In McCoy Rigby Entertainment’s production of 1776, director Glenn Casale cast a mix of veteran stage performers with younger newcomers. The result blends beautifully in the musical comedy that combines comedic flourishes with tense political drama. Veteran performer Nick Santa Maria was cast as the wise-cracking president of the Continental Congress, Massachusetts’ John Hancock while Jordan Schneider plays Dr. Lyman Hall of Georgia, who arrives at the Congress just as the American colonies are preparing to vote on a resolution to declare independence from Great Britain. Santa Maria was last seen in Ventura County playing Pseudolus, one of his favorite roles, in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for Cabrillo Music Theatre. Schneider grew up in the Conejo Valley and acted in many shows, including Avenue Q and Spring Awakening. He is a recent graduate from Chapman University in Orange. For both Santa Maria and Schneider, performing in this classic musical is a heady experience. We chatted with both after a recent matinee performance at the La Mirada Theatre For the Performing Arts.
VCOS: So I have Nick and Jordan here to talk about 1776.
NICK: Marked down from 1800.
VCOS: A Walmart special. My first question for both of you: when you audition for an ensemble piece like this – which is what it is basically, except for the leads – do you get placed by the director or did you go for a particular character?
JORDAN: Going into this process, since I’m a very young actor and going into a company such as McCoy Rigby, I really didn’t have any ideas in going for any specific roles, I just wanted to get into the show, because actors gotta work. And I was just fortunate enough to get into the room. But I went in to audition for the Courier but Glenn actually called me back for the Leather Apron, which is a good part, but it’s really one of the smaller roles in the show. But even so, I said, great, I’ll do anything. I’ll take it, just to be working with a reputable theater company this early in my career has just been really great.
VCOS: They didn’t seem to care about age, did they?
JORDAN: What’s interesting about this is that my character, Dr. Lyman Hall, is supposed to be around 55 years old, whereas James Barbour, who is in his 50s, is playing Edward Rutledge, who was around 22. So I guess the age thing was really up to Glenn.
NICK: He just had a picture in his head of what he wanted, and it didn’t matter, as long as you provided the right approach.
VCOS: What about you, Nick?
NICK: Mine is kind of a different story. I auditioned for Glenn and the panel for the Sacramento Music Circus for Singing in the Rain. And it was one of the most successful auditions I’ve ever had. Glenn literally fell off his chair, laughing. And when I saw him again after I got the role, he approached me and said, “You know, we’re doing 1776. Why don’t you come audition?” And I kind of went, “yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.” I never saw the show, I never wanted to see the show, I never saw the movie, I never heard any of the music, it just didn’t appeal to me. When I was a kid, I used to see the commercials for the movie and there was Howard Da Silva as Ben Franklin, dancing around in the meadow and I thought, “Get out of here with this stuff!” So I never even thought about it. Then I did a staged reading that Glenn was invited to, so we were kind of reunited and he said, “You have to come. I want you to come.” So he got me in on the callback for Hancock or Bartlett. So I learned both audition parts and I never got to Bartlett. I did one read of Hancock and everybody laughed because he does all this business with the fly that he’s trying to swat, and the fly gets away and I got the call that day.
VCOS: It’s funny how the president of the Continental Congress gets so many of the laugh lines.
NICK: Glenn told me he wanted someone funny in that role because the show could get very dry. He’s full of all of the procedural jargon, which isn’t very colorful, so he wanted someone who could sell the laughs.
VCOS: I don’t know very many shows where a minor character – and I’m speaking of Rutledge – gets one huge song that brings the house down, “Molasses to Rum,” and they are able to get a huge actor to play him. That was James Barbour. Is this a really coveted part for actors?
NICK: I would think so. That song that he does is so incredible and so powerful, you need someone to sell it. And in order to sell it you have to have someone powerful like Jim. And I can’t think of anyone better than him to do that. I sit there every night with my chin on the table, going “Holy crap! This guy is amazing.”
VCOS: And for the rest of the show, he’s sitting there on stage with his back to everyone else, and it looks like he’s doing his homework.
NICK: Yeah, he’s doing crossword puzzles. But yeah, he doesn’t have much to do in the show except for that moment when he puts the show in his pocket.
VCOS: Jordan, what did you learn from the senior members of the cast?
NICK: I resent that.
JORDAN: Oh, my God. It’s just been incredible because this has probably been the greatest master class I’ve ever been a part of, honestly. Because in college, there is only so much you get to do. I mean, you have your classes and you act in your classes with your fellow college students and you can learn only so much from your teachers. But when you see professionals do it, it’s incredible. And for much of the show, I’m just sitting and watching everyone do their thing and it’s really been a huge lesson in being able to listen and genuinely react, commune, and engage with my fellow actors.
NICK: As you know, acting is 90% listening, and I’m getting a lesson in that myself. I’m sitting back there in scenes where I don’t have dialog and I have to follow it so closely or else I’ll miss my next line.
VCOS: You have pages and pages without a line so you have to be doing something.
NICK: Well, listening is the thing to do.
VCOS: Are you able to do any business?
NICK: I wet myself once. (laughs) No, but what I do, I just follow the action and I do it honestly. I take it to heart. So it’s a lesson for me too, every night.
JORDAN: Overall, the whole show is all about listening and being able to engage in the thought process of hearing what people are saying to you. We’re all in the Congress and we’re all having thoughts about what’s being said and so it’s all about being active and being present. Glenn was saying that if one of us zonks out and gets bored, we lose the audience. So you have to be able to be engaged.
VCOS: You can use that for your characters as well because in order to come to this compromise, they have to be able to listen to each other and comprehend the other sides’ views.
NICK: Exactly. This is a show about listening.
VCOS: And the weakest listener in the show is probably John Adams.
NICK: And the most obnoxious and inflexible. But you know, Mr. Dickinson was just as inflexible, so they were good adversaries. But he’s wonderful, isn’t he? Michael Stone Forrest. I really like his performance.
VCOS: What did you two learn about history from the show?
NICK: I learned that I never want to wear a wig again (laughs). Ever. But seriously, I did a lot of research before we started and I found out a lot about my character. About John Hancock and how he related to all the other people. The reason I make Hancock sound a little imperious is because he was the wealthiest man in Massachusetts at the time. He became governor for 17 years and he was the elite.
VCOS: Yet he’s deferential to Adams who complained about people who owned property.
NICK: It turns out that Hancock’s mother passed away when he was a young boy and his father dropped him off with very wealthy relatives and these relatives were not capable of having their own children so they pretty much adopted John Hancock. Hancock inherited all of that wealth and took over a very successful shipping business and he was arrested by the British, who actually burned one of his best ships, for smuggling. What he was smuggling was stuff that they were taxing, inordinately. He was brought to trial, and do you know who his lawyer was? John Adams. And that’s how they got together and became friends. But Hancock was also connected with Adams’ cousin, Samuel Adams, who was kind of a renegade, and the two of them actually started getting the public to join the militia to fight the British and they both became wanted men. While this was going on, while the Second Continental Congress was deciding on independence, he was wanted in the state of Massachusetts. So it’s a very interesting story. So what about you? What did you find out about Dr. Lyman Hall?
JORDAN: What’s really interesting about Lyman Hall is that the script takes dramatic license with him. He was actually a minister in a small parish, a small sect of Georgia because the entire state was very pro-British. So his little parish sent him to the Continental Congress to vote for independence. For me, there wasn’t really any hesitancy on his part. So from what I found out, he was outside of the way Georgians were thinking back then. But in the show, he struggles between representing his people in going with what he thought was right. In real life, the real Lyman Hall was a true patriot and would have voted “yea” right away. He wasn’t bullied into voting with Rutledge and the rest of the south.
VCOS: When you compare 1776 with Hamilton, they are total opposites. Hamilton is basically sung through while 1776 has relatively fewer songs than an average musical. What other comparisons can you make about the two shows?
NICK: I’ve never seen Hamilton and to be honest with you, I’m not very interested. I’m not a fan of modern musical theater. I feel like melodies are a thing of the past, really great lyrics are a thing of the past, I’m more of a Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern guy. So I don’t particular relish sitting through an evening where Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr are singing rap to each other, it’s just not my thing. I’m just a kind of a purist.
JORDAN: It’s tough to compare the two because they’re so drastically different. To me, Hamilton is the story of American from today’s perspective and 1776 is more of a period piece. And they just appeal to different audiences. The great thing about Hamilton is that the use of rap and popular music gets kids engaged and it also comments on what’s going on in the world today. But 1776 does that well also.
NICK: Yes, it does resonate with today.
VCOS: Especially with how today’s Congress is struggling to settle with the shutdown. There has been no compromise, which is the lesson that 1776 teaches you.
1776 concludes its run in La Mirada Feburary 3 but moves to the Soraya Theater in Northridge from February 8-10.