A patriot? Or a lover? The question isn’t so easily answered when writing a yet-to-be nation’s founding declaration against the prospect of seeing a doting and loving wife of six month’s absence are the choices. But as the play and history would dictate, Thomas Jefferson at the forcible hand of John Adams became a patriot and penned the brilliant declaration and the rest as they say is history. Continuing on as the seventh installment in the Vote Yes: Inside Independence Hall series, TheatreBloom sits down with actor Brendan McMahon and discusses his role as the iconic Thomas Jefferson in Toby’s production of 1776.
If you could introduce yourself to us, give us a little bit of your background and experience in the area, we’ll get started.
Brendan McMahon: My name is Brendan McMahon and I’m recent graduate of Catholic University. I graduated this past year in 2014 and I play Thomas Jefferson in 1776 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Recently in the area I have done some TV and film work. I did a show in my friend’s basement, actually, The Changeling, and it was a lot of fun. I just came back from the Williamstown Theatre Festival this past summer where I was an acting apprentice. It was so much fun to do right after graduation.
What was the appeal to come and be a part of 1776?
Brendan: It’s actually funny. I signed up with Actor’s Center and they sent out an email that basically said they were looking for men. And I hadn’t done a musical in a long time. I was a drama major at Catholic so I didn’t really do a lot of musicals. I mean, I did a couple, but they weren’t really my forte. I figured I’d love to come out and audition for it and give it a try. I sang in high school and stuff like that. I just showed up, and I actually sang “The Egg” because I don’t have anything in my rep— I don’t have a song book like a lot of these people do. I love 1776. I’m a fan of the movie and I knew all about it. I can remember watching it way back when with my family. My dad is actually a huge history buff so he’s very excited that I’m playing Thomas Jefferson. He saw it opening weekend and really loved it.
Is this your first time working in the round?
Brendan: I’m going to say yes. I did sort of in college but not like this? So— yes, yes this is my first time working in the round. And it’s been pretty good. Thankfully, I’m tucked away in a corner so I don’t really have to worry about it that much. I’m not spinning center stage like John Adams. The space is really great and it’s unique and getting to do this show in this space has been really fun.
How are you similar to and different from Thomas Jefferson?
Brenden: I started off this process by just reading a lot about him. I read Jon Meacham’s biography about him, I read a book called American Sphinx, I read a book about him and his role in the second continental congress, and I just read everything I could find online. I wanted to get as much information about him as possible before I really dove into it. Jefferson has such a mythology to him. It took a while to break through all of that to see that he was actually just a man at the second continental congress. I think in that respect we’re similar. I’m just a man acting in a show. How I’m different from him? I certainly wouldn’t say I’m as clever or as smart but I’m certainly much more outspoken. People keep telling me I don’t talk much though, which is more on the similarities side of Jefferson.
What challenges have you faced in taking on this iconic and historical figure as a role in this musical?
Brendan: I think the biggest challenge was probably trying to figure out how to make it my own while still staying true to the Jefferson mantra and idea of his personality. He is soft spoken. He is a red-headed tombstone. He is incredibly smart. He’s kind of a Renaissance man. But then how do you take all of that and adapt it to make it your own? You just find connections in your own life. I have always gardened with my dad. Jefferson always saw his father as his hero. His father was a surveyor of Virginia, he drew the lines to make the borders on the maps. He was this amazing man and Thomas wanted to live up to that kind of idea. So I drew on that idea and that relationship that I have with my father, and thought about the gardening and other things we used to do together to bring that personal note into it for me.
Now we don’t quite there in this musical, but we know that Thomas Jefferson goes on to eventually become a president of the United States. Do you have presidential aspirations? Or long term goals of the like?
Brendan: No. I don’t think I could handle it. Especially not after seeing everything that’s going on currently. It’s way too much pressure. It’s really stressful if you ask me, and I mean, this is coming from an actor here who thinks that a lot of tasks are stressful.
You mentioned that you hadn’t really done musicals and that they weren’t your forte. How does doing 1776 differ from the type of shows you’re used to doing? Most people don’t really consider this to be a traditional musical and Jefferson doesn’t really have songs.
Brendan: It’s great! I’m not a dancer. I’ll start off with that. I just throw my limbs around and it looks awful. So a musical with no dancing? It’s good. The last show that I did, The Changeling, was a Jacobean tragedy about a girl who murders her husband, and there’s all this deception that was classic for that time period. So transferring into this show is kind of nice because it’s recognizable and clean cut stuff. The dialogue is real. That most recent show prior to this was bogged down in prose and verse and all of that stuff, so this is an easy shift and I like it.
Are you a writer?
Brendan: I wouldn’t call myself a writer. Although, I’m not entirely sure Jefferson called himself a writer, he was a Jack of all trades. But as far as writing goes I have dabbled. I keep a journal mainly. I sometimes write show stories and sketch down random things that pop into my head. I do a little bit of fiction, a little bit of poetry. Little bit of this, little bit of that, sort of a like—you know, maybe I’m more like Jefferson than I originally let on.
What do you think Jefferson’s biggest challenge in taking on the task of writing the declaration was?
Brendan: I would say Jefferson’s biggest challenge was probably trying to make everyone happy. Jefferson was a people pleaser when he was at William and Mary. When he was at Shadwell and Monticello he was known as the person who was always trying to make others happy. So the biggest issue in writing the declaration for him was finding a way to stand up for himself and his vision while still trying to appeal to everyone else. It’s the worst of both worlds essentially.
Martha Jefferson (played by MaryKate Brouillet) and Thomas Jefferson never actually speak during they play. They have a brief introduction in the middle of act one, but never exchange dialogue with each other. What is it like to play opposite a romantic character to whom you never speak?
Brendan: It’s really interesting, we never actually speak. Not once at all. And I’ve never done anything like it. Now, we interact. Anyone who has seen the show knows we exchange— well, not words. But seriously, it is kind of interesting. The Martha Jefferson role— which MaryKate plays wonderfully— she’s there and then she’s not there. She brings the dancing. To qualify the show as a musical I think it has to have a song and dance, and Martha brings the dance with her song. MaryKate has been very kind and it’s been fun to get to know her throughout the process.
What has it been like getting to be a part of the “big three?” Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams?
Brendan: Jefferson definitely sees Franklin and Adams as father figures without a doubt. He doesn’t originally want to be a part of the big three, but then he sort of gets roped into it. Throughout the show he grows to really have a fondness and appreciation for these men who are so strong willed and confident in their convictions and he grows from that and learns from that. In a similar fashion, getting to work alongside John and Jeff (John Stevenson and Jeffrey Shankle, playing Franklin and Adams respectively) while I’m not seeing them as father figures, I am getting that fondness and appreciation and growing and learning from working with them. It’s been an incredible experience working with seasoned actors so closely in that “big three” dynamic.
Do you think there is a topical relevance with this show?
Brendan: Absolutely. When the show first came out it was right after the Civil Rights movement. It was relevant then. It’s relevant now. I’m sure people have said this— I think I remember reading a fellow cast member saying this in this interview series, but now I can’t remember who it was— that this show makes us look at everything we’ve accomplished as a country, but it also helps us look at all the things we still need to accomplish. We’ve come so far but we still have so far to go. It’s important to remember history because if we don’t remember history we don’t know where we came from. And if we don’t know where we came from, we don’t know where we’re going to go.
There are moments in the show where the audience begins to doubt the outcome of the show. What do you think it is that is driving those moments or is responsible for crafting those moments to have the audience think that way?
Brendan: From an actor’s perspective, it’s the idea of unanimity. How can you get these twelve— whoa. I just rewrote history. How can you get these thirteen completely different colonies to come together on one idea of what a nation is? That deep seeded doubt is there from the start because all of these strong personalities that represent these colonies are there and they have to stand up for their own convictions and beliefs but then they have to find places to compromise at points. As an actor, you’re not allowed to know the ending or the outcome. I mean— you know it, because you can’t not know your lines and the show, but you have to convince yourself that you don’t know what’s going to happen so that those moments of debate and struggle become real. As actors if we go in knowing it’s a done deal and a won war, you lose those moments you’re talking about. So focusing on that idea of how do we get these different colonies that can’t agree on unanimity, that’s what I think helps us as actors to keep from knowing our own ending.
What has taking on this show taught you about yourself as a performer and as an individual?
Brendan: I have definitely gained more confidence in myself when it comes to musicals, and actually just more confidence in myself in regards to being an actor. This is my first professional production. Everyone has been so wonderful here too.
If you had to be a founding father, who would you be?
Brendan: Which one would I be? Oh boy. Now I’m trying to think of a Hipster founding father. I don’t know. George Washington would be kind of cool. I think as a founding father, Washington is seen as the Maverick. He pulled it all together and started this whole thing, became the first president, and that’s how he’s seen. I think I’ll be the maverick, because he’s very unlike myself. I would not call myself a maverick. I behave. Well, I try.
If the founding fathers could come to Toby’s and see this production, what do you think they’d have to say?
Brendan: Now that’s a question. Oh boy! I think they’d have some issues with the discrepancies in the facts of the show itself. But I would like to think that they would enjoy it because we’ve been able to turn history into something that is so relatable and accessible to everyone.
What is the message that you hope people will take away from seeing 1776?
Brendan: Do you always close on the heavy questions? Wow. The message that I hope people will take away from seeing 1776…I think what I want people to take away from 1776 is how important all this really is. I want them to understand how important our history is in relation to where we are right now. I’m a very firm believer that history does repeat itself. Those who are not willing to learn history are doomed to repeat it. That might even be a Franklin quote. The show really shows people the hypocrisy of government, both then and now. If we don’t recognize that we are a part of the problem then we can’t fix it. I think that’s the biggest thing I would want someone to take away.
Why come and see 1776 at Toby’s?
Brendan: Because this cast is just such a perfect mesh. The ebb and flow of all the characters on stage and all the cast members off stage; it’s just spot-on in my opinion. I’m always one for seeing something live. The video doesn’t compare; it pales in comparison. The passions you see on this stage are just incredible.
To read the review of 1776 click here.
To read Part 1 of Inside Independence Hall: An Interview with Co-Director Jeremy Scott Blaustein, click here.
To read Part 2 of Inside Independence Hall: An Interview with David James and Matthew Hirsh, click here.
To read Part 3 of Inside Independence Hall: An Interview with Russell Silber, click here.
To read Part 4 of Inside Independence Hall: An Interview with Dan Felton, click here.
To read Part 5 of Inside Independence Hall: An Interview with Scott Harrison and Andrew Horn, click here.
To read Part 6 of Inside Independence Hall: An Interview with MaryKate Brouillet and Santina Maiolatesi, click here.