Caitlin Finnie is in the ensemble and a Cosette understudy in the national tour of Les Misérables. Set during the 19th century French Revolution, Les Mis follows the life of Jean Valjean as the people of France must learn to navigate love, loss, death and heartbreak against the backdrop of war.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and describe your theater background?
I grew up mostly in The Woodlands, Texas, just outside of Houston. My first show was Les Misérables at the community theater as a part of the children’s ensemble group, which is made up, but they made it so that kids could be doing Les Mis, which is cool. I started doing shows there and at school, and I have always loved to sing. It was kind of an outlet for me to be singing. I took voice lessons outside of school with a private teacher and started auditioning for the musicals at school. I started doing really well and actually getting roles while really falling in love with it. I decided to pursue opera in college at Northwestern University and then auditioned for the musical theater program there on a whim and just kind of did both. Then I decided to move to New York and got an agent for musical theater.
How did you get involved in this production of Les Mis?
It was kind of hard because the auditions were really full for Les Mis and I wasn’t able to sign up for one because I wasn’t Union yet. I dropped off my resumé and headshot, which was the most you could do, in February, and didn’t hear back. I pressed my agent to get me an audition, but the auditions were really tight, so it wasn’t until June when she out of the blue said “You have an audition for Les Mis” because they’ve been looking for the track that I play (understudy to Cosette and the ensemble) for a while. I ended up going in and I booked it.
Can you talk about the audition process?
For me, and I know everyone has their own story with these auditions, I auditioned one day in early June and came in with the Cosette material and a little bit of the ensemble. I think I sang “I Have Lovely Ladies.” I’m pretty sure that’s the only thing I really sang. They had me do the Cosette material first and then they were like “Oh we should hear you do ‘Lovely Ladies.’ Make sure you do this really animalistic and gritty and not pretty and just guttural.” They wanted me to make the words nasty and chewier and chesty. For Cosette, I had messed up because I learned it wrong from recordings from years ago, so it had been in my mind wrong. They worked on it with me musically, just to clean some things up. They also sort of had an idea of what they wanted me to do with the text, acting wise. They worked on that with me in the room, and then they told me to go home, fix the music and the rhythm for Cosette, and then to come back for a callback the next day, which I did. James, the director was there, and they were taping for Cameron Mackintosh, our producer. Then I found out a week later that I got the job.
How long have you been a part of the show?
Since the beginning, so a year.
During the rehearsal process, are all the Cosette actresses working together or one on one?
I think it’s more one on one. Jillian, who is Cosette, was trained during the rehearsal process as I was learning the ensemble track, and then I learned the Cosette track next, but I learned it with other understudies, not the other Cosette, but like the Marius understudy. Then they did another wave of understudies, and then the next Cosette understudy learned it that way.
What was it like learning the ensemble and the Cosette roles at the same time?
It was really fun! It’s always fun to mix it up by doing a different track than yours, like doing Cosette’s, so it’s always exciting. Cosette comes a little bit more easily to me, but the ensemble is really interesting because the characters are so different. I get to play a poor person or a gritty factory person, but then also a student, or a rich person at a wedding. They’re very different and it’s kind of fun to position your body in different ways and to try new things.
Can you talk about the rehearsal process?
We started rehearsals in New York with our entire creative team, so we had two directors, an assistant director and a resident director, and then we had several music directors who worked with us. That was really cool, and we got to work with them, hear their artistic vision, and really just work and learn the show. We worked on the music for three weeks, and then we did tech in Providence, so we had to run the show in costume and without costumes, but working the barricade and moving set pieces and figuring out lighting before we opened previews in Providence.
How do you shift your focus so quickly throughout the show from one type of character to the next?
I think the music really informs that. The scenes and the costumes definitely inform your character.
Are there specific days you play the role of Cosette, or is it just as needed?
It’s definitely as needed. I know when we go to Baltimore in two weeks, Jillian is taking off for a wedding so they’ve assigned me to go on on Sunday.
A large part of Cosette’s music involves a lot of high notes. You mentioned that you studied opera in college, but what would you say is the hardest song in the show to sing, either as Cosette or the ensemble?
They’re so different, but I think in my ensemble track, the hardest part is probably “Paris” because it goes so low and is so chesty, which I can do, but it’s hard to do eight times a week. I negotiate how much power I put into that song per day to save my voice because my range in the show is three octaves. For Cosette, I think the hardest part is probably just singing that high C. And it’s not that singing that high C is difficult— I sing it in the ensemble role track in “One Day More,” so the note itself isn’t difficult. It’s that it’s so exposed and it should be quiet and blend in with the other voices, so it’s just hitting it and hitting it really clearly and beautifully and quietly, which takes a lot of control.
Since so much of Cosette’s music is harmonizing, did you have to practice more with the other actors or did it come more naturally?
It came naturally because she’s the soprano, so she sings the melody line, which my ear, growing up a soprano, is used to hearing. I also grew up knowing the soundtrack to Les Mis, so you can pick out Cosette’s lines and I just kind of knew it.
Since the whole show is singing, is there anything you do on stage to avoid running out of breath and getting tired?
Not as Cosette, but in the ensemble, when we are constantly running around. Maybe not on single show days though. I feel like if we do one show a day, you can negotiate and save yourself for the day and then go and do the show at night. But on two show days, I personally usually figure out what I need to negotiate vocally just because I can’t be belting the entire show. I do sing the entire show, but I figure out where I need to head voice a little more and where I need to mix more. I don’t think we can save ourselves physically all that much because you still need to be giving yourself fully for the audience and we have set blocking and movements.
How often do you have two shows in a day?
At least twice a week because we do eight shows a week. If we open a show on Wednesday instead of Tuesday, we could do it three days a week.
Do you have any days off between stops, or is it typically just traveling and performing?
Unless we have a sit down in a place that’s more than a week, we don’t get a day off.
On your days off, do you ever get a chance to explore the city you’re in or is that day used more for relaxation?
It kind of just depends. I think we all like a mix of both, and it just depends on where you are and what you’re looking for. I’ve been auditioning for opera things and trying to practice more, so I try to make sure I get in a workout, a practice, and also see the city that I’m in. Sometimes I just rest if I feel worn out or like I’m getting sick.
What is it like being on tour for so long?
It’s really difficult, especially with so many one-weekers, but it’s also really cool. I love getting to see the country this way and traveling so much to places I wouldn’t normally travel to, as well as bringing Les Mis to these different kinds of communities and being a part of it.
How do you balance work life and anything else you want to do or people you want to see?
We have a very small group of people that we’re constantly with, so it’s kind of balancing, for me, being around people, but also getting enough alone time, establishing a healthy lifestyle, wanting to live the life of a tourist, having enough energy and voice because we work at nighttime, and making sure we aren’t too fatigued. But establishing that I want to practice and work out every day and making sure that happens ensures that I can feel like a normal human and that I’m progressing in my own work.
How many, if any, of the cities you stop in have you been to before?
I think they have probably, for the majority, been pretty new. And I’m pretty well traveled, so that’s kind of surprising. But also new to me as an adult. I traveled a lot as a kid or a teenager, but a lot of the cities seem new to me as an adult. And it’s great because we do the US and Canada, and I’m actually dual citizen, so it’s great for me to get to see Canada and my family there.
Do you do anything special to prepare to perform, other than save your voice?
I think it depends on the day. I try to warm up, make sure my voice is in good shape. I try to warm up my body sometimes by doing yoga or stretching or doing some sort of physical activity, that kind of helps, for me, getting into the show. Sometimes we stream, like we’ll have these personal steamers to help just acclimate your voice and ease yourself into singing. But I don’t think I really have a routine.
What is a steamer?
It’s kind of hard to describe, but it’s a little object that produces steam. It has a mask that you put your face on.
What would you say has been the most challenging part of either role or the production process?
I think the stamina of it all. I think doing the show eight times a week and then not really getting a day off, but rather traveling on the day off. So just exhaustion and continuing the stamina of producing the show.
How do you travel between cities?
It just depends. Usually, it’s easier to fly, but sometimes we bus. I think from New Haven to Baltimore, we’ll probably take a bus because it’s close.
Do you ever repeat cities?
We haven’t so far, but I know Chicago is in the books again. We did Chicago last October and I think it’s coming up again next summer.
What has been the best or most rewarding part of working on this production?
Being a part of the legacy that is Les Mis, so being a part of the show with this cast and crew. I think our company is really special and it’s really rewarding to be part of that process.
Do you travel with the individual set pieces or is anything recreated in the different cities?
No, everything travels. We have 11 trucks.
What is your favorite song in the show and why?
“One Day More” because I think the music is stunning. I love that the full company is on stage all together but singing different lines. There’s different motifs that keep coming back to weave together this one amazing song. You get a very united feeling, at least I do, when we’re all on stage together for that number, and it’s a great feeling.
Your bio mentions that you also were in The King and I. Can you briefly talk about that experience?
I did “The King and I” at the Lyric Opera House of Chicago, and being an opera student, I had seen a ton of opera at the Lyric, so it was a complete dream to be working there. It’s kind of like the dream of doing musical theater, which was not too difficult for me vocally, but at an opera house that is so prestigious and that I dreamed of working at. I auditioned for it in the fall when I was still in school, ended up booking it, which was pretty huge, and then realized that I wanted to graduate on time. So I talked to the dean and figured out a way that I could still go to school and finish all my classes and requirements and still do the job but graduate on time. That cast was amazing, and I’ve been really lucky to work with just the best people. I met Ali Ewoldt, who is Christine Daaé in “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway. She was a great mentor when I was still in school and trying to figure out if I wanted to go to grad school for opera or if I wanted to move to New York and audition there, and what it’s like to be auditioning as an ingénue. As another mixed Asian ingénue in the business, she was really great. I made some really great friends, and looking back, it’s nice to establish that community of people before moving to New York and to know other Asian people in the business.
Is there anything you want audiences to know before they come and see Les Mis?
I think just keep your minds open because it’s a different production than they might be used to. It’s long but they’re going to love it. I think reading the synopsis that we have in the Playbill will really help audiences understand the show if they haven’t seen it before or if they’re not used to musicals.
*Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity
Les Misérables will run at The Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore from October 9 through October 14.
Note: Content is my own but was originally published in 2018 on The Writer's Bloc