' In the book she read romance novels, and she just wants everything. She will do whatever it takes to get what she wants. It was so interesting because I could recognize her and enjoy her for being completely opposite to who I am. That's what's fun about theater; you get to explore those aspects and personalities that maybe aren't acceptable in general life. It's all art."

Hamic said the character's back story was explored in the novel; in the musical, she utterly disrespects (and frequently mocks) her husband, the "Master of the House." By reading the novel, Hamic learned she had been swept off her feet originally by his charisma and his promises of "the good life," but had yet to see it materialize.


'One Day More'

The hectic touring life has been kind to Hamic, she said.

"I travel with 90 people; it's a nice family. I've done almost 700 performances as Madame Thenardier now," Hamic said. "I actually really enjoy touring. I don't have children and I'm not in a relationship right now, so I think it's easier for me. There are people on our tour with kids and families, and I don't know how they do that.

"I'm being paid to see a country that I love and I've never really had a chance to explore. 'Dreaming a dream' is what I'm really doing."

If You Go

What: "Les Miserables"

When: Tuesday to June 24

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Cost: $40 and up

Information: scfta.org

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