Continuing on in the ‘Behind the Barricade at Toby’s’ interview series, I sat down with veteran actor Jeffrey Shankle to discuss the role of Marius. Find out what it’s like for the lovesick ingenue of the show who must make the decision between his recently discovered love for Cosette or join his brothers in arms at the barricade fighting for the cause.
Amanda: Where have audiences seen you most recently before your time on the barricade?
Jeffrey: Well last here at Toby’s I was in Fiddler as Fyedka, who falls in love with and marries Chava, ironically enough played by Katie Grace Heidbreder, who plays Cosette, my love interest, in Les Mis. Before that I did Hot Nostalgia, a Toby’s original musical revue, and then before that was A Christmas Carol, I played Fezziwig. Before that? It was last summer in Legally Blonde as Emmett.
What is it about Marius that really appeals to you as an actor?
How do I put this? For me…it’s basically he’s the character that the show really centers around, well a lot of the show anyway. He has so many songs sung about him. I like his loyalty. And in my opinion once he meets Cosette, he would just dump the whole barricade scene immediately and take off with her.
During our initial table talk about the characters Toby said to me, well she asked me, “What would Marius do?” and I thought about it, and I realized that at first he’s all about the barricade, and agreeing with Enjolras and he’s all about going in for the cause. But once he meets Cosette…all bets are off. And if Cosette hadn’t gone off—she’s supposedly being shipped off to England with Valjean—if she hadn’t been shipped off and left, he would have just run away with her. They would have run off together and that would have been that.
Marius is the happy romantic ingenue role. He has his redeeming qualities; his loyalty, he’s thoughtful, and he’s smitten by love, of course. Everyone sort of disregards Marius and they think “Aww, but who cares?” because they think he just sings all the sappy love songs. But there’s so much more than that. He’s never even taken an interest in a girl before but then suddenly he meets Cosette and his whole world just changes.
I just love the music that he has; I really love it. Some shows you like the part but you don’t necessarily like the songs that you have to sing as the character and you struggle a little bit with singing those parts – but not with this, not with Marius. I get it, I like it, and I connect with it.
Is Les Misèrables the dream show for you? Is Marius the dream role for you?
Les Mis has always been the dream show for me. I never had a set role in mind when it came to it but just to be in this show…you know growing up everyone listens to it, and as a singer—I don’t know singers that don’t want to do this show. It’s one of the big singer shows, like Sweeney, Into the Woods, and Les Mis. Those are the three big dream shows, and now I can say I’ve been in two of three—I did Anthony in Sweeney a few years ago and now I’m doing Marius for Les Mis. Everyone wants to be in Les Mis. And if you sing at all you really want it.
Marius was not the dream role. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good role, and I am very lucky that I get to play him. He is definitely a role in the past that I have throught about playing but I’m not sure that I would put him on the “dream role” list. But he is definitely up there. Sometimes I had seen Les Mis, and I would think— I’m not really sure where I’d put myself.
As far as dream roles go, I mean—any role from Into the Woods…what else at this point? I have to be honest, I’ve been very lucky to do a lot of roles that I’ve always wanted to do. If you’re lucky enough to get a job then take it. I’m not going to audition for a show if I’m not going to take the role that they offer. I’ve been very fortunate up to this point in my life.
When I got to play Leo in The Producers I was really happy. It was something that I’d always wanted to do, and then I got to do Anthony in Sweeney like I said. And I got to do Bobby Child in Crazy For You for year-long runs both times that I did the role. I absolutely love that show, I really really do, and I knew I had to be in it at some point, and loved that I had that opportunity twice! I mean, just to be in that show—I love it!
I really just try to take roles as they come, I don’t want to get my hopes up too high and then get crushed, so I just take them as they come and I’m pretty happy with it.
Do you find it challenging to play a much younger character?
It really isn’t difficult because it hasn’t been that long since I was that age. I tend to be cast in the same type of roles a lot – the younger lovesick ingenue roles, though I am starting to get into more of the character-y roles. And eventually you have to move onto the more character-y roles, plus they’re more fun. Once you’ve played a lovesick ingenue for a long stretch of time it just isn’t as challenging anymore. I mean it’s still great fun, but it’s not as challenging.
When I was younger it was all dancing. Dancing, dancing, dancing. And then there was some singing and then the ingenue roles came along. I got cast a lot because I was singer who moved very well. Back in the day, you know Larry [Munsey] and I did Ziegfeld: A Night at the Follies together at a casino in Atlantic City. We basically grew up as dancers together and now we’re doing Les Mis together. It was the first show that I really got to do with Larry. We were out on tour together. It was great. Good times. And we’re still having them.
What is it that causes Marius to make the decision between Cosette and fighting at the Barricade after sitting on the proverbial fence for so long?
I think he falls under the pressure of his friends. He started this thing, the barricade fighting thing, and now he needs to finish it, even though he spent this one night with Cosette. You know it’s like that Hollywood moment from the romance pictures where you see the girl you fall in love and in the next scene they’re married? It’s like that for him with her – so that splits him between what he’s started and what he’s now found.
Even in “One Day More” he’s still struggling with it. He even says, “Do I follow where she goes?” and then “Do I join my brothers there?” he doesn’t know. But then she’s sort of going away to England, so I think that helps make the decision for him.
What has been the most vocally challenging thing for you?
Being vocally consistent. This is an extremely…well it’s a much more different score than I had ever anticipated, especially when working with Chris Youstra because he will tell you specifically, “You need to watch this note, you need to watch your rhythms.”
And there are some rhythms that are just really really tricky. Other than “Kiss Me” from Sweeney Todd, the bits in the second act are the songs that I have done the most solo personal rehearsals with ever. There are just little bits here and there that when I first heard them and even now I’m still sort of like, “I didn’t know that was there.” And then with “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” it’s tricky and I didn’t think it was going to be that tough. You know, Toby said to me, “It would be beautiful to sound like the cast recording but I need more from you.” And that was hard to hear but it was really helpful. I’d rather have the truth from her and I trust her and really appreciate her guidance. She doesn’t sugar coat things; she’s very honest.
Not everything you do as a performer is going to be wonderful. Not everything you think is good is actually as good as you think it is, and it’s actually when you think that something was pretty amazing, that’s usually when it wasn’t as great as you think. So having her around to keep us focused with what sounds good, because of how open and honest she is with us. It’s a really great experience.
What is the moment in the epic of Les Mis that moves you every night, that really touches your heart to see and hear?
I think it’s Eponine’s death – number one. And then “Bring Him Home” is number two. Because it’s beautiful. They’re both beautiful. But “Bring Him Home” just the way the song is—no matter who’s doing it, whether it’s Dan or Greg. They both give different interpretations, and they have two different voices and two very different ways of delivering the song – but it’s still perfect either way. The song is just so perfectly written; it’s simply beautiful.
Eponine’s death really gets to me because…well Marius is selfish when it comes to her. He doesn’t use her, persay, but he’s selfish. Here he has her running all around for him: “Help me meet this girl, take this letter to her, I can’t live without her”…and then suddenly Eponine’s dying, and dying in his arms and he’s like “Whoops, I’m a dick.” And that’s really striking for me.
And it’s interesting because in the book it says that as she’s dying in his arms all she asks him for is for him to kiss her on the forehead after she dies. And I’ve done that from the very start, from the very first day that we started blocking in rehearsals, but the crazy thing is that I hadn’t read that bit in the book yet. So I just find it very interesting that I was doing that for her, not knowing that’s what her character actually wanted.
Do you have a favorite song that you sing or a favorite moment that you’re in? Or a favorite that you don’t sing and aren’t in?
Hmm…my favorite song— well it’s not a song but a scene…and no Marius in the history of Mariuses in Les Mis will ever say this, but it’s actually the whole wedding scene. And I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I don’t sing in the beginning of it. Katie and I always jokingly say we’re going to fire all of our wedding singers, but honestly, I love the whole scene, I just enjoy all of it. Oh, and “Empty Chairs” as well. I do enjoy “A Heart Full of Love” even though Youstra hates it, and he can hate it all he wants. I love it.
I like the whole barricade sequence as well. When I was reading the book, the bits about Marius because I didn’t read the whole book, I was trying to figure out what kind of injury do I have. Because in the book it says that Marius has several head wounds and a shot to the collarbone. And reading through that I was like “I don’t think I can make that work” so it became an injured leg and a shot to the chest because in thinking about how to make that work I was just like “in that day and age I don’t honestly think he would have survived all through the sewers with head wounds.” Leg wounds and chest wounds are much more survivable.
The song that I’d like to sing is “Bring Him Home.” No! No no no no no! That’s a lie! It’s actually “I Dreamed A Dream.” And just the whole Fantine sequence. I actually sing it all the time backstage and Janine, who plays Fantine, is like, “What are you doing?” So scratch out “Bring Him Home” because it’s totally “I Dreamed A Dream.”
Who would you want to be in the show if you could cast yourself?
If I could sing it, I’d be Jean Valjean. It’s a very, very high role, at the top of my range. I could maybe do it twice a week. My voice teacher once said to me that no baritone/tenor should ever sing before 3:00 pm, and I agree.
You have to have a specific vocal quality and vocal stamina for Jean Valjean, and I don’t have it but I say, “Hallelujah” to those that do. It’s physically impossible to do it eight shows a week. Even on Broadway and in the tours they have the stand-ins who pick up a show or two throughout the week. I mean, I could do it twice a week…if I’m in a really good vocal space.
The role is strong and sympathetic. I mean – who doesn’t want to be Jean Valjean? I might consider being Javert because it’s completely opposite of my cast type, but mostly I think, just Jean Valjean.
What’s it been like working with Katie Grace Heidbreder and MaryKate Brouillet as your two leading ladies in this production?
Oh they’re both really great! It’s really great working with Katie as Cosette because we’re just naturally comfortable with each other. We’ve worked together before, and not too long ago in Fiddler, we played love interests then too. But even if we hadn’t worked together, there are just some people that you naturally bond with when you work with them, that you naturally click with, and Katie is just one of those people. It was sort of like when I used to do roles with Jess Ball; I always felt very comfortable and natural with her. I feel the same with Katie. There’s no real work to be done to make us work together on stage, which is nice.
MaryKate is pretty amazing too. I’ve worked with her before but I’ve never worked one-on-one with her like I am in this show. And they both have amazing voices and sing so well in this show. I’m really very lucky to work with them both.
Why do you want people to come and see Toby’s production of Les Mis?
Because this is Les Mis like it’s never been done before. Because it’s not a carbon copy of the Broadway production or the touring version. It’s intimate, it’s in-the- round and the audience feels like more of a part of the story. I don’t think it’s ever been done in the round before. Many other productions of this show has used the turntable, and with the turntable you just don’t get the closeness that you get with the way we’ve set it up. I am pretty sure this is the first time it’s been done in-the- round, and it’s pretty amazing that we’re doing it that way.
Read the review of Les Misèrables on DCMetroTheaterArts.
Be sure to check out the ongoing interview series:
Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 2—An interview with Musical Director Christopher Youstra.
Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 3—An interview with The Lovely Ladies of the Ensemble.
Behind the Barricade at Toby’s: Part 4—An interview with Ben Lurye (Enjolras).