American actor John Scherer has been living inside the skin of dithery Brit Bertie Wooster since 1996, when the musical entertainment, By Jeeves, by Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber, made its U.S. debut at Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT. It was a Broadway hopeful back then, and went on to play the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC (where Scherer earned a Helen Hayes Award nomination — one of two) and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, aiming for New York. Showbusiness being how it is, By Jeeves did not make it to Broadway until now, and Scherer is again decked out in his tux, and doing double and triple takes as beleaguered Bertie (aided by his manservant, Jeeves, played by Martin Jarvis). Scherer, a Carnegie-Mellon grad, resurfaced with the show in February 2001 at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, and after a delay due to lack of a suitable theatre, Goodspeed Musicals opened it in October at the Helen Hayes Theatre for a limited run. Scherer is not new to Lloyd Webber's work: He played Joe Gillis opposite Betty Buckley on Broadway, and toured in Cats. He recently worked with Harold Prince in the Philadelphia world premiere of the trio of musicals billed as 3hree, also seen in Los Angeles. Scherer talked to Playbill On-Line about working with Alan Ayckbourn, dipping into Wodehouse and keeping up his stamina.
Playbill On-Line: You're on stage in By Jeeves 98 percent of the time. I'm exhausted for you.
John Scherer: There's one page in the script where I leave, and then there's another moment in Act Two when I leave — and then I get to sit down when they sing "Half a Moment."
PBOL: You've done Cats and more overtly physical stuff, does it take more stamina to do this?
JS: It's the most demanding role I've ever done, definitely. I'm just soaked by the end of the first act, so I actually change my entire tuxedo — so I'm standing all through intermission, too. Because it's a farce, it takes a lot of energy to keep the ball rolling. He's such a reactive character. Although he's the center of the show he doesn't really drive many of the scenes. Occasionally he does. Mostly, he reacts to stuff that happens to him. A lot of times I get the energy from the other [actors].
PBOL: I don't think I've seen anything like this show. There's so much Alan Ayckbourn in it — surprises and style and tricks. It's presentational. And it's very faithful to the rarefied world of Wodehouse, who wrote about the rich, frivolous people of England between the wars. How do you describe By Jeeves to friends?
JS: I mostly don't [Laughs.] I tell them they have to see it to believe it. I describe it as an English farce with music in it. Alan told me when he sat down to write it, he, of course, read all the books and all the stories, and he assumed the character of P.G. Wodehouse. Like he was acting a role, as if he were P.G. Wodehouse. I think he captured the tone beautifully throughout the play.
PBOL: Did you read the books?
JS: When I auditioned for this in 1996, I had never read any of them. My first audition they wanted me to sing an English music hall song, and of course I didn't know any. I read a scene and they asked me if I read the books, and they said, "Why don't you pick up one of the books and we'll have you read for Alan next week..." I picked up one of the books, and I started laughing as I was reading it. I really responded to it immediately. I auditioned for Alan the next week. His audition process is really interesting. He actually reads the scene with you, he doesn't have a reader. I read the first scene with him and he said, "Thank you." I thought, "I didn't get that." PBOL: There was a West End staging in 1996, just before the first American staging at Goodspeed. Did you get the sense that Alan was allowing the American cast to play and experiment and explore?
PBOL: Was business created here?
JS: Yes, definitely. The basic structure of it was there. Because we've played so many different theatres [Goodspeed, the Geffen, the Kennedy Center, Pittsburgh Public Theatre], it was specific to each theatre. Alan came back each time a re-directed it and re staged it. Basic things stayed the same. But there were huge sections that changed quite a bit. When we started at Goodspeed, we had a different opening number than we have now and it was a different opening number than they had in England. He went back to England and put our new opening number into their production. The amazing thing about Alan's direction is that he's a very gentle director, he kind of coaxes stuff out of you. You're almost unaware that it's happening. All the sudden, you come up with this performance, you almost don't know where it came from. He was gently guiding you all the way. I love working with him.
PBOL: He's not a bully.
JS: No, no, no. And he could be, 'cause he's a knight, y'know.
PBOL: The world of Wodehouse is kind of foreign to Americans. How did you find your way into it, style wise?
JS: I read a lot of the books, I actually looked at a lot of the "Jeeves and Wooster" [TV] series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I think because I responded to the material so much, I think I just kind of "got" it. I didn't read the script until five days before we went into rehearsal in Connecticut. They didn't get me a script because certain things had changed. Of course, when I read the script I was a little panicked because I kept turning the page and seeing BERTIE, BERTIE, BERTIE. I thought, Oh, my God! I think it was a combination of reading the books, looking at that series, and in college doing The Importance of Being Earnest and getting a sense of the style and the period. Once you're in rehearsal, it's about being in the process, moment to moment.
PBOL: Where did you grow up?
JS: In Buffalo, New York. When I was 11, I was in a [Buffalo Studio Arena Theatre] production of Peter Pan with Bonnie Franklin. I played one of the lost boys, Slightly Soiled — the dirty one. When I was in junior high school and high school, I started ushering down at the Studio Arena. I remember when they did a show called Sunset, with Alexis Smith. I remember I saw it like 10 times.
— By Kenneth Jones