Actor Jared Gertner gives MTI the inside scoop on what it was like to play William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on Broadway.
MTI: What first drew you to the stage?
JG: I would say that my parents had a huge part in getting me into theatre, but not in a pushy stage parents sort of way. They love theatre and that was infectious. I grew up in NJ, so it was really easy to get to NYC to see shows. My parents took my sisters and me to tons of Broadway shows and I fell in love with the whole thing. I also had a cousin who was a dancer on Broadway in the 80's and that was pretty inspiring to me, it made me realize that it was possible to get there. But, the most important thing was the community theatre in NJ where I got my start. It was called Red Oak Music Theatre and it was run by my Aunt Adda and Uncle Chet. When I was six, I auditioned for Peter Pan at Red Oak and I got cast. I was the most Lost Boy there ever was. Over the years, I did a lot of shows there and my Aunt Adda continued to push me and teach me what it was to be a professional actor. I owe a lot to her.
MTI: What was the theatre scene like in your town growing up?
JG: I grew up in Toms River, NJ. I was hugely into community theatre and school theatre. I was almost always doing 3 or 4 shows at a time and getting the best education I could by just doing it! I was also close enough to NY that I was able to do some professional theatre and commercial work as well. I have to say, though, my experiences with school and community theatre were some of my most special times. There's something really incredible about performing with your friends and doing a show that's not about the money or the business or the career. Everyone is there because they LOVE it! After High School, I went to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and got my BFA in drama.
MTI: You were an exceptional William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - a part you had played to great acclaim in San Francisco and Boston, winning you an IRNE Award. What was it like replacing Dan Fogler in the New York production after he had won a Tony for the role? How did you make the role your own?
JG: Well, first off, thank you. Barfee is an incredible role and all the young character guys who play him (including me) owe Dan a huge thank you for creating him. I had seen Dan in the role before I was cast and when I got the role it was a little daunting to try and step into those very big two-tone shoes. Thankfully, director James Lapine and his team were really specific about the fact that they did not want us to copy anything the original cast had done. They wanted everything to fit us. Spelling Bee is a show that only works if all of the characters are completely honest and authentic. Therefore, trying to recreate someone else's performance would only hurt the show. I started with the first national production which had sit downs in San Francisco and Boston....we were the first cast to put the show up after the Broadway cast, and we really got to make it our own. That is pretty rare. The other thing that helped me was getting to live with the role for a full year before I took it over on Broadway. I opened Spelling Bee in two cities, got reviews, learned about the character, experienced a years worth of audiences, and THEN I got to come into the Broadway cast. By the time that happened, I really felt ownership of the role and was really secure with what I was doing. So I could just kick back and enjoy the ride.
MTI: What are some of your favorite Bee memories? Were there any memorable audience member spellers that stand out?
JG: The best thing about The Bee is that it's completely different every night. Having four audience members on stage with you for most of the show really keeps things fresh. You never know what's going to happen. Some of my favorite memories are when we'd have extra special guests as audience volunteers. Julie Andrews came on stage with us, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Lea Salonga, Raul Esparza, and several morning show hosts. The night Bill Clinton came to see us was a stand-out as well. We changed a lot of words and definitions that night to make specific jokes about him. I loved that we had that kind of freedom. We had some crazy speller mishaps too. One woman slapped me, we had a girl who got up and started wandering around during “Pandemonium” and I had to almost tackle her to stop her from getting hit in the head by another actor who was swinging on a rope. But, my favorite moment was in San Francisco very early in our run. We had a man come up who was a word pronouncer for his district Bee's and he knew every word we threw at him. We'd never experienced that before, so the wheels came off the show a little.....but, we learned that night that the show works best when it's a little dangerous. The actors and the audience shared a really special show that night.
MTI: How is your magic foot these days? Do you ever find yourself spelling random words?
JG: My foot is doing just fine, thanks. He is happy to not have to work so hard anymore. Believe it or not, the physicality required for Barfee is kind of hard on the body. When the show was over, my hips were all out of line. I do think Spelling Bee made me a better speller.....but don't test me.....I'll probably fail. I will say though, I do better on the spelling and language categories on Jeopardy now.
MTI: You recently played Sparky in Forever Plaid, another great ensemble show, at the Cape Playhouse. What are some things you love about doing theatre outside of New York?
JG: Forever Plaid was such a blast. I guess I'm really drawn to ensemble shows. I love the feeling of getting on stage with a small group of people and knowing that everyone has everyone else's back. We all get our moment to shine and we all get to help each other shine as well. Call me a cheeseball, but I love that.
I have worked out of town a lot over the years and I love it. First off, you get to travel around and see the country....that's cool, right? Secondly, there is such a fun, creative thing that happens in regional theatre. Every show is a limited run, so there's no threat of a closing notice. Also, most theatres have a lot of subscribers who are always really excited to come see the show and talk to you about it. I always love that.
The thing I love most about working out of town is that the company you travel with becomes your family. For a few weeks, months, or years....those people are your life. They're your family and your friends. You end up spending holidays with them, talking about your life, and you share the stage with them every night. That's a very special thing. I think I am, in fact, a giant cheeseball.
MTI: You've been in a ton of shows licensed by MTI. (Spelling Bee, Forever Plaid, Little Shop, Forum, She Loves Me) Have you been in any others... back in your pre-professional days?
JG: In addition to the shows you listed.....I played Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and Finch in How to Succeed... at my high school. I played The Baker in Into the Woods and several parts in Pacific Overtures when I was at NYU, and I did small professional productions of My Favorite Year and Tommy in my early 20's. I'll have you know that I just scrolled through MTI's entire list on the website to find out!
MTI: You've been a strong supporter of new work and new writers. What is it about developing new work that you find so exciting?
JG: I think it started as a practical thing for me. I'm a young character actor, so there aren't a lot of roles that I fit perfectly. I started working with new writers because I figured if there aren't roles for me, I'll just go create them! Over the years, however, it's become a real passion of mine. I am always working on readings, demo recordings, concerts, etc with new writers. It helps me to stay on top of my game by challenging me to learn new material and make strong choices quickly. It's also nice to be a part of something creative and new.....to sit in a room with writers and actors and musicians and create something together. I am always inspired by that. It might not always be good, but I almost always learn and grow from it.
Visit Jared Gertner’s webage to see photos from past productions and learn about upcoming performances.
For more information or to license visit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee's show page. To click with other fans or discuss the show, visit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’s MTI ShowSpace page.