The cast in its entirety of 1776 at Toby's Dinner Theatre

Vote Yes: Inside Independence Hall with Jeffrey Shankle

He’s obnoxious and disliked, haven’t you heard? This Boston radical! This ag-i-ta-tor! This demagogue! This madman! John Adams, the poster child for revolution inside Independence Hall. As the series Vote Yes: Inside Independence Hall draws to its conclusion in this ninth and final installment, TheatreBloom sits down with Toby’s seasoned veteran Jeffrey Shankle and discusses the forgotten founding father at length.

Welcome back, Jeffrey. It’s only been a few months since we saw you last, shall we do a quick refresher course of your recent on-stage history?

Jeffrey Shankle
Jeffrey Shankle

Jeffrey: Do we have to? Didn’t I just do an interview with you? For some other role I just did? I’m only teasing. I’m Jeff Shankle, I’m doing John Addams in 1776 and this is Toby’s the Dinner Theatre in Columbia. Working backwards I did an ensemble track in The Addams Family, Bert in Mary Poppins, Buck Wiley the DJ in Memphis, Samuel in Pirate of Penzance, Lord Farquaad in Shrek (Helen Hayes Nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical), and Patsy in Spamalot. That should cover all of 2014 and the first two shows of this year.

What was the general appeal to want to come and do 1776?

Jeffery: Well I always like to do shows that I’ve never done before. I know I’ve said that in these interviews before. I don’t like to do repeats. Of all the times that this show has come around I’ve never been in it. I have no outstanding history with it, I mean I’ve seen it, but I didn’t grow up watching it or anything. I watched the movie for the first time like two months ago. I had seen the stage show but I had never seen the movie. I saw it at Burn Brae a million years ago, when David James (currently playing Andrew McNair) played the Courier. I also saw it when an outside company brought it at West End one summer when they weren’t doing a summer performance. I ran lights for it. So I had watched it a couple of times.

So when you came into audition, was there a particular character you were looking to audition for?

Jeffery: No! I mean, I knew who the main characters were. But it never occurred to me that this could be a role for me. I knew I was going to be somebody that said “yea” or “nay” in the background. I figured I’d be waving a fan and that would be fine. So I hadn’t concentrated on it at all. And then when they called me back for John Adams, I said “okay, I’ll look at it.” And once I looked at it a bit and studied it a bit I said, “Oh. This might be fun to do!” I was in Disney World briefly not too long ago and poor John Adams gets no love anywhere that he is. He’s bald, old, and he sits there and nods. They do mention him briefly in the America show at Epcot— American Adventure.

You are well known for your song and dance abilities, definitely a musical theatre man. Do you have any straight play experience? And what was it like being in a musical that really isn’t a musical?

John Dickinson (L- Darren McDonnell) and John Adams (R- Jeffrey Shankle) fight over Independency
John Dickinson (L- Darren McDonnell) and John Adams (R- Jeffrey Shankle) fight over Independency Jeri Tidwell Photography

Jeffrey: I’ve done an Agatha Christie show once. And I did Lend Me a Tenor. I was the bellhop. That was like ten years ago. That was fun. But the bellhop is not the big part. It was a lot of fun but it’s not this big huge part— it’s not the whole play the way John Adams is the whole play. This show is a play. I realized that as soon as I auditioned— it’s not a musical. It’s a play. Now, it’s a play where I unfortunately have to do most of the music for all by myself, but it’s still really play. It’s been a nice breath of fresh air. You know musicals, the song and dance parts aren’t very deep— most of them. So it’s nice to do things that I can sink my teeth into a little bit more than I do normally.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge for you in doing something this far outside of your repertoire?   

Jeffrey: You know, I found out that it’s really not that far out of my repertoire. Once we started rehearsals I didn’t go “Oh my God, what am I doing?” I just went with it. It didn’t scare me at all, to be honest with you. Now, learning all the lines scared me a little bit but it’s just because I wanted to make sure I got them all. With the speech pattern— I mean this is a different way of speaking, it’s not how we speak in the modern day. So you can’t paraphrase. Other shows you can sort of get away with paraphrasing things if you have to, but with this you have to this show word for word.

Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams in 1776 at Toby's Dinner Theatre
Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams in 1776 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre Jeri Tidwell Photography

John Adams in this show is obnoxious and disliked, haven’t you heard? Are you similar to John Adams?

Jeffrey: Hmm. No. I wouldn’t say obnoxious and disliked— well, maybe disliked, I don’t know. But I’m definitely not obnoxious. I know obnoxious people. I know what they are. And I’m not one of them. But I think John Adams is definitely driven and has an opinion and I do feel that way. I do connect that way. I have an opinion about many things. I’m not wishy-washy. I do have an opinion about most things. Now sometimes I don’t— a lot of times, actually— I don’t let anyone know exactly what I think. But I most definitely have the opinion. And if I want something? I want it. Ask any of my close friends— they will tell you. When I want something, that’s it. I want it and I go after it. And I am like John Adams, I go after it and I get it, well not always, but I have a pretty good record. You can’t get everything you want, that’s the way it is in life.

There has been some debate about the historical accuracy and representation of the founding fathers in this show. Care to voice the opinion that we now all know you have?

Jeffrey: Well, it’s not completely correct. It’s very loose. It’s based on fact. I’m trying to think of things that aren’t exact and now of course I can’t think of anything specific, but I did read a lot of things. And I did watch the 10 hour HBO movie or mini-series, which I thought was wonderful by the way. I also watched Sons of Liberty and it’s so funny because they glamourize it. Sam Adams is this good looking guy and John Adams was played by Henry Thomas and he was very soft.  I do know that in 1776 the musical, that the character of John Adams is a compilation of Sam Adams and John Adams. It’s not just all John Adams opinion. I think Sam Adams was actually even more driven and more radical than John. If you’d included both of them it would have been really annoying.

You said you hadn’t watched the movie until recently, was that where you were drawing your inspiration from?

Jeffrey: That’s right. I didn’t watch the movie until I’d first gotten called back for the role. I needed to look at it and see what it was all about. So as I was watching it and the first thing I notice? He’s short. So I knew that was a good thing. I looked it up on the internet, and he’s 5’8 which is exactly my height, so I said “okay, we’re right on the height—

Wait a minute. You told me back during the holiday season, in our Over the Rooftops Interview about playing Bert that you were 5’7.

Jeffrey: It depends on the shoe. And trust me, these shoes are tall. Anyway, he’s 5’8, well, was 5’8. The thing I really liked about discovering John Adams was that he was a strong character. I was finally going to get to play a strong character and not just a happy character. I do a lot of happy characters. So this is a really nice change of pace.

You sing more than 75% of the songs that are in the show. What has that been like for you?

(L to R) John Stevenson as Benjamin Franklin, Ben Lurye as Robert Livingston, Chris Rudy as Roger Sherman, and Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams.
(L to R) John Stevenson as Benjamin Franklin, Ben Lurye as Robert Livingston, Chris Rudy as Roger Sherman, and Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams. Toby's Dinner Theatre

Jeffrey: Luckily, other than some harmony pieces during numbers like “The Egg” and “Yours, Yours, Yours,” with Abigail (Santina Maiolatesi) I do take a few of those upper harmonies in that number and I think I have to hit a ‘G’ in “The Egg”, but other than that the songs are very middle of the road. So it’s easy. I can’t go from having a boisterous voice to just singing beautiful. It’s written middle of the road so it doesn’t have to be beautiful. Now it can’t be coarse; you have to put the two together and I’m trying to do that, I hope I’m succeeding. But the speaking voice goes into the singing voice pretty much the same.

What is it like having a romantic interest that you have no physical interactions with on stage? Abigail Adams speaks to you through letters but you’re never really on stage together even though you’re seen at the same time.

Jeffrey: Well we did a lot of incarnations of that. There were times when we touched, there were times when we were close, but then by the time we opened we were nowhere near each other ever. And I do think it works better from afar. I think it would confuse the audience if we had kept in some of us touching and sitting close together. I think it worked out really well. And Santina is really great. It’s my first time working with her— well, wait, that’s not true. She was in Miracle on 34th Street with me, but we never interacted.

That’s not true either. You two had a dance together in that show.

Jeffrey: We did?

Yes. You, Santina, and Coby Kay Callahan at the top of Act II.

Jeffrey: Oh! That’s right! Wow! You have a much better memory than me. I’ll tell you, once a show’s over, it goes right out of my head. But this is the first time I’ve worked directly opposite of her, and she’s been really wonderful to work with.

What would you say is the moment that defines the show for John Adams and for you?

Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams in 1776 at Toby's Dinner Theatre
Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams in 1776 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre Toby's Dinner Theatre

Jeffrey: The moment in the show that defines John Adams, I believe, and I know that you’re going to think that I’m cheating because I’m going to say that this is the moment that defines the show for me as well, but it’s “Is Anybody There?” That’s when— no. Wait a minute. When Abigail sends the saltpeter— I’m now not cheating because I think I just realized my moment, for me Jeffrey, is a moment before that moment for John. That’s when I say, “okay, she came through for you, pick yourself up and let’s go back to work.” And then “Is Anybody There” that’s where it sinks in for him. That realization wakes him up and defines him. He’s always been driven, he’s been knocked down but he gets back up. And at that point he just gets it— he is going to have to give in on the slavery issue but this is how he gets his ultimate goal. He doesn’t want to give in on that issue, especially not after that song, “Molasses to Rum.” You know, there are certain things in musical theatre that I do not want to have to do. “Molasses to Rum” would be one of them, so kudos to Dan Felton (playing Edward Rutledge) for doing it.

What has doing this show taught you about yourself as a performer?

Jeffrey: That I can act as well as sing and dance. I mean I knew I could, but you know, it’s nice to have proof of it. I’ve had some good roles, don’t get me wrong, but they’re usually fun, comedy, love interests and sappy crap. This is a whole different ballgame than what I’m used to playing. This is good though because it’s new and exciting and refreshing. After you do the same stuff over and over it’s all “yeah, yeah, yeah, I know how to do this I don’t even have to come to rehearsal.” But let me be clear— I always go to rehearsal.

Ben Lurye as Robert Livingston (left) and Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams in 1776 at Toby's Dinner Theatre
Ben Lurye as Robert Livingston (left) and Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams in 1776 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre Jeri Tidwell Photography

There are moments where the audience doubts the outcome of the show. What is it that you think is driving those?

Jeffrey: There are moments! And I think there are people who actually go, “wait a minute…did they have to do this a couple of times? Are we watching the time when Independence finally won?” I think once the south walks out in the second act— everyone is thinking how is this going to happen? How are they going to get everyone to say “yea” now? Especially since there are so many of them that are so adamant about saying no. You start to wonder. I think we work really hard to make those moments, well, all the moments in the show, but those moments in particular have to feel real, so that you do doubt. We’re working hard to keep your attention there too because those are game changing moments.

John Adams continues on to be president of the United States.

Jeffrey: Correct.

Do you have presidential aspirations?

Jeffrey: Absolutely not. Politics is the furthest thing from my mind. Now, I have opinions. But I will not speak about them. I definitely have an opinion about politics. Next to show business, it’s the craziest occupation you can have. I mean they’re the two worst industries to get into, and I’m already in one of them, why should I get into the other? And I don’t think I’d be very diplomatic, that would be my other problem. I’d probably be a lot like John Adams. Except people would annoy me in congress.

Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams in 1776 at Toby's Dinner Theatre
Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams in 1776 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre Jeri Tidwell Photography

If you had to be a founding father, who would you be?

Jeffrey: Who would I be? That’s a hard question. I don’t know. Who would I be? I don’t think it’s Ben Franklin, that didn’t even enter my mind…I think George Washington did all the dirty work. So him maybe? I don’t know. Maybe John Adams. Maybe John Adams because he didn’t care, you know what I mean? I don’t know how much of it is actually true, I mean I think he definitely pushed and he was definitely in the front of the line…but you know what? I’m going to say John Adams.

If we could bring the founding fathers to Toby’s for the experience, what do you think they would have to say about the experience?

Jeffrey: I think they’d say “well that’s not exactly how it went.” Everything has a dramatic twist to it. If we portrayed life exactly as it is it wouldn’t be quite that exciting. Plus we’ve only got two and a half hours. Though it is pretty exciting that we’re sort of running in real calendar date time.

What is it you are hoping that people will take away from seeing 1776?

Jeffrey: You know, way too many people think fourth of July and their mind goes “Beach. Parties. Fireworks.” Especially kids. They know it’s a holiday because they get a day off. So I’d to think that with this show people are learning something and that they were entertained while learning it. And in that big 35 minute scene where we do nothing but talk? I hope they find it interesting and that it keeps their attention. That’s a very hard thing to do. When you’re coming to a dinner theatre, and you think you are seeing a musical and then you find yourself setting there for 35 minutes listening to men— old white men in wigs— talk…if it’s not interesting and the pace isn’t good, then it’s deadly. I think I’ve seen one that didn’t do any of that, a 1776 before, and I’m not going to say where because I honestly don’t remember, but you will lose your audience so fast. And I hope— I’m pretty sure we’re doing a really good job— but I hope we keep them through that scene.

Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams in 1776 at Toby's Dinner Theatre
Jeffrey Shankle as John Adams in 1776 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre Jeri Tidwell Photography

Why come and see 1776 at Toby’s?

Jeffery: Because, and I haven’t read all the interviews, but I’m pretty sure everyone is going to say the same thing; it’s a completely different way of seeing this show. I think the people, especially those who sit close to the stage, they really feel like they’re in the room. They’re really there. This could have been the room— I mean it’s not, obviously, but it could be the room that the congress was in. And if you’ve seen 1776 before it’s a really nice way to see it in a different atmosphere; an intimate and personalized atmosphere that you just can’t get on a larger stage or in proscenium.

1776 plays through July 5, 2015 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets please call (301) 596-6161 or purchase them online.

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.

To read Part 7 of Inside Independence Hall: An Interview with Brendan McMahon, click here.

To read Part 8 of Inside Independence Hall: An Interview with John Stevenson, click here.

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