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An Interview with Jesse Tyler Ferguson

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A few years ago, Jesse Tyler Ferguson was featured along with Celia Keenan Bolger in a little-seen Michael John LaChiusa show called Little Fish. While he adored the piece, he and Bolger wondered to each other what it would be like to be in a Producers-or-Avenue Q-size hit. Fast forward two years later, and both he and Bolger are doing just that in William Finn's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, in which the elvin, twinkle-eyed redhead plays the awkwardly adorable Leaf Coneybear. He will also soon open in Adios, Pantalones! a "cabaret send-up" that toasts the songs of both LaChiusa and Finn.

Adios, Pantalones! pokes fun at Ferguson's efforts in "trying to put on the perfect show and not succeeding." Yet perfect or not, Ferguson couldn't be more enthusiastic about it. He says, "I did the show as part of the Broadway Spotlight series at the Ars Nova last October. I joked that I would transfer to Joe's Pub as so many of the Ars Nova shows have....John Tartaglia, Julia Murney, etc. And sure enough, a few months later I was at the Public theater doing my show! It's a very funny show....lots of great stories, great music....it's very silly. It never takes itself seriously for too long. People can also expect to hear a lot of lesser-known songs by Finn and LaChiusa."

While Finn's and LaChiusa's songs aren't likely to be confused with one another's, Ferguson sees similarities. "Bill is peanut butter and Michael John is jam...or at least banana," as he compares them. "Surprisingly, they complement each other very well in this show. I joke that I'm singing the music of William Finn and Michal John LaChiusa because they put me in their shows, but in addition to that, I've chosen their music because I think they are two of the best musicans working in musical theatre right now. I feel very connected with their lyrics. They write for actors who sing. They don't write phrases that repeat over and over in which you have to make vocally exciting. They are rooted in a very real, organic place with their music and it is just so easy to sing. They also are both wickedly funny people and I think that is apparent in their music."

Although Little Fish didn't quite click with the public, Ferguson has fond memories of the LaChiusa show, and plans to sing 3 numbers from the unrecorded musical. "All of us involved with it had a great, great love for it. It had a very simple message--'Live life for today. Be a good friend because we are all Little Fish . We need to take care of each other'. Michael John wrote an amazing score. As artists you take huge risks with projects and more often than not, you are going to be criticized and not praised. That willingness to take risks is what makes artists great. And I think Michael John is a great artist."

Ferguson's Broadway (and professional) debut was as Chip in the 1997 revival of On the Town, which transferred from the Delacorte Theatre to Broadway without living up to expectations. Yet again, he wouldn't have traded the experience for anything. "It was heartbreaking to do the show in the barn that is the Gershwin theater for 400 people. But hey, I can say that George C. Wolfe gave me my Equity Card and I got to work closely with Adolph Green and Betty Comden. It was an amazing learning experience and I definitely got to see the ugly side of show business early on in my career."

Ferguson's experience with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has been a little less bittersweet, as the quirkily tuneful show plays to full audiences each night. As Leaf, the kid who doesn't believe that he's that smart until he proves his spelling wizardry at the bee, Ferguson serves up equal doses of youthful insecurity and exuberant charm. He says of Leaf, "He is very close to who I am because I helped to create him. Rachel Sheinkin worked very closely with all of us to create this project. It was a true collaborative effort...I was, as a child a very shy, awkward kid. I was artistic and creative but I didn't have very good social skills (I sometimes think that I still don't!)....so all that is definitely part of who Leaf is."

While Ferguson and Leaf share their personalities, they aren't exactly equal when it comes to their spelling chops. "I am a horrible speller and am in constant fear that I am going to spell one of the memorized words wrong in the show. I actually spelled "vulpine" wrong one night. It came a part in the show when we are rapidly moving through spelling words...it's a sort of fast-forward section to signify the passage of time. We just pretended that it didn't happen, and hopefully no one noticed."

As for the eyebrow-raising title of Ferguson's Joe's Pub show (which might bring to mind Finn's earlier musical In Trousers), he blames On the Town co-star and friend, Mary Testa. "It's just a very silly title. She came up with the idea after seeing my show. I tell a story about my mom at the end of the evening. She's an OBGYN...you can kinda fill in the blanks. I don't want to give away the joke but rest assured it is a chestnut of a story! I also feel that being in a solo show is like getting up and exposing yourself for an hour or so."

The wise and witty star will figuratively expose himself, as well as the songs of Finn and LaChiusa, in Jesse Tyler Ferguson: Adios Pantalones! on June 20th and July 4th at 9:30 at Joe's Pub (425 Lafayette St.).

Tickets, which are $20 with a 2-drink minimum, can be purchased by visiting www.telecharge.com. To learn more about Ferguson, visit www.jessetylerferguson.com.

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