THE LEADING MEN: Jordan Gelber Graduates to Leading Man in Broadway's Elf

By Robert Simonson
November 29, 2012

Meet Jordan Gelber, who gave up his apartment on Avenue Q and has moved to West 45th Street, to Broadway's Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where he is the star of Elf.



*

Jordan Gelber has seen plenty of activity in recent years. He's appeared on Broadway in Avenue Q and All My Sons; Off-Broadway in 2,000 Years and Birth and Afterbirth; in movies like "Dark Horse" and television shows like "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Good Wife." But "leading man on Broadway" is not something he could put on his resume until now. Gelber is the Elf in Elf, the holiday musical based in the hit Will Ferrell film, now making its second appearance on Broadway. The Bronx-born actor is now currently learning what it means to never leave the stage, how to greet fans when they wait for you at the stage door, and how to not get too hot while wearing a fuzzy, green tunic, tights, wig and hat. Gelber spoke to Playbill.com about his new role and new status.

How did you come to get this role?
Jordan Gelber: I got a call in the middle of October by [casting director] Bernie Telsey's office to go in for the part. I was a little surprised, because I knew they knew me as a big character actor. But they thought I'd be good for it. I went in a bunch of times and got the offer.

Did you see the show when it came to Broadway in 2010?
JG: I'd never seen the musical, no.

Had you seen the movie?
JG: I'd seen the film when it first came out. I'm a Will Ferrell fan and I thought it was a very fun movie.

This is your first Broadway role where you're the lead. That must be a very different experience.
JG: It's been a hoot. I'm starting to have a really great time. The part is much more physically demanding than I anticipated. But I'm beginning to enjoy myself — I figured out how to pace myself. I was also just the lead for the first time in a movie, in "Dark Horse," so I feel that kind of helped me. Being the lead in a show is such a different animal than anything else I've done before. But you learn to embrace it after a while. I feel you get to have more freedom on it. I felt I was collaborating on a new show. [Director-choreographer] Casey Nicholaw was open to a lot of new changes, so that helped a lot.

Gelber in Elf.
photo by Joan Marcus

Changes in the script?
JG: Yeah. There were apparently a lot of changes from the first incarnation. The opening number is completely different. The pacing of some scenes, and especially Buddy's effect on certain characters is different than it was the first time.

I imagine as a lead actor, you have pace yourself differently, and live your life outside the theatre differently, than you have had to in the past, in order to have the energy every night to do the show.
JG: That is very true. I can't go out drinking like I used to. [Laughs.] I can't stay out like I used to. I also have a two-year-old, so I want to be present for him at home. I've been likening it to being like a professional athlete. I have to take care of myself. I abstain from alcohol during the week. I have to keep my body warmed up and stretched during the run. I have to stretch when I get home, because my muscles end up getting fatigued during the course of the show. I'm learning about the physical necessities of being the lead in a Broadway musical.

Speaking of warmed up, how warm is that elf costume that you wear?
JG: You know what, I did something very smart that I'm proud of. I said to them I'd prefer not to wear wool. I think the original costume was wool-based. So, Gregg Barnes, the designer, found a cotton-based velvet of some kind. It's not so bad. I never feel overheated in that costume. I do sweat during the show. I don't think you can do the part without sweating. So I just accept it and move on. It's not that bad to be on the set. I feel warmer when I'm in the overcoat and suit at the end of Act One.

You're on stage most of the time.
JG: In the first act, I don't get to be offstage more than ten seconds at the most.

Gelber and Mark Jacoby
Photo by Joan Marcus

What would you say is the trick to making Buddy a character that the other characters can relate to and come to like, as opposed to a strange creature from another planet?
JG: As crazy or goofy or out-there as he can get, I'm an actor who always tries to keep things in an honest or organic place. I've always seen Buddy as just an overgrown child. He's a human being that was raised by elves. So, you've got the nature-nurture thing there. I think because he's just a big kid, and he doesn't have a maliciousness to him or edginess to him — and people are attracted to eternal optimists or wide-eyed children —that's how he gets away with everything. Because he's not a threat to anybody.

I got the impression in certain scenes that you were improvising a line here and there. Are you?
JG: There's only one true improvisatory part of the show, and that's when Walter [Buddy's father] asks me to sing a song to him, like a singing telegram. I always felt like it wouldn't be true to that moment if there were a set or codified melody that I sang. That is always improvised. Sometimes I'll have certain ideas, or I'll try to throw in a melody that someone might recognize. The other night, I sang some melody from Phantom of the Opera to see if he'd catch it, because he [Mark Jacoby] was in the show for two years. But he didn't catch it, which pissed me off. [Laughs.] He was like, "I didn't know you were singing that." I said, "You did it for two years!"

There were things in rehearsal that I ad-libbed that became set script things. I was allowed to have fun that way. It was almost like in a workshop process. When, in one rehearsal, Valerie Wright said, "Screw you, Jenny Craig," I said, "Screw you!" That just came out, and [bookwriters] Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan liked it and kept it.

Gelber and Wayne Knight
photo by Joan Marcus

I'm guessing that at most of the performances you have a good share of kids in the audience. It must be harder to keep the attention of children. Have you found ways to do that effectively as the run has gone on?
JG: I feel like the show is built to have kid's attention. Being Buddy, it's like being Elmo or Dora the Explorer. It's this character they totally love, because they see themselves in the character. I never feel like there are kids out there who are not enjoying the show, and are saying, "Mom, I want to go." There was a time when I had this fear it would be like a children's theatre thing. But part of the beauty of the show is it's really well-focused, and that's a tribute to Casey's direction and the writing, and the music. It's keep the focus of the kids the whole time. At the same time, it doesn't pander to them.

Do some of the kids wait afterwards to say hello and get your autograph?
JG: Yeah, that's a fun and special thing for me. Some of the kids are so excited. Younger kids, I can see how nervous they are to meet me. But as soon as I say, "You want to take a picture with me?," they're like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" Even Wayne Knight's son. Wayne has a two-and-a-half-year-old son name Liam. All he wants to do is talk to "Buddy Elf." If Wayne asked him what he wants for the holidays, he'll say, "I'll have to talk to 'Buddy Elf' about that." Wayne plays Santa Claus in the show. Liam doesn't even want to talk to Santa Claus, he wants to talk to Buddy Elf.

You're a New Yorker, right? You were born here.
JG: I was born in Riverdale. When I was five, we moved to Long Island.

Did your parents ever take you to the theatre
JG: Yeah, tons. Annie was my first musical. I saw the original Les Miz.

Annie was your first musical? I guess you've been too busy to see the new revival.
JG: No, but I want to. The day of the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, we got to hang out with the other casts who were doing the parade. Lilla Crawford, who plays Annie, was there. And she came up to me and said, "Are you Elf in Elf!?" And I said, "Are you Annie in Annie!?" I got a picture with her and said to Thomas Meehan: "Thomas Meehan's worlds collide!"