From Mariner Way to the Great White Way, Toms River Native Finds Success on Stage
Jared Gertner opens in 'Book of Mormon' on Broadway
Jared Gertner considers himself to be very fortunate. He is, after all, living his dream: since he was twelve, he has wanted to be an actor and right now, he is an actor cast in a show that is shaping up to be the biggest hit of his young career.
For the better part of the past month, Gertner has been sitting in the back of the Eugene O’Neill Theater watching preview performances of “The Book of Mormon,” one of the most hotly anticipated Broadway musicals in recent memory and a show that officially opened last Thursday to fantastic reviews.
Gertner, a Toms River native and graduate of Toms River High School North is in the cast as a stand-by for one of the play’s leading characters, the role of Elder Cunningham––played by Josh Gad, known to many as a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” As a stand-by, Gertner is an understudy for that character only; he has had the opportunity to rehearse with the main cast on occasion “when Josh had to go to a fitting or had another appointment,” Gertner said. “I would get up and do a number with the group here and there,” but up until now, most of his work has been restricted to watching and waiting. Now that the show has officially opened, Gertner is looking forward to having understudy rehearsals a few days a week. “I’ll be working to find how the role fits on me, how I can honor what Josh is doing and not put too many ripples into the show but make it my own.”
While the play––a collaboration between Matt Stone and Trey Parker (creators of television’s “South Park”) and Robert Lopez (composer of “Avenue Q”)––has garnered much attention for its outrageous, raunchy, offensive humor, audiences have responded to the moral compass to be found at the heart of the musical. That, and the fact that he still finds the show laugh-out-loud funny even after seeing it night after night, delights Gertner. “This show is hilariously funny,” he said. “I watched it a lot because I’m not on stage every night and I laugh out every night. And we’re talking about months now.”
Gertner credits the show’s success to the creative team that has brought the show to life. “Matt and Trey and Bobby Lopez and Casey Nicholaw, our director––they’re all brilliant and they want to keep tweaking it until it’s brilliant. And I think they’re learning so much each night because we didn’t do an out-of-town tryout. They did a couple of workshops in the city with some small presentations; nothing like this, when you have 1,000 people coming every night with their opinions and they’re learning a lot every night about what works and what doesn’t. What needs to be amped up what needs to be pulled back a little? They’re using the skills that they have, which are many, to make it the best that they think it can be before they say, ‘OK, that’s it, this is the show.’”
Gertner has marveled at the talent that has been assembled for the production. “Just getting to watch people like Matt and Trey and Bobby and Casey work, seeing what they think is funny, what they think is important: it’s like auditing the best class ever. And I think in order to make this material work, they need very funny, very outgoing people so the cast is some of the funniest, most talented people I’ve ever worked with. It’s like a race to the punch line in our theater. It’s fun to go to work every day.”
Gertner has been acting since he was a child. “My first show was at Red Oak at the Strand in Lakewood,” he explained. “I was the most Lost Boy, ever, in ‘Peter Pan.’ I was 6 when I did that.”
Red Oak Music Theater was a community theater company “run by Adda and Chet, my great-aunt and uncle,” Gertner explained. “My parents, we went to every show of the season, from when I was very, very little. And my parents would take me to Broadway shows and they took me to my first show, which was ‘Cats’ when I was three. They started me really early. When Red Oak was doing ‘Peter Pan,’ they said, ‘Do you want to audition?’ as sort of a joke and I said, ‘Yes I do,’ which I think surprised them. So they hooked me up with a friend of theirs who was a singer and she taught me ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’ from ‘The King and I’ which I couldn’t whistle. I still can’t. So, I hummed a verse of it and I went in and I sang it and they put me in.”
“You go back and you see that tape,” Gertner continued “and I’m so small, and have such blonde hair and I had no idea what I was doing, I was just wandering around the stage. But I loved it, loved it. And that was sort of it. I think from then until was about 12 I said I want to be an actor and a lawyer. My dad is a lawyer and I thought I could do both, which is clearly silly, unless you end up on a legal drama on TV. And then I decided when I was 12 I want to go to NYU and study drama and I want to be an actor.”
Gertner worked consistently through his school years, not only on the stage at High School North, but on many of the premier stages around New Jersey. “Doing theater in NJ was where I built the dreams I’m living right now. There were so many opportunities to perform, not only in school but also at the Strand and at the Count Basie and anywhere else that would have me, basically. I loved it. I learned so much and I got to be in some really big, beautiful theaters and I started school having starred in shows on these fantastic stages which I think put me at a big advantage.”
More than the theaters, Gertner credits many talented local actors who influenced his development as a performer. “I have always been really moved a lot by theater actors,” he said. “I looked up to a lot of the people I worked with in New Jersey when I was a kid. I really looked up to Jan Topoleski a ton and Michael Glenn Miller. And Glenn Jones: brilliantly funny. I worked with those guys as a kid and I learned a lot from them.”
Of Gertner’s success, Miller––a longtime local theater producer, director and actor who worked with Gertner at the Kobe Dinner Theater in Howell said, “I am not surprised that he has made it professionally. Even as a teen he had a terrific sense of what works on stage… great instincts. He always came to rehearsal prepared, was willing to take direction and eager to learn.”
Gertner decided that he wanted to pursue one career path: to study acting at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. “When I was 17, I applied to NYU and that was the only school I applied to, much to the chagrin of my parents,” he said. “My parents were like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to have a fall-back?’ and I was like, ‘Mom, if I have a fall-back, then I can fall-back and I don’t want to.’ It might not be the smartest thing for all people but it was what I needed.”
Gertner moved to New York City and thrived in the creative atmosphere. “Three days a week, I was training at NYU all day long, in acting and singing and dancing, dialects and mask work, crazy stuff. Two days a week, I also was studying Liberal Arts because that’s how the NYU program goes. I still got to educate other parts of my mind. I took science classes and journalism classes and religion classes––all sorts of things, so I could keep that part of my mind working, too. And a smart actor is a good actor––that’s what they say.”
Gertner graduated from NYU and felt that he was already at an advantage over other aspiring actors. “I graduated and I was already in New York, I didn’t have to do the big move,” he explained. “I was already living here. I had an agent that I got from an industry night presentation at NYU and I just jumped right into it.”
When asked if he thought there was one best way to achieve success in what has always been a difficult career choice, Gertner responded, “Getting an agent is important and can really help you but I don’t think it’s the most important. Getting training is incredibly important. They say that there are so many moving pieces in this business, so many things that you have no control over, the only thing you really have control over is yourself and how prepared you are. I say go to college. I think it’s so important to your development as a human being and as an actor, as a performer. But not everybody goes to college. There are 27 people in ‘Book of Mormon,’ and we all went to different colleges, some didn’t go to college. Some have agents and a couple don’t have agents. And yet, we’re all in the same place, doing the same work. It’s important to remember that’s lots of roads to get where you’re going. You just have to find the road that’s right for you. Going to NYU, getting an agent right away, joining Equity (the actor’s union) right after graduating, that was my path. That was what totally worked for me. It may not be what would work for anyone else.”
Many reasons explain why professional actors take jobs, according to Gertner, ranging from income to qualifying for union health benefits to networking with certain theaters or directors. Still, he misses some of the simpler experiences of community theater. “There’s something about all those people coming together to do something they love for no reason other than because they love it. When you’re working in NJ, you want to be a part of that community and a part of that family that gets formed when you do a show. I love that and I miss that. I still sort of live my life in that way.”
Gertner is grateful that he his chosen profession allows him to share in his success with many that he has worked with and known previously. “When I was doing ‘Spelling Bee’ on Broadway, I think every teacher from my high school came. So many members of my synagogue in Toms River came and so many people I had done theater with growing up from the different community theater scenes in Jersey came to see it…I was kind of amazed by that, that people wanted to share in that with me––that means more to me than anything.”
Gertner performed the role of William Barfee in the New York production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” as well as in productions in Boston and San Francisco.
When Miller saw Gertner in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” on Broadway, had a unique experience. “When I saw him in ‘Spelling Bee,’ it was an added thrill to be pulled from the audience and be on the stage with him.” Some audience members were asked onstage to participate in the show.
Gertner’s other professional credits include Warren in “Ordinary Days” at the Roundabout Theater, the title character in Harry Connick’s “The Happy Elf,” in Milwaukee, and Seymour in Papermill Playhouse’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” He has also been featured in a number of commercials and had a co-starring role in the television comedy/drama “Ugly Betty.”
Gertner has tried to find his own niche where he fits into the New York theater scene. “It’s important to know who you are and where you fit in. I think some people try to fit themselves into boxes they don’t fit into. Where I respect wanting to branch out, I definitely want to play many different kinds of roles, I also know that all those roles exist in their own pool of what I’m right for,” he said. Instead of trying to fit others’ pre-conceived notions of a specific character type, Gertner said that he has been partnering with writers and composers, concentrating on new works with the hope that he can “start to create the Jared Gertner type. And that sounds grander than I mean it but rather than try to be a Kevin Kline or a Danny DeVito or anybody that people might compare you to, try to build your own roles, create your own things.”
Miller said that he is proud of Gertner’s success. “He is using his talents wisely and his success is well deserved… it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. I am happy to have worked with him and happier to know him and count him among my friends.”
Despite Gertner’s good fortune, he does not attribute his success to mere luck. “As anyone who worked with me at Red Oak or Phoenix or Kobe or any of those places that I’ve worked knows, this was always the goal. I’m one of those actors who are very grateful and feels very lucky to be able to do what I do and so I take it very seriously. There’s nothing worse than those actors who are like ‘Aw, I’ve gotta go to work.’ I’m like, ‘You’re on Broadway! There are thousands of people who would like to have your job and thousands of kids sitting home, listening to cast albums, hoping to, one day, do what you do.’
“They say that luck is timing plus preparation. Yeah, I feel very lucky to do what I do but it’s because when opportunities presented themselves to me, I was prepared for them.
“I’ve been able to make my living as an actor, I guess, it’s been since 2003 since I’ve had to do anything else. It’s pretty great. I’m really, really happy.”
And we are happy for him and fortunate that we are able to say, we knew him when.