Part 6 of ‘Monty Python’s ‘Spamalot’ at Toby’s: The Series of Interviews That Goes On and On’: Actors Larry Munsey and Jeffrey Shankle

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Galloping into the home stretch with the grail in sight is Arthur, King of the Britains, astride his trusty steed Patsy! In the final segment of the six-piece interview series that “…goes on and on and on…” I sit down with Toby’s veterans Lawrence B. Munsey and Jeffrey Shankle to hear their experiences in Camelot, with the Knights of the Round Table and what it was like to be questing for the grail from the get go.

Lawrence B. Munsey and Jeffrey Shankle. Photo by Amanda Gunther.
Lawrence B. Munsey and Jeffrey Shankle. Photo by Amanda Gunther.

Welcome back, both of you, I feel like we just did one of these not too long ago for Les Mis. Let’s start where we always do, backtracking our readers to keep track of where you’ve both been these last few shows

Jeffrey Shankle: Hot Nostalgia, Fiddler, Miracle on 34th Street, and now this. Oh and Les Mis, I forgot Les Mis. That was after Fiddler and before Miracle. Fietka for Fiddler, Marius in Mis and Fred Gaily for Miracle. Now I’m playing Patsy.

Lawrence B. Munsey: I Directed In The Heights, I did Javert in Les Mis, and then Mr. Macy in Miracle on 34th Street, and now King Arthur in Spamalot.

What was the general appeal, or perhaps previous involvement with Spamalot, that made you both want to be involved with the production at Toby’s?

Larry: Well I did the National Tour—

Jeffrey: No you did not. You’ve done many national tours, but not that one. I did the national tour in 2010 for a year. I had to leave the tour because I got injured. I was ensemble and I understudied Sir Robin, all the things that Darren McDonnell does. In every show it’s a little different but I learned to cover all of the things on that Sir Robin did on the tour. My injury had happened towards the end of the tour and I knew I wasn’t going to be coming back because I wouldn’t have been healed in time, but I said “I’ll get to do it again,” and had this in mind.

Larry: Having not actually done the national tour, I took interest because it was a job, kind of. I honestly wasn’t really dying to do this show. I even said, “If I get it, I get it, if I don’t, then it’s just not supposed to happen.” That said, I did not realize how much I would LOVE doing this show. I don’t like Monty Python. I’ve never thought it was a hysterical thing.

Jeffrey: I’ll tell you, when I saw the movie before I auditioned for the tour, I didn’t think it was that great either. I thought it was funny, but not that funny. I think— and oh my god, the Monty Python people are going to think I’m crazy— but I just think that the stage musical is funnier than regular old Monty Python movie, to me. I just don’t appreciate the movie the way the other people do, I like it, it’s just not funny for me.

Larry: You know what I’m surprised about? I believe the writers of the musical did an amazing job with staying true to Monty Python yet for those people who don’t like Monty Python or who may not have seen it because there are a large number of people who have not seen it all, the writers make it so that they can enjoy the show. You don’t have to like Monty Python to have fun with this show. I think it’s a kudos to the writers that they were able to create a show that toes this fine line and succeeds. Because Monty Python and The Holy Grail is a well known show and you could easily piss a lot of people off, but they succeed so well in making it appease everyone.

Jeffrey: It’s good for both, good for the fans, and good for those unfamiliar with it. It’s great for musical theatre lovers.

Well that handles the next question of why is it good for Python fans and non-Python fans, you fellas are one step ahead of me! Let’s get onto the next question then. When you both auditioned did you have a role in mind that you were looking to go out for, maybe Sir Robin for you, Jeffrey, since that’s who you understudied on the tour?

Jeffrey: I was also assisting Mark Minnick, the director, so I sort of knew the inside track. This is the truth: in my head I thought I’ll play Sir Robin, probably, because I know it, and that’s probably what I’ll be. And then the way the casting came down, Mark said he thought it would be better for the show if I were Patsy and Darren McDonnell was Sir Robin. And I said “Great! That’s fine with me!” I wasn’t married to any particular role, I just wanted to do the show again. Not ensemble because I’d done that already, I wanted to do something different. I was completely fine with it and that is the truth.

Larry: I really didn’t know which direction Mark was going to take the casting. And I’ve done a lot of the Chris Sieber roles in my career, so I thought maybe Galahad if Mark was going with an older cast, but I really didn’t know how he was going to do it. It was either going to be that or King Arthur or nothing. And that’s not me saying that to sound conceited it’s just those are the places that I would fit in with this show. I really didn’t think I had got it. When you do an audition with Mark you don’t see the other people you’re up against.

Jeffrey: Toby tends to have everyone in the room for the auditions so you can judge and be judged but Mark doesn’t like that. He wants to see what everyone can do on their own and he also doesn’t want people stealing other people’s ideas. I think that helps single out what’s best for the show in that respect.

What was it like getting to work with Mark Minnick for this project given his intimate history with Spamalot?

Jeffrey: I know this show as well as Mark, because of going through the entire rehearsal process from starting the tour until now, and I would say sometimes I even know it in places a little bit better than he does. I know all the little ins and outs, what characters could play what roles, that sort of thing. I was supposed to play The Mayor in the opening sequence. You know in the Broadway production Patsy played The Mayor, and for the life of me I cannot figure out how he possibly made that costume change. And once we sat down and got closer to tech, I realized “there’s no way I’m going to be able to make this costume change!” I had to go to Mark after all my costume fittings and say “I’ll never be able to make this.” I couldn’t layer it under the Mayor costume, my Patsy stuff would never have fit under that.

But I know the show very, very well. I sat through countless hours of notes on tour. If I had a dollar for every hour I spent on tour in a notes session I would be a very rich person, I wouldn’t have to wait tables. We had to listen to every single note in every single thing so I knew exactly what happened where and when. And of course Mark knows it just as well, so I knew what I was getting myself into.

Mark is an incredibly involved Director. He mostly turns off the creative stuff when we get home, although sometimes he’ll ask  me if I thought this or that worked and I’ll give him my opinion.

Larry: He turns it off for you but I’ll get a text an hour after rehearsal with notes and questions.

Jeffrey: He does do that. He’ll start thinking about something and say that he has to text Larry or he has to text Darren while he’s thinking about it, or Priscilla, all of them. He would want to text them as soon as he’d thought about something so he wouldn’t forget it and to get them really thinking about it before the next rehearsal or the next show. He knows them all so well and he knows they trust him as a director so he feels comfortable in getting those ideas out there.

Lawrence B. Munsey (King Arthur) and Jeffrey Shankle (Patsy). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
Lawrence B. Munsey (King Arthur) and Jeffrey Shankle (Patsy). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Larry: I found working with him, having worked with him before, to be an extreme pleasure. He is very focused. He knows what he wants. All he wants to do is make you better. Even when he thinks you’re good, he wants you to be better. And he wants you to be better for you, not just because he wants the show to be better. He’s very much an actor’s director. Now, that being said, he’s a pain in the ass because he has such a clear cut vision and there are really tight reigns on it. You have to learn how to make things work within those very tight confines of what his vision is.

Jeffrey: There’s not a lot of wiggle room, is what I think he’s trying to say. There is some wiggle room but this show is designed to be specific with its comedy, with its follow-through and Mark has a very clear idea of how that works, as well as what works and what doesn’t.

Larry: There are lines that have to be read a certain way in order for them to land a joke, there are certain things that have to happen a certain way to make the show work the way it is supposed to, and I think Mark does an excellent job of keeping everyone on track and focused on making sure those things happen.

Jeffrey: You don’t want to hear my version of a Monty Python line; I promise it’s not funny! There are just certain things— like the “flesh wound” line that have to be delivered a certain way. The biggest thing, and I learned this on the tour too, but everything has to be simply spoken naturally. You just need to talk to each other. If you’re starting to say a line and ‘act’ it, then it’s not funny. The lines are funny because the dialogue is funny not because we’re acting to make them funny. We’re not funny, the dialogue is funny.

Larry: Mark has pounded that in to our heads time and time again.

Jeffrey: Stop mugging, stop adding your crap, it’s written perfectly. I mean people are going to add little things here and there because you have to make it your own, but this is not a good ad-lib show. If you start ad-libbing, it just becomes a mess.

Larry: I’ve never added a word. If you start ad-libbing, you’re not trusting in yourself to be able to do something and trust in its being funny.

Jeffrey: I think people started realizing that, though, once they got audiences and once the laughs were there. Places where they weren’t anticipating a laugh were suddenly getting laughs, and of course the opposite as well where we’re expecting a laugh but nothing happens.

Larry: Sometimes there isn’t a laugh where you think one should be. And you just go on. It’s not the end of the world.

Jeffrey: Not everything is going to get a laugh every night. It’s live theatre, the audience changes every night. The whole feel of the audience changes from show to show.We could have the greatest audience one night and the worst audience the next day and you wonder what happened to that audience, but that doesn’t make the material any less funny, and it doesn’t mean you should start trying to be funny with it. The whole show works best when we just work it honestly.

Larry: We’ve been doing this show for ages now, and I’m still getting notes from Mark about how to improve. I looked at those three notes, put them in and they worked beautifully. I felt the difference in my performance, and I actually wrote Mark a letter thanking him for those notes. I thanked him for being on it, for being invested in this show even though we’re about to close, and for caring about making me better. He is dedicated and he will not accept second best. A lot of people will just say “that’s the best they can do.” But he is always looking for ways to help improve what we’re doing. He will not accept second best, everybody can always be better.

Jeffrey: Once a show opens that doesn’t mean it’s ready. Even three months later, especially with a show like this that has to be maintained. If it’s not maintained it’s a circus and not of the good flying variety.

Larry: And it’s not that you’re fooling around or anything but as the show goes on things can slip into a different more casual rhythm. And this sort of show can never be casual. And he makes sure we stay on our game.

This is a big Broadway-style musical with lots of show-stopping numbers and a lot of dancing, sp as having a strong dance background helpful for this show? I guess this is more for Jeffrey since you don’t really dance in this one, Larry.

Larry: My seven years training at Bolshoi reflects greatly here.

Jeffrey: Oh God…

Larry: I do dance! I have the cleanest tap sound in this whole show!

Let me rephrase. Jeffrey, what’s it like dancing two parts?

Jeffrey: Two parts? Oh you mean the coconuts! It’s a funny bit.

Larry: It’s hysterical.

Does it bother you as a trained dancer that you don’t actually get to dance?

No! I love it. As a dancer, it actually makes me laugh hysterically. Do you know how many years I’ve had to do the actual dancing part of it and now to be able to just stand there while Jeffrey bangs coconuts and I shake my leg? That is glorious! Oh it’s like paying back every little bunion, ingrown toenail, and blister gained in my dancing career! It’s fantastic!

Jeffrey you get to do a lot of dancing, so is it different or more challenging than what you’ve done before?

Jeffrey: It’s totally different choreography. There’s the flavor of the original but it’s not step-by-step copied at all. You can’t do a show in the round with proscenium choreography. I mean, you can try to but it just doesn’t work. You have to adapt the routines to the people you have, first of all, and to the round second of all. And that’s what we’re doing. Same ideas, different follow through.

In that vein, what are some of the challenges that you guys are handling in regards to taking a show that was written for the proscenium stage and staging it in the round?

Larry: For me, it shouldn’t change anything. Like with the black knight, his costume wasn’t always to the back of the stage the whole time, he moves around and fights Arthur, he did turn and he turned down stage. The costume works perfectly in our space, you don’t see how it’s rigged, I think we handle that really well. The Lady of the Lake we were a little concerned because when she comes out in her armor during Camelot that costume is only armor on the front half. But Mark staged it in such a way that you’d never notice.

I think it’s as simple as this: we are always in a Broadway show. So people don’t think that I’m actually cutting his arms off. They know that it’s some kind of gimmick so if they see something off-color, they’re not getting all disappointed over it. It’s not realism; it’s not supposed to be realism. There isn’t blood spurting out, it’s fabric coming out!

Jeffrey: We’ve all been doing shows in the round for so long that I think it really just comes naturally to a lot of us. And Mark really knows how to work and choreograph in this space and knew what would work and what wouldn’t.

Is there a moment in the show that you’re in or maybe you aren’t in that makes you laugh every night?

Jeffrey: Me personally? I think it’s the “Christian line.” That usually is pretty consistent.

Larry: I think it’s the way that the king plays that line that really makes it land.

Jeffrey: I’m changing my answer. I think it’s “I’m All Alone.” I think the reactions in that songs are pretty hilarious.

Larry: Again, that’s my song. And how the king plays it. No, seriously, the reason that song works is because it’s all honest.

Jeffrey: Absolutely, we’re both being honest in that scene.

Larry: Neither one of us is mugging.

Jeffrey: You can’t mug in that number.

Larry: We’re playing it honest. I’m singing a ballad and I’m meaning every word of it and I don’t even see him there.

Jeffrey: It has to be played that way or it just doesn’t work.

Larry: This whole thing has to be taken from an honest approach. Not just that number but the whole show, you can’t just treat this show like slapstick, and I think a lot of people have that notion in mind when they think of Spamalot, but it’s not. It comes across that way because we play it honestly. It does have a Vaudeville feel to it in the sense that these are different skits. Each skit has its own joke.

Jeffrey: Each skit has one joke.

Larry: Like the French Taunter. He has an outrageous French accent. And that’s the joke and you spin 20 minutes on it.

Jeffrey: Like once Fred says, “I’m not dead yet,” the joke is done. But then you have two more minutes to have to try and make that carry. And we make that work by being honest with the material and honest with each other.

Larry: Getting back to the original question, which was what?

What is the moment that always makes you laugh?

Larry: I have to say, I’m surprised by so many moments…I don’t find it funny in general but there are times where things happen and things just make me laugh. I love the line about “what are you looking for?” “I’m looking for men.” “I had a feeling.” That exchange between Darren and me at the top of the show. We actually delivered that bit a few shows ago and there was not a sound from the audience, no one breathed. And Darren actually told me that it almost threw him off, and I had to admit it almost threw me too! But that’s when you have to be able to plow forward and keep going because not everything is going to get a laugh. And otherwise you’ll have a big awkward silence on stage, and we didn’t, but you never want to have to worry that you will, so you just keep going with it and the laughs will come.

You know what? I’ve got it. It’s the thing I never thought would land. It’s the line during the end of the peasant speech about the crazy old man that rides his bike up and down Broken Land Parkway shouting at the cars.

Jeffrey: You’re welcome. I came up with that. Mark said we had to come up with something that’s local that people would relate to. I had no idea what was local or funny about Columbia. And then I said “that crazy guy who rides up and down that one road screaming at people.” And Mark even said “No one is going to know who that is.” But I am telling you, it gets laughs every single night. So, you’re welcome.

Top Left- King Arthur (Lawrence B. Munsey) Patsy (Jeffrey Shankle) The Lady of the Lake (Priscilla Cuellar) and the Knights of the Round Table. Top Right- King Arthur (Lawrence B. Munsey), Patsy (Jeffrey Shankle), and the Knights of the Round Table. Bottom Left and Right- King Arthur (Lawrence B. Munsey), and Patsy (Jeffrey Shankle). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
Top Left- King Arthur (Lawrence B. Munsey) Patsy (Jeffrey Shankle) The Lady of the Lake (Priscilla Cuellar) and the Knights of the Round Table. Top Right- King Arthur (Lawrence B. Munsey), Patsy (Jeffrey Shankle), and the Knights of the Round Table. Bottom Left and Right- King Arthur (Lawrence B. Munsey), and Patsy (Jeffrey Shankle). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Larry: I had major fear over that line because I really didn’t think it was going to land. That and Martin O’Malley. I didn’t realize how many people hate him.

Jeffrey: I didn’t either. Because Mark asked me who was the Mayor of Columbia and I had no idea, so I just told him to use the Governor. And it’s shocking how funny that is to the audience.

Larry: I’ve actually had audience members shaking their fists at that ones. And I’ve tweaked the Ravens’ line too. It started out with “Last year’s Super Bowl Champions, the Baltimore Ravens, better luck next year, kids.” But I streamlined it to “Baltimore Ravens” and it works better. That used to be the worst part of the show for me, the anxiety was crazy. When you’re inviting someone else into your story, because we pull an audience member up on stage at that point, that story that you’ve rehearsed, you don’t know how it’s going to go.

Jeffrey: You invite the public into the bubble and hold on for dear life.

Larry: You really don’t know what you’re going to do that. I hated that part of the show. I am a consistent little person; I want everything exactly like it’s supposed to be. But now that we’ve worked out the lines for that bit it makes me feel more comfortable with it, and the audience really laughs through it.

Jeffrey you really only have the one character of Patsy, but we do get to see you briefly as a guard at Prince Herbert’s wedding, what’s that like?

Jeffrey: I love doing that scene. Robin did that scene when I was on tour and Patsy was the silent guard, Robin had all the lines. I really do enjoy it. It was hard to learn though, when I first started memorizing it I was like “What is this?”

Larry: That’s classic Abbott and Costello. It’s one of the hardest routines to do. It’s written modeled on that and it’s really difficult to get through, the timing has to be impeccable.

Jeffrey: If you don’t have the timing just right it’s a complete bomb. And you will sit there and try to figure out what’s going on and it can quickly become a disaster. You can never miss a bit. Now that I’ve found the rhythm to it, I love it and I’m glad I get to do it.

Larry: I enjoy that bit. I sit back and I listen to it during my off-stage moment.

You, Larry, are the only person in the show that does not have a single character change throughout the whole production. What is that like for you?

Larry: I am like a seven-layer bean dip, hello??

Jeffrey: Oh lord…here we go again…

Larry: There are many layers to the king. Seriously though, I love getting to have just the one character. It’s really fantastic. When someone comes up to me after the show or at intermission and they say “you’re so funny” it throws me. I say to them, “I’m not funny at all.” Jeffrey and I are the straight men to this and all the funny happens around us. Maybe our not reacting to the funny is what’s funny but we’re not the funny. I do get to break out and have a little fun at the end with the dancing at the wedding.

Jeffrey, you have the one big song, and that’s really it for your singing in this show, so what is it like just being Patsy?

Jeffrey: You know, I don’t even get that one song? You gave me a nice review of that song, but every other review actually said it was Larry’s number. And guess what—

Larry: It is.

Jeffrey: It is Patsy’s number! Not King Arthur’s number. That’s my one moment to smile and dance and sing—

Larry: King Arthur lands that number.

Jeffrey: Oh good god.

What’s the biggest struggle for Patsy?

Larry: That backpack.

Jeffrey: One day I’ll get to answer my own questions. He’s right, though. It’s the backpack. Everyone will look at it and say “Is it stuffed or Styrofoam?” And I’m telling you all right now, no. It is heavy! It’s like 50 pounds—

Larry: Ok, first of all, it is a lot of Styrofoam.

Jeffrey: It’s heavy Styrofoam!

Larry: There are two backpacks. The one that he carries around all the time. It’s not extremely heavy, but if you carry it around for two hours on your back and it will be heavy. It is made of lightweight material but it is absolutely a struggle, I’m glad I don’t have to carry it. The other one is padded for the cow. But it’s also heavy.

Jeffrey: I think it weighs 40 pounds, the regular backpack. It doesn’t feel like it’s 40 pounds when I initially put it on my back, but after carrying it around the whole show, it does feel heavy. I think we’re going to have to weigh it and find out. I’m guessing 40 pounds.

Larry: I’m guessing 30 pounds. Let’s weigh it. At the end of the run we’ll let you know who was right.

Jeffrey: Is there a prize if I’m right?

You get a can of spam, whoever is closer. And if it’s over 40 pounds I’m keeping the can of spam. Are the coconuts as difficult as the backpack? Were they difficult to learn?

Jeffery: It’s not difficult to learn them, but it is difficult to do them sometimes. If you don’t have them placed exactly right in the middle of your hands you will get your fingertips caught as you’re smacking them together. Or they will fall out of your hands.

Larry: That was Mark’s constant note to Jeffrey. That he had to keep up the rhythm of the coconuts.

Jeffrey: But my fingers kept getting caught in them! I was literally cramming my fingertips between them every single time. They were in my hands wrong, but once I figured out how to master it, I got it. No more broken fingertips!

You, Larry, got to do a lot of work with Priscilla Cuellar as the Lady of the Lake, what was that like?

Larry: She is absolutely delectable. She’s someone to savor. She really is a gem. She’s a hard worker, she’s funny, she’s professional, and I can’t say enough good things about her. She’s a joy to work with. I really can’t find enough positive things to say about her.

Have either of you ever eaten Spam?

Larry: Absolutely!

Jeffrey: I’ve had it. I don’t really remember though. I had it when I was little. I think it was fine.

Larry: My mother-in-law, my ex-wife’s mother, used to take spam and she would slice it and put mustard and brown sugar together and coat it and bake it. And it was so— and let it be known that I’m singing this next word—DELICIOUS!!!

Jeffrey: What’s it made of?

Larry: Ham? You know, it really needs to be on the buffet. You could easily replace the bow-tie pasta with mac-n-cheese and spam. It needs to be there. That’s a no brainer and it’s a missed opportunity.

Why see this production of Spamalot at Toby’s?

Larry: You’re not getting anything live if you just sit at home and watch clips of the show online. Comedy should be done live. Comedy has a heartbeat to it and its timing and if you’re not part of that then you’re not feeling that rhythm so it doesn’t land the same way. It’s just much funnier if you are there to see it in person. It’s the heartbeat and rhythm it is something you have to feel. That’s why you should go.

Jeffrey: I agree.

Larry: And of course the intimacy. We say it in every God-blessed interview, the intimacy of Toby’s brings nuances to a show that you won’t get at a bigger venue. You could see a show a dozen times somewhere else but you’ll see something newer, closer, more personal when you see it at Toby’s. Mark even said “I can’t wait to see these costumes on a smaller stage where you can really see the detail that’s in them.” And he’s right, up on a big stage they look beautiful, but you can really see the detail in these beautiful wonderful costumes. It’s just such a wonderful chance to see things up close.

SpamPromo (1)

Spamalot plays through March 23, 2014 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre— 5900 Symphony Woods Road, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call (301) 596-6161, or purchase them online.

LINKS

Click here to read the review for Spamalot.

Click here to read Part 1 of The Interview Series that Goes On and On and On with Director Mark Minnick.

Click here to read Part 2 of The Interview Series that Goes On and On and On with actor Darren McDonnell as Brave Sir Robin.

Click here to read Part 3 of The Interview Series that Goes On and On and On with actor Nick Lehan as the Dashingly Handsome Sir Galahad.

Click here to read Part 4 of The Interview Series that Goes On and On and On with actors David James and David Jennings as The Character Man and Sir Lancelot.

Click here to read Part 5 of The Interview Series that Goes On and On and On with actress Priscilla Cuellar as Lady of the Lake.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.