“All the Way” actor Jerry Vogel on how to juggle eight characters in one show
Figuring out how many characters Jerry Vogel plays in All the Way requires some careful counting.
“I have four speaking roles,” says the man himself, before immediately reconsidering. “Well, actually five. But then I have three or four non-speaking roles…”
Eventually he settles on a fairly concrete number: eight characters, six with lines and two without. Even in a show that features more than 40 characters, requiring nearly every actor to play multiple parts, Vogel’s workload stands apart.
All the Way (by Robert Schenkkan, directed by Steven Woolf) centers its narrative around President Lyndon B. Johnson and his political gamesmanship, but it takes a full ensemble of 19 actors to flesh out all the chess pieces on the board. Vogel has a particularly interesting collection to play with, featuring a mixture of backgrounds and interests.
(From left to right):
Stanley Levison, advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. A liberal New Yorker and former Communist.
Seymore Trammel, advisor to Alabama Governor George Wallace.
Rep. John McCormack, Speaker of the House, Democrat from Massachusetts.
Rev. Edwin King (at left), organizer for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
That’s in addition to a reporter, a witness, an FBI agent and even a gravedigger. So how does he keep them all straight?
“You have to do your basic homework, as if each one of those characters were the only one you were playing.” Vogel says. “When you’re playing real characters, I always like to go back of course and do the research because you get all sorts of information.”
In so doing, he found out more about Levison’s unique political background, McCormack’s influence in the House of Representatives and King’s speaking style. And then there’s Seymore Trammel.
“There’s a great documentary about George Wallace that he does a lot of commentary on,” Vogel says, before launching into a thick Alabama drawl. “So I’m just doing an imitation of him, ‘cause you can’t do any better than the way he sounds.”
Vogel and the rest of our performers will use a mixture of costume changes, makeup and physical performance to differentiate their characters. With so many political figures appearing on stage, most of these characters only have a few lines to make an impact, so they have to be distinct and memorable right away.
“My challenge is that all of my characters are middle-aged white guys with glasses,” Vogel says. “It’s hard to differentiate within that range on stage. What I can do as an actor on a big Rep stage, even more than the physicality, is vocal.” As he describes each of his characters, he demonstrates their voices. “I go more into my bass for Levison, King is more soft-spoken and a little bit higher up. Trammel is Trammel. Through gritted teeth he’s talkin’ all the time. McCormack is Bostonian and he’s a little older.”
All of his characters will play a role in All the Way as LBJ pushes to pass sweeping civil rights reform and gain reelection.
“It’s such a great play, such a fascinating part of history,” Vogel says. “It reminds me in structure of the film Lincoln. They told the story of Lincoln in the movie by focusing on the passage of the 13th Amendment. This play tells LBJ’s story by focusing in on the Civil Rights Act and his reelection. It helps to narrow the time span because it’s so dense. Once you start breaking down into the minutiae of politics and how it’s made, it’s incredible. It’s usually pretty ugly, but it’s fascinating.”
LISTEN: Five real-life phone conversations that show how LBJ got things done
President Lyndon B. Johnson loved the telephone. He used it as a tool not just to communicate, but to intimidate, cajole or strategize with his political contemporaries.
Between 1963 and 1969, LBJ recorded some 800 hours of his phone conversations. These recordings aren’t just accessible via private archives: many of them are posted on YouTube for easy listening.
In anticipation of our 49th Season opener All the Way, premiering September 9, we’ve tracked down five conversations that illustrate how Johnson used simple phone calls to make seismic political events happen. After you listen, don’t forget to pick up your tickets for All the Way, a 2014 Tony Award winner and exhilarating piece of political drama.
January 5, 1965: JFK consults with MLK on voting rights
After the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, whose contentious passage is at the heart of All the Way, LBJ turned his attention to legally ensuring voting rights for all Americans. Listen as he emphasizes the importance of voting to Martin Luther King, Jr., who can be briefly heard in the video below.
November 29, 1963: LBJ badgers Sen. Richard Russell onto the Warren Commission
LBJ was not afraid to use his outsized Texas personality, hard-headed determination and encyclopedic knowledge of swear words to get what he wanted. Listen here as he leans heavily on Georgian Senator Richard Russell to join the Warren Commission investigating John F. Kennedy’s assassination, despite Russell’s ample misgivings and personal dislike of chairman Earl Warren. The fireworks really start about 4 minutes and 30 seconds in, as LBJ growls over Russell’s complaints: “You’re my man on that commission, and you’re gonna do it, and don’t tell me what you can do and what you can’t.”
The LBJ-Russell relationship is a big part of All the Way.
December 2, 1963: LBJ show his softer side to Jackie Kennedy
A short but illuminating call that shows that LBJ was much more than an angry grizzly bear on the phone. A scant 10 days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ tells Jackie how much she is loved, and compliments her strength. “You females got a lot of courage that we men don’t have. So we have to rely on you and depend on you,” LBJ says.
March 18, 1965: LBJ placates George Wallace on civil rights protestors
LBJ and Alabama Governor George Wallace were political foes, with LBJ’s legislative pushes on civil rights a prime source of contention. But when Wallace called the president in 1965, complaining of “bearded beatniks” protesting outside his capitol building and clogging his state’s motels, LBJ played the part of a sympathetic listener. He encourages Wallace to call up the National Guard if protests got out of hand and pledges cooperation. Wallace’s repugnant racial politics aside, this call proves that sometimes compromise is the best political path to take.
August 9, 1964: LBJ orders new pants, in lurid detail
Sometimes presidential politics takes a backseat to more mundane personal matters. In 1964, LBJ needed new pants. So he called his favorite clothing company to order some more. Only for this particular batch, he wanted a little extra room in the zipper area. Warning: if you’re not a fan of crass descriptions of presidential anatomy, don’t watch this video.
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