Mel Brooks brimmed with brio recently, chatting up next weekend’s three-day mounting of “The Producers” at the Hollywood Bowl. Firing quips and shtick in lethal arcs at most questions, Brooks pivoted to incisiveness when talking about casting Jesse Tyler Ferguson in the musical’s co-lead role of nervous/nerdy accountant Leo Bloom.
“Now Jesse, he has a lot of Leo in him, I think,” said Brooks. “Jesse is fragile. He is a good trembler. You get from him that life is a big struggle.”
Ferguson is an established TV presence, a comic mainstay and two-time Emmy nominee playing a gay parent on"Modern Family."But his pedigree tracks back to the stage, and during an interview, he was knowledgeable and at ease talking all things theater.
But an innocuous question revealed what Brooks had spotted: about to play a producer, in a piece called “The Producers,” the 35-year-old Ferguson was asked if could see himself as a producer someday?
There was a flustered pause. “I … ah … no!” he replied.
His skin tone began to mirror his red hair. “I think if I produced a show I would not want to be part of that production. That’s not … I’m not....” A quiver of plaintive desperation entered his voice. “I mean, I couldn’t even sell Boy Scout chocolate bars when I was a kid!”
Ferguson was a self-described reclusive, housebound child growing up in Albuquerque when he saw a children’s theater production and surprised his mom by “telling her I’d like to try that.”
He did try it and indeed liked it. He can recall in detail those experiences. For instance, his first song on stage came when he was about 10: “A production of ‘Oliver!’ — I held a spoon and a wooden bowl while singing ‘Food, Glorious Food.’ I wasn’t old or brawny enough to be in Fagin’s gang, so that was my only number, and I had to wait around backstage 31/2 hours to take my bow.”
Growing up in pre-Internet New Mexico, Ferguson had only a dim-ish view of Broadway.
“The people I idolized I saw once a year on the Tony Awards,” he said at a Silver Lake coffeehouse. “I would buy the cassette tapes of the various Broadway shows and scour the photos inside the recording package. That’s how I exposed myself to the arts — New York and professional theater felt like a very distant thing.”
A few years on, he made his first pilgrimage to Mecca. “The New York trip was basically me and a bunch of blue hairs from the local community theater group, the ‘5 shows in 4 days, Wednesday matinee’ thing,” he recalled. “We saw ‘Phantom,’ of course, and that was good because I gravitated to thunderous music and big drama, the kind of shows we all hate now.”
He was equally determined to catch “Miss Saigon,” but the tour party instead had tickets for the (now legendary) 1992 revival of “Guys and Dolls” with Nathan Lane and Faith Prince. Ferguson grudgingly went in but came out a changed young theater maven. “I was blown away — my eyes were opened for the first time to the American classics.”
In his late teens, Ferguson migrated to Manhattan and studied acting at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (other alums include Tyne Daly and Paul Sorvino).
His arrival in New York coincided with the decline of the British bombast that dominated Broadway for about 15 years. It was just as well for Ferguson professionally, because “I don’t have that kind of voice, the big baritone or rousing tenor sound. My wheelhouse was in the frothier pieces. So my appreciation for those older musicals and revivals grew.”
Indeed, his Broadway debut came as one of the three sailors in the Public Theatre’s 1998 mounting of “On the Town.” Although the show’s Broadway iteration was critically panned, the New York Times approvingly noted Ferguson’s “boyish likability.” (“My first rave consisted of just two adjectives.... I was also probably 25 pounds lighter, so maybe that’s where the ‘boyish’ part comes in.”)
Ferguson’s significant theater break came in 2005 when he got in on the ground floor of a virtual chamber musical. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was as far from “Phantom” bigness as one could get, but the role of un-confident Leaf Coneybear — plagued in the competition by a succession of South American rodent spelling challenges: “capybara,” “acouchi” and, ultimately, “chinchilla” — was big for Ferguson.
“That was a luxury and exciting,” he said. “We built our personalities through rehearsal and improv so the panorama of what our characters could be and do had some range.”
Ferguson’s shy, home-schooled Leaf Coneybear — his solo song “I’m Not That Smart” captured an essential lack of confidence — tapped into a quality that Ferguson believes he had from an early age. “Me being a shy kid, very closed off, showing vulnerability in a character was sort of a safe space on stage,” he said. “It’s always been in my toolbox, there for me when I need it.”
He’ll have a chance to take that vulnerability out early on in “The Producers,” since accountant Leo Bloom is a one-man construction site of neurosis.
Oddly enough, Brooks, who wrote “The Producers” for a 1968 movie, said that the role of shrinking-violet, confidence-lacking Leo stems from an unlikely source: himself at an early age.
“I wasn’t an accountant, but that guy was me at 15 or so,” said Brooks. “I wanted to learn everything I could about show business, so I was a little stooge for this crazy-guy Broadway producer, pick up his laundry, etc. He was so unpredictable I tiptoed around, a nervous guy, what would come next?”
Ferguson saw “The Producers” in 2000 after Brooks transformed it into the Tony-winning stage musical. He recalls being bowled over by “an old, classic Broadway musical that was new, yet so fully realized and its own thing.”
At the Bowl, back from the original Broadway production are two Tony winners for their work, director Susan Stroman and Gary Beach, who plays director Roger De Bris. Also on hand from the original production is Tony nominee Roger Bart, as De Bris’ assistant Carmen Ghia.
As for Ferguson, he is eager to take on something that challenges his own inner “nervous guy.”
“Singing and dancing at the Bowl, in front of 18,000 people at a place where Kelly Clarkson will be singing the night after we close — my gut reaction was, this is kind of terrifying and that’s good,” said Ferguson. “Basically, I [need to] go for roles that scare the crap out of me.”