Together Again For The First Time: An Interview with David James and Jeffrey Shankle on Toby’s Young Frankenstein

Like Laurel and Hardy, like Coke and Bacardi, like Romeo and Juliet, ebb and flow, to and fro! Together again for the first time! They’ve only met in a— wait— when did they meet? Two of Washington DC’s most seasoned musical theatre actors, Helen Hayes-nominated and winning performers Jeffrey Shankle and David James are together again for perhaps the millionth time on the stage, but in a rare setup where they’re playing leading opposites! In a TheatreBloom exclusive interview, we sit down with these theatrical titans to discuss their lengthy performance career together and what it’s like to finally play together in this capacity— sharing opposing leads in the area premiere of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.

Thank you both so, so much for sitting down and taking time out of your busy schedule to have a chat with us! Remind the readers of who you are, and what you’ve done recently, and what you’re doing right now.

David James as Igor in Young Frankenstein
David James as Igor in Young Frankenstein Jeri Tidwell Photography

David James: Besides eating this salad? I’m playing Igor in Young Frankenstein at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Also, I’m David James. And recently you may have seen me in Miracle on 34th Street, the recently Helen Hayes-nominated production of Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Beauty and The Beast, and that goes all the way back to the beginning of the 2017 year.

Jeffrey Shankle: Some of those shows sound familiar! I’ve also been in all of those, as well as Show Boat from the 2017 season, and I’m currently playing Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein. Also, I’m Jeffrey Shankle.

That is quite a lot of shows you two have done together in just the last year alone.

David: It is, but we’re rarely paired together. We had almost no stage time together at all in Beauty & The Beast.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I was Lefou and he was Cogsworth. But then we were together in Joseph, The Butler and The Baker.

David: Also as brothers.

That is quite a lot of shows together just in this last season. But what was the first show that you two ever did together?

David: Joseph.

Jeffrey: Not at Toby’s, though. That was at Burn Brae Dinner Theatre.

Aha! Now, what year was that?

Jeffrey: When you get to be our age—

David: You talk about years.

Jeffrey: That’s right. We’ll just say it was a long, long time ago. I was Benjamin.

David: And I was Gad. Brothers. Again. Or before. For the first time.

Jeffrey: We’ve done Joseph a lot together through the years. But that was our first. And then we did Fiddler at Burn Brae together. He was Motel.

David: And you were Russian Dancing Jew. Bottle-hat dancer man.

Jeffrey Shankle (front, center) as Tommy Djilas with Mark Minnick (back, center) and David James (right, center) as dancing boys in The Music Man at Burn Brae Dinner Theatre some time ago
Jeffrey Shankle (front, center) as Tommy Djilas with Mark Minnick (back, center) and David James (right, center) as dancing boys in The Music Man at Burn Brae Dinner Theatre some time ago Courtesy of Mark Minnick

Jeffrey: Right. And then we also did The Music Man together at Burn Brae. I was Tommy Djilas and David was “the boy in blue.” And Mark (Artistic Director of Toby’s Dinner Theatre Mark Minnick) was “the boy in the green.”

David: We were the glue that held that show together. The three dancing boys— me, Mark, and Jeff.

Mark Minnick was a performer?

Jeffrey: Oh yes.  He did many a show. He did tours, he did shows, but he’s done with all of that now.

That’s very impressive. But you two started working together many years ago of a date indeterminate, at Burn Brae, but what was the first show that you two did together at Toby’s?

David: Wasn’t West Side Story…was it?

Jeffrey: I don’t think so…wait…maybe? I can’t remember because when you started your first round there I wasn’t there. I was at West End Dinner Theatre for a long time, then I was out on the road, or I was with Disney. But then I guess— maybe it was West Side Story.

Ah. And that was the West Side Story starring Janine and Russel Sunday?

David: No. That was actually Janine and Dan Felton. But that was the show where we were first together at Toby’s. We were Jets. Jeffrey was Baby John and I was Action.

So that was the first show you two did together at Toby’s, but what are some of the more memorable roles you two have done in shows together over the years?

Jeffrey: I would say Moonface and Billy Crocker.

David: Yep, from Anything Goes. I was Moonface.

Jeffrey: And Billy Flynn and Amos.

David: From Chicago. I was Amos. And they happened one right on top of the other in the same season.

Jeffrey: What else?

David: The butler and the baker. In this past season’s Helen Hayes-nominated production of Joseph.

Jeffrey: Oh, and we’ve done children’s theatre together too. Before I gave it up. Children’s theatre is a whole different ball game. But we’ve done many of those together over the years.

And did you find that you played more roles directly opposite of one another in children’s theatre, because so far what you’ve told me of shows you’ve done together— your characters don’t spend much time together.

Jeffrey Shankle as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein
Jeffrey Shankle as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein Jeri Tidwell Photography

Jeffrey: Oh yeah, in children’s theatre we were cast opposite of each other all the time. But that’s because you’re working with a much smaller cast and actors are doubling and tripling up with roles. We did Winnie The Pooh together.

David: I was Rabbit. He was Winnie The Pooh.

Jeffrey: Yeah, but I looked more like a Care Bear.

But all in all— children’s theatre aside— you guys don’t really get to play directly opposite of each other much. Billy Crocker and Moonface is pretty close, but I didn’t hear too many other examples of that.

Jeffrey: Well, Amos and Billy— Flynn— to a lesser degree are sort of opposite one another.

David: That was the season of Billy for you.

Jeffrey: Yes, Billy back to back. Anything Goes and then Chicago.

But this is really the first show where you’ve played directly opposite one another. What has that been like?

Jeffrey: It’s scary! Just kidding.

David: It’s a joy.

Jeffrey: It’s fun when you know what’s going to happen. It’s fun and it’s comforting when you know how the other person is going to respond to something or how they’re going to handle something, as opposed to playing against someone where you don’t know what’s going to happen, what’s going to come out of their mouth, or how they’re going to handle an unexpected situation. This is what I’ve always said, on stage— just like with opposites in girls on stage— either you have chemistry or you do not have it. And for some pairings it just does not happen and you cannot make it happen. It either works or it doesn’t work. And I have been in a lot of pairings where it has not worked.

David: I think we’re very fortunate that we do have good working chemistry together. We do work well together on stage and we do have that chemistry.

Jeffrey: Must be all the vacationing together. Disney, the beach, you know, I think that helps.

David: We maintain a good friendship off stage, so between that, and having worked together for an undisclosed amount of years, that is what gives us that familiarity with each other, it gives us that notion of trusting one another, knowing we can count on each other. We know that we’re each going to be there for the other if something happens, and that we can depend on one another if something else is happening around us in a scene or in a song; we know how the other one of us is going to react and respond and that’s a really important tool to have.

What would you say has been the most challenging thing about this show, Young Frankenstein, in particular?

Jeffrey: Putting it together in such a short amount of time.

David: The rehearsal process was very, very brief, and considering everything that goes into a show like this, it felt even shorter.

Jeffrey: There’s a lot of dialogue. And a lot of stuff— scientific stuff, character study stuff, comic timing stuff. It’s a lot of stuff.

David: And it’s physically exhausting. I’ve got this bent and bunched-up posture to create a believable Igor, it reminds me of where I was back during The Addams Family, with the Grandma Addams character.

Jeffrey: That’s another show we did together. He was Grandma and I was a dead ancestor. Another show we did together but our character tracks never crossed paths.

David: True. But I think the physicality for Igor, over Grandma Addams, is much more trying. It’s challenging at times, maintaining that posture, which is so counter-intuitive to the way we stand and move as regular actors or even just as normal human beings. And it’s exhausting, especially on a double-show day— like Wednesdays and Sundays. And the thing is— you know it reminds me of The Wizard of Oz, Igor does, because once you meet the character, you’re constantly on stage. You’re constantly going.

Jeffrey: That’s another show we did together. But again, like so many others, our paths barely crossed. I was the Wizard and Professor Marvel while he played The Scarecrow. This was 2012 summer production.

I think we should make a list of how many shows you guys have actually done together.

David: We’d be here all night trying to remember them all and still not have a complete list. Remember, we’ve been doing this for a very long time!

Jeffrey Shankle (left) as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein and David James (right) as Igor
Jeffrey Shankle (left) as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein and David James (right) as Igor Jeri Tidwell Photography

That’s right. Ah, but here’s another little “together again” moment. This is a Mark Minnick show— where he’s directed and choreographed the production— and you both have a number of those together under your belts. What is it like having that seasoned rapport with him coming into this show?

Jeffrey: It’s easy to give your opinion back if you need to. You don’t have to feel like you’re walking on pins and needles or eggshells or whatever. If I don’t agree with something or I don’t feel comfortable with something; I say it.

David: And Mark has no problem telling you when you’re doing something wrong. I really appreciate that. I just said to him, because we got a series of notes from him just tonight, but as actors we only perceive what we’re doing internally from ourselves. We don’t know what other people are seeing in us. So while we may think what we’re doing is grand and fine, that may not be the case, and he doesn’t hesitate to tell you that, and to me, that’s invaluable.

Jeffrey: The way we’re doing it and the way we feel when we’re doing it, and the way they’re seeing it and what they’re experiencing can be totally different.

David: So it’s great to have someone to watch and say “this is where we need to redefine what’s going on.” Or “this is where we need to refocus this.” And I love that.

As you two move into the golden prime of your theatrical careers, are you finding the very intense choreography that accompanies a show like this to be more challenging?

Jeffrey: Not yet!

David: I— and I think Jeff’s the same way— but whatever we’re given to do, I try to accomplish it the best way that I possibly can. Mark is good at giving you things that work with you and work for you but also push you.

Jeffrey: I’m always standing over here shaking my head and making “I don’t know” type noises. There’s a lot of that going on when we get into some of those more intricate and intense dance things.

I remember hearing a lot of that “I don’t know about this” for Mary Poppins and the flying that Bert had to do…

Jeffrey: Well, with that one, it wasn’t that I wasn’t sure— I wanted to do it— it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be!

David: I remember that first day—

Jeffrey: So do I. I threw up. I couldn’t flip anymore, but they kept trying to rehydrate me, and making me drink all this water so they could flip me some more. And I said “I’m going to throw up…” and then it happened.

David: You know that’s another show where we were in it together— he played Bert and I played Robertson Ay— but I don’t think we ever actually saw each other in character on stage.

Jeffrey: Well— for one moment— when we all come back down off the rooftops from “Step in Time” and you’re dancing with little Jane as we all make our exit, that counts. But we saw each other all the time in the scene changes in the hallway.

You two have a lot of moments like that and often have stations next to one another in the dressing room. And you’ve cultivated and maintained this long-lasting friendship because of being on stage together and off stage together. That’s a really wonderful thing.

David: Again, going back to traveling together— it’s not that different from doing a show together from a technical standpoint. The backstage area and dressing rooms are not palaces by any stretch of the imagination. Because we’ve taken so many vacations together and shared accommodations together, we’ve learned over the years how to cohabitate in a small space respectfully. That is another invaluable tool to our success together both on and off stage as performers and as friends.

Are there any shows that you two have not yet performed in together that you want to do together?

Jeffrey: Of course! I brought it up the other day, it’s called Sugar, but it’s the “Some Like It Hot” musical.

David: We’ve always talked about this, but I would love to be able to do Crazy For You, together. One of us can play Bobby and the other can play Zangler. Though we’re both getting on a bit for Bobby.

Jeffrey: Yeah, it’ll be Bobby Child— ish…instead of Bobby Childs. But you don’t pick the roles you just take them when they’re offered.

David: That’s right. They say, “would you accept this role?” And you say, “Of course.” Because you love the craft, you love the profession, and you love being employed.

Jeffrey: And I think that’s a true premise for all people in the theatre. There is always going to be a role that you’re too young to play or too old to play or in some way or another “not right” by somebody’s standards to play, but it’s a dream role for you, or a show you’re really passionate about, and you’re not going to turn down the chance to do it because you don’t know, especially in this industry, if you’ll ever have another chance to be a part of that show, or play that role.

David: Absolutely right.

Clockwise from the top: Christopher Kabara as The Monster, Louisa Tringali as Inga, David James as Igor, and Jeffrey Shankle as Frederick Frankenstein
Clockwise from the top: Christopher Kabara as The Monster, Louisa Tringali as Inga, David James as Igor, and Jeffrey Shankle as Frederick Frankenstein Jeri Tidwell Photography

Are there any other shows that you two are dying to do together?

David: We could do The Music Man again together. But we’ve grow up and graduated from Tommy and The Boy in the Blue.

Jeffrey: We should probably move into Harold Hill and Marcellus Washburn now.

David: Ooh— White Christmas. I’ve done it. Have we done it together yet? No…

Jeffrey: I played the Bob Wallace character at Riverside Dinner Theatre.

David: But not at Toby’s with me. I’m Phil Davis. We could be Wallace and Davis for Christmas. Well, some Christmas, not this Christmas. This Christmas Toby’s is doing The Little Mermaid.

It’s funny because you guys have done some of the major musicals where there are a lot of strong males playing opposite one another, like Spamalot, but again, not really playing opposite of one another.

David: I don’t think I ever saw Jeff. Not once.

Jeffrey: Because I was always Patsy, except for the one scene where I was the guard with Darren (actor Darren McDonnell), while David had a bunch of roles, but the main one was Herbert. I guarded Herbert’s room, but never actually saw Herbert.

David: I loved that show. I hope we bring that one back someday.

Jeffrey: And Les Miserables was like that too. Marius and Thènardier never really interacted.

David: You punched me at the end.

Jeffrey: Ooh— yeah, that’s right. You pick the ring off my finger in the sewer but Marius is unconscious so I’m not supposed to know you’re there. And then I don’t see Thènardier again until the wedding scene, where I get the ring back.

David: Again, two strong male characters, never really interact on stage. It’s amazing how many of those shows we’ve done. 1776 was a bit like that.

Jeffrey: McNair was on stage whenever John Adams was in congress but we had virtually no interaction. Except that one time when I had a water issue…it’s a long story…but to make it short, there was a problem with the water in my mug, which I desperately need because John Adams never shuts up, and I knew I couldn’t just leave congress to get it fixed, so I turned around and shouted— “McNair! Water!” Because what else are you going to do?  

What’s the most difficult part of the show for you two?

David: Calling him Master.

Jeffrey: What?   

What has doing this show together taught you about your friendship and about life and the pursuit of theatre?

David: The trust factor is enormous in theatre, especially when you have to work with somebody in this capacity. I’m never afraid when I’m on stage with Jeff. I trust him and I get that respect right back.

Jeffrey: If something bad or wrong comes out of my mouth, I know it’s not going to come back at me in a bad way. You know, like a flubbed line. We can save each other, and that is a relief. Because that has happened— it’s live theatre it happens— with other people and they just sort of look at you with this blank look of “I don’t know how to save you here.” Not with David. I save him. He saves me. He’s got my back. I’ve got his back. Hump and all.

Ha! What’s your favorite part of what you guys get to do on stage?

David: I like the “Life, Life!” scene. I love that whole scene.

Jeffrey: Yeah, he really loves that whole scene.

David: Basically from when we bring the brain in until the very end when we leave, I love it. I love our first number too. It’s fun to do. We have fun. We’re just having fun together.

Why do you want people to come and see you having fun in Young Frankenstein?

David: Because it’s great! It’s a great show.

Jeffrey: Because it’s fun. It’s funny.

David: It’s a little naughty.

Jeffrey: It is a little naughty. It’s naughty and fun and great and everyone is having a good time on stage, which means everyone will have a good time watching us have a good time.

David: Come see us together!

Jeffrey: Together again.

David: For the first time. Together. Again. Having fun! It really is a great show.

To read the review of Young Frankenstein, click here.

Young Frankenstein plays through March 11, 2018 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets please call (410) 730-8311 or purchase them online

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