Two and a half years after accepting the role of standby to Josh Gad in the original Broadway company of The Book of Mormon on Broadway, character actor Jared Gertner has "manned-up" in New York, across the United States and now in London, as perpetually underestimated missionary Arnold Cunningham. With hundreds of performances logged, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more "well-versed" performer to speak on the life of the edgy smash hit, as it premieres internationally.
The London production of The Book of Mormon — which also stars Gavin Creel, who got his own Playbill Leading Men profile in 2012, when he opened as Elder Price in the U.S. national tour — is set to open March 21 at The Prince of Wales Theatre.
Before a recent rehearsal, we caught up with Gertner by telephone to learn more about his Mormon journey, being a new member of the London theatre community, and the enthusiastic audiences that have greeted the show since the beginning.
Congratulations on the London production. How's the response so far?
Jared Gertner: It's been unbelievable. I didn't know what to expect. I had heard that British audiences were a bit more conservative then American audiences. So I thought, "they'll really like the show, they'll think it's very funny and very smart, but they might not be as raucous as in America." But I've been proven wrong. They have been outrageous- on their feet, hootin' and hollerin'. So you've been received as "American musical-comedy missionaries" — a bit better than the Elders arriving in Uganda?
JG: [Laughs] You know, they've been really wonderful. And I was concerned that they would have their arms crossed, thinking, "Why'd they bring these two American guys over here? What do they have that we couldn't have done just as well?" And no one has treated us that way. People have been so excited for our arrival. Gavin [Creel]'s been here twice before so I figured people would be happy to see him again. But they've treated me wonderfully too; and I feel like I've been received here warmer than anywhere I've ever worked.
You're now a part of your third original company of the show, on your second continent, making your West End debut. Take me back to how the whole Mormon experience initially came about for you?
JG: I had heard about this sort of "untitled" comedy show from Bobby Lopez and the "South Park" guys — I think a lot of people had heard about it — and there had been some very private readings and workshops. As far as I knew, from investigation, the only part I could play was the one part Josh Gad was already playing. So I assumed I wouldn't ever really have a go at it — except maybe much later in the run — so I just sort of wrote it off. Then when they were opening the show on Broadway, they decided to add a standby position. So they called my agent to see if I'd be willing to come in. I'd never covered before and didn't know that I wanted to. Not that I have anything against covering, I just love being on stage. I was working out of town with Scott Barnhardt, one of the original Broadway cast members and one of my best friends. Scott had done the workshops and said, "Whatever it takes to get in the room, you have to be involved with this show." I had just gotten married two weeks earlier, and thought, "I guess I should at least audition for something that will keep me in town."
So with one day off to come home and audition, all I wanted to do was make Matt [Stone] & Trey [Parker] laugh. I thought If I can make these guys laugh, then the whole thing will be worth it — whether I do the show or not. I made them laugh, twice as I recall and the next day they called and ask if I wanted to be the standby. Again I hemmed and hauled, but my husband said "if you get a job in town, you have to take it." And I'm so happy I did and that my best bud Scottie, told me to be a part of this, because it's been the most incredible journey and I never really saw any of it coming. I thought maybe if I'm lucky, I'll get to take over in New York. But to open the tour, and then open the West End- it's been unbelievable.
Would you say the creative team has treated the West End production like a brand new show?
JG: Yes, but they've done that with each of the productions. I've opened three of the four companies now and they've been completely hands on and present for all of them. A lot of times with big hit shows, they'll sort of farm it out to associates to put the show up, and then maybe you'll see the director or you'll see the writer toward the end. But Matt, Trey & Bobby [Lopez] have been present and such a part of each production. They genuinely care about the quality of the work and I really respect that about them.
With their involvement, were there any changes made in anticipation of a different audience sensibility across the pond?
JG: There were a number of things that Gavin and I would hypothesize about while we were on the tour, once we knew we were coming to London — things that wouldn't be understood or translate. But Matt, Trey and Bobby have just decided to give it a go and do the show exactly as it was written and see how it plays. As it turns out, we didn't have to change anything; everything is being understood just beautifully.
You bring an unapologetic, unabashed joy to Cunningham that I've not necessarily seen in any other actor's take on the role and it's brilliant. Is that mostly you coming through?
JG: I think it's me to a degree. I think I have a lot of joy in my life and I'm a really happy guy. But Trey Parker in rehearsal said something about [Cunningham] being a "happy puppy," and I thought, "That's the perfect way into him." All Cunningham wants is a best friend, and he starts the show by being given the only thing he's ever wanted in his life, so why wouldn't he be unabashedly joyful?
In each new incarnation has the cast been encouraged to find their own way in to their respective roles?
JG: I think that's the smartest thing our creative team has done. In each company they've formed so far they've been really smart about hiring funny, unique, weird people and just seeing what they come up with. No one has ever been asked to imitate anyone who's done the part before. No one has ever been asked to stick with a bit or a take that someone else has done. Everyone's encouraged to find their own way in and I think that's what makes each company really special. When we were doing the national tour — the first company after Broadway — it was its own thing. It paid homage to what the Broadway cast had done, but it had its own vibe and everyone had their own take on the material. It's a gift that with a lot of big shows you don't get. There's no "now you cross left, now you lift your arm, now you breathe —" and I love that about our creative team.
Have your own discoveries of Elder Cunningham come in big "Aha!" moments, or has it been a gradual two-year process?
JG: It's really been a gradual process that then had a sharp turn when I got to start working with Gavin Creel. Up until then, I had been doing someone else's show — my own take, but someone else's framework. With Gavin, we started from scratch and created it together. And what I've found through Cunningham's relationship with Price has been remarkable — his journey, his need and how he ends up filling that need himself and becoming his own man.
I would imagine it might be easier for everyone to trust those degrees of variation in each company when the material is so solid.
JG: I think that's true — the material is so good. But it's also difficult. I've done a lot of comedy and the part of Cunningham is the hardest comedy I've ever had to do. There's something very specific about it. The material is perfect, but if you go too camp or too cute with it, you can really miss the boat.
And if you "miss the boat" you have to deal with the audience's expectation, which for The Book of Mormon has been sky-high since day one.
JG: Yes, but it's surprising. You'd think audience members who have bought their tickets six months to a year in advance and have heard all this hype would come in with their arms crossed saying, "OK. Impress me. Make it worth all the money I spent on these tickets and all the time I've waited," but none of them have. In any city we played on the tour, so far with West End audiences or on Broadway, everyone comes in completely open and ready to be blown away. It still impresses me, that the audiences come so excited — not skeptical — but really excited.
That is impressive, especially in "jaded old New York."
JG: I really think it's Matt & Trey — people figure whatever they get from them is going to be fun and then they're surprised when they're actually moved by it; and that's where we really get them.
A cast's ability to keep it fresh every night has to play a part as well. How do you insure that's happening with Cunningham?
JG: Anytime you're in a long run, it's all about the actors you're on stage with. For me, I'm really lucky because Gavin is one of those actors who never gives the same performance twice. He's all over the place — which is great — but it's always focused and fueled by intent. And it's always coming from a real and honest place. I tend to be a little bit more consistent, so the two of us have found this great blend. From the audience's perspective it probably looks similar, but what's fueling it inside and the emotional connection changes night to night depending on how we decide to approach a scene.
You've been with Mormon for over two straight years —
JG: I am the most Mormon Jew in the land!
Yet, Cunningham isn't your first foray in to a character that carry a show's comedic and romantic weight. "Barfee" in Spelling Bee and "Seymour" in Little Shop of Horrors, each run the gamut of shades that character actors don't typically get to show an audience. How have you found such success in these types of roles?
JG: First, I've been super lucky. But I think it's what you said earlier about the joy. That's something I put in to all of my characters and it really does help. They talk in acting class about making positive choices and finding the positive angle — and when you're in college, you're like "enough already" — but it really does make a difference. But I've also been super lucky to play these parts that you don't usually find for guys like me. The little chubby guy rarely gets the girl or gets to be a rock star and save the day; but somehow I've found a few roles where I've gotten to do that. And I hope that they keep coming because I'm having a great time.
Any role in particular you've set your sights on?
JG: Well I'm hoping to be on Season Four of "Downton Abbey." I want to be the quirky Jewish-American cousin that shows up. That seems like a match made in heaven.
JG: Seriously! Write your Congressman and let them know.
How long are you scheduled to play in Lomdon?
JG: I'll be here for a year. That's the plan. But if the audiences keep up like what they are now, I don't know if I'll ever want to leave London. I'm really happy here. I'm having a great time and until my body breaks down or I start to look my real age, I'm going to white-knuckle this thing. [Laughs.]