Center Stage with UCI Alum Jacob Ben-Shmuel
UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts has trained and molded many rising stars and artists of today, who have taken their talents to live out their dreams. The New University was able to talk with one of these alumni, Jacob Ben-Shmuel. He is currently starring in the touring cast of “The Book of Mormon,” which recently visited the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. In his national tour debut, Ben-Shmuel is the stand-by for the character of Elder Cunningham. He joined the company during late October in 2017. The New U talked with Ben-Shmuel about UCI, his journey to the stage, and what he learned along the way.
Elyse Joseph: What was your first musical experience?
Jacob Ben-Shmuel: My first musical experience? So, when I was — I think I was 6 years old, I was in a production of Merrily We Roll Along at a theater in the Bay Area where I grew up. My mom was a stage manager there, and they needed a little kid to be in the show, so I did it. And I just kind of never stopped doing it.
E: Is that when you knew you wanted to sing and act on stage as a profession in the future?
J: I’m not sure that I had the wherewithal when I was 5 years old to know that this is what I wanted to do. But I just kept doing it, and it was the one thing that just stayed constant my whole life, the one thing that I was always doing. So by the time it came to applying for colleges, I knew that there was nothing else that I cared about as much as theater, so I think I sort of always knew that I would be doing this. I can’t really give you a moment when I realized it. It was more like I eventually saw that I didn’t like anything else quite as much, and I was good at it so I wanted to keep doing it.
E: Who are some of your inspirations?
J: That’s a really good question.
E: In music or acting.
J: Well, on a personal level, my stepdad is a big inspiration of mine. He was actually in Merrily We Roll Along when I did it when I was 6. He played the lead in it, and he didn’t become my stepdad until a while later, but I kept seeing him do really amazing things onstage. He also inspired me in the sense that he could kind of do anything. Like, if you know the show Avenue Q — UCI did it last year — and my stepdad directed that show in the Bay Area, and he built his own puppets when he did that, and we actually used those same puppets when we did Avenue Q at UCI last year. So he inspired me in the sense that he wrote things; he made things with his hands; he directed stuff; he kind of just did anything. Moreso, I think, than any famous person you may have heard of, he really inspired me and continues to inspire me.
E: Who are some of your favorite stars?
J: Let me think about that. This is an answer I think a lot of people give, but I think Heath Ledger was an incredible actor. I remember seeing the “Dark Knight” when I was a kid. Some writers that I love — I’m a little biased because I’m in their musical, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone who wrote “South Park.” I grew up watching “South Park”, so that show really shaped my sense of humor. You know, it’s really cool to get to do their show now. I really love them. I think Sasha Baron Cohen is kind of a secret genius. The way he will just fully invest himself in a character to the point where no one realizes he’s an actor; they just think he’s just a crazy person — I love that. I think it’s awesome. And you know, I could probably think of others, but I’m kind of blanking right now, but those are a few.
E: And what is your favorite musical?
J: Aww man. There’s a musical called “Urinetown.” That is certainly one of my favorites. It’s the musical that I wish I had written. It’s very similar to my sense of comedy and style, and it’s absurd, and I absolutely love it. It’s really smart; it’s really absurd. And that is literally URINE-TOWN, one word, Urine as in pee, Urinetown. It’s amazing. It sounds stupid and it’s absolutely amazing, and anyone who hasn’t listened to it should go listen to it because it’s the best.
E: Do you have any roles that you dream of playing?
J: Yeah. I want to play any role in “The Producers.” I want to do — I feel like there’s a list of obvious ones like Billy Flynn in “Chicago” and Seymour in “Little Shop” and Bobby Song in “Urinetown” and the MC in “Cabaret.” This is a new one, but I’d love to play Evan Hansen in “Dear Evan Hansen”. There’s lots and lots of great roles out there that I’d love to get the opportunity to do. I mean, right now I’m playing a dream role of mine in this tour — Elder Cunningham. I play him sometimes, but it’s absolutely a dream role of mine and has been for a long time. So yeah, there’s a a few but also, you know, there’s constantly new works getting made, and I want to get the chance to originate some roles as well.
E: So what made you want to be in “The Book of Mormon”?
J: Well, I fell in love with the show the first time I heard it. As soon as I found out that the South Park guys had written a musical, I knew I would love it. It’s a perfect musical comedy, and crab-ass in the best possible way… It’s absolutely hilarious and it’s got a huge heart so of course I wanted to be a part of it. The tough thing is, I didn’t really think that there was a role in this show for me. The part that I’m the standby for was originally played by Josh Gad, and part of that role is he’s supposed to be a bigger guy, and then after a while they started opening it up to just like, if you can play an awkward weird character then you can play this role. Because the ensemble parts in the show are all straight-laced, very white mormon boys, and I am not quite that, you know. So I always wanted to be a part of it but I didn’t know that I could and now I am so it’s awesome.
E: Can you talk a little bit more about the character and what drew you to play him in particular?
J: Yeah. I’m the standby, first off, which means that I go on when the lead is sick or out of town or whatever, and that character is Elder Cunningham, who is a very weird guy. He basically is not your typical mormon. He doesn’t know much about being a mormon. He doesn’t really know what it means to be a good mormon…So Elder Cunningham is kind of the misfit mormon. You know he hasn’t read all of the scripture and he doesn’t really fit in with the other mormons and that’s just really fun to play, and its just such a funny, funny character and he’s funny because he has such a big heart and what he really wants is to have a best friend and to fit in and to be accepted but he constantly fails at that and that is really fun to play. So it’s great that he’s a hilarious character, but what makes me want to play him is that it’s all based from such a heartwarming place. He really is just trying to have a best friend, trying to fit in, and I really appreciate that about him because that’s what lets me sink my teeth into the character, that he comes from such a genuine place. And him genuinely trying to be a part of things is hilarious because he always gets it wrong and that’s what i love about it.
E: When and how did did you get this role and what was the auditioning process like?
J: I was a BFA in musical theater at UC Irvine, and the senior BFAs have a showcase in Spring each year. The current BFAs actually just did a showcase in LA and they’ll be doing their New York showcase in a little while, and basically what that is, is you go and you perform some stuff in front of people from the industry and after one of my showcase performances in New York, I got an email from “The Book of Mormon” that was like: “Hey, we didn’t see your showcase, but if you are available we have an audition time that you could come and audition for the role of Elder Cunningham.” I think we had maybe sent them our headshots or something, and they couldn’t make it to [the] showcase, but they saw my headshot and were like, “Oh, he could fit Cunningham.” So I went in and I auditioned and I got a callback about three weeks later. They called me back and I went back to New York to do my callback and that lasted for a couple days. And then the tour was actually coming through Los Angeles, so while I was doing “Avenue Q” in the spring of last year at UCI, I left in the middle of a tech rehearsal to go to LA to do another callback. And then this past summer, in July, they had me do another callback that was basically a week-long callback camp where it was me and a guy called back for the other lead in the show, Elder Price, and we learned a bunch of the material and worked it for a while–for a week, basically — and then filmed all the stuff that we had learned by the end of it and then I sort of waited for a while and got the call and I think it was September or so that they had a spot for me on the tour as a standby. So it was a relatively long process in that I had a lot of callbacks, but it could’ve been much longer and I could have been waiting for a very long time to hear anything. I’d just gotten lucky that they had an opening that I could fill relatively soon after I had my last callback.
E: And what was your reaction after you found out you got the part?
J: I was ecstatic, you know? This was a dream role of mine since the show came out, basically. It was a dream come true. I was “stoked,” as Elder Cunningham would say. And I was right to be so in that this tour has been absolutely fantastic; the people are incredible. I don’t feel alienated at all. I feel really like a part of the family and it’s been one of the most incredible experiences of my life so far, and I’m not even six months into it yet.
E: What is it like being part of the tour and part of such a popular show?
J: We’re really lucky that people — you know, this show’s been out for 7 years at this point — and people are still excited to see it. And that’s what you get out of being in a show that’s this popular; it’s exciting. People still come out and–like we went through San Francisco recently, and I think it’s maybe the fourth time the tour has been through San Francisco or something like that, and we sold out pretty much every night. So the energy is there. People absolutely love the show. And rightfully so I mean, it’s hilarious. It’s fantastic. So it’s been kind of surreal in that sense that I’ve been obsessed with the show since it came out, and there are a lot of other people who have been too, and now I’m a part of it, and its surreal and really fantastic.
E: So what’s it like traveling around, and how does playing the show differ from place to place?
J: I don’t mind the travel. I’m actually having a really great time with it. I’m getting to see the country, parts of the country that I’ve never been to before. And I’m getting to do that while doing the thing I love to do. And you know, it’s funny — depending on the city, the show does kind of change just in the sense that, like, some crowds are much younger, so you get a lot more vocal response from the audience. Some crowds will laugh at things that I didn’t realize were funny and some crowds won’t laugh at things that I think are brilliant and hilarious, so there’s generally a different vibe depending on which city we’re in, but they’re all great, and they all love the show. It’s just the show might feel a little different depending on where we are, but no matter where we are, the show works. It always works because it’s fantastic. But the traveling isn’t a problem. I really, really enjoy it. It’s basically a paid vacation where I get to do the things that I love to do more than anything else.
E: So what parts of the country have you been to on tour that you hadn’t been to before?
J: Well, I’d never been to Florida. We spent five weeks in Florida — five different cities. We got to go to Orlando. I went to Disney World for the first time. That was awesome. I grew up on the West Coast, but I’d never been to Portland, and we went to Portland which was really cool. I mean, that is such a cool little town. The food is incredible. That’s another thing: there’s so much great food in this country, and it’s drastically different depending on where you are. So that’s been awesome seeing all of that and trying different food. We spent a month in D.C. and I’d been to D.C. before on like my eighth grade trip or whatever but I’d never spent that much time there, and the museums and the capitol and–There’s so many free museums in D.C., which is so, so cool. We were in Seattle for a couple weeks, and I’d only been to Seattle for like a few days before; also an awesome city. Most of the places that we’re going to I either haven’t been at all or I’ve only been for a few days, so it’s really like every week is a new experience.
E: So backtracking a little bit, what led you to attend UCI?
J: You know it’s funny. I auditioned for a bunch of schools, and I didn’t prepare my audition very well for colleges, and I didn’t get into any of the schools that I auditioned for. Actually I only got into two schools, and UCI was one of those choices, and they had offered me the Campuswide Honors Program, and they had the BFA program that I was really interested in, so it’s funny, it ended up being like well I don’t really have another choice so I guess I’ll go to UCI and then I loved it, so it was kind of a happy accident and kind of a blessing in disguise that I didn’t get into those other schools that I auditioned for because I got such awesome training at UCI and met amazing people. I got the opportunity to put up shows and work on writing stuff and directing stuff, so I feel like i got a lot more freedom at UCI than I would’ve gotten at like a conservatory program. So what led me there was me not preparing properly for my auditions and not getting into any other schools but I’m really grateful for having gone to UCI for the drama program which I think is just stellar.
E: What were some of the creative projects that you did during your time at UCI?
J: I directed a few different shows while I was there. I directed “Next to Normal” and “Merrily We Roll Along” and a couple of others…I was on one of the improv teams for all four years while I was there and I met my now writing partner while I was on that team. His name is Alan Bachelor, and we wrote a musical together and we did a reading of it with some of the students from UCI. So that was really awesome that I had the opportunity to do that while I was a student, the opportunity to like, present my work, get feedback and then craft it and make it better because that is such an important part of the creative process. So that’s some of the stuff I’m really grateful for — is that I got to work on my own work, my own new work, and I got to flex the directing muscle. And I was in the BFA program for musical theater, but I also got to do straight plays, work in acting classes on great material and that’s something that a lot of conservatories don’t offer. A lot of places you’ll go and you’ll get in as a BFA and they have a very strict set of classes that you take the 4 years that you’re there and they have a very strict curriculum and you’re going to learn it the way they want you to learn it and at UCI you get to pick your own classes; you get to make your education great on your own, and that really benefited me, so I really appreciate that.
E: That’s funny, you got to direct the same musical that was the first one you were ever in.
J: Yeah, I did. That was the last show I really worked on at UCI, was “Merrily We Roll Along”, so it felt really full circle for that to have been the first show that I ever did and then for that to complete my UCI career; it felt full circle and awesome.
E: Do you have a favorite production that you were a part of or favorite part that you played while you were at UCI?
J: Oh, man. The thing is that I was really fortunate in that I got to do a lot while I was there, and I love different roles for different reasons. My senior year, I played Leo Frank in “Parade”, and that was probably the most challenging role that I’ve ever taken on. You know, it’s not a comedy. Not at all, and I discovered a lot about myself while doing that show and I doubted myself a lot while doing that show and I think that was all really beneficial to me in the long run. I also got to do “Avenue Q” my senior year, and I just had so much fun with that show. I played Nicky and that’s another role that I’ve always wanted to play. So I feel like those two are good opposite ends of the spectrum of why I love to do theater. One of them challenged the hell out of me. You know, broke me down on some days, and I think I got something really amazing out of it, and the other one I had a blast. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had onstage. I think that those two were probably my favorites, but like I said, I was fortunate. I did a lot while I was there, and I loved other roles as well, but I guess those two if I had to pick.
E: Were there any professors or classmates that inspired you while you were at UCI?
J: Yeah, tons. In terms of classmates, Alan Bachelor who I mentioned earlier who is my writing partner. He’s so smart and hilarious. But professors I worry that I’ll forget some because there were so many that I think really had an impact on me, but the musical theater faculty: Myrona DeLaney, Gary Busby, Dez Capriano, Don Hill directed I think three shows that I was in while I was there; he has been an incredible resource to me. The trouble is, I’m gonna forget. I’m gonna forget people! Robert Cohen…I only had him for one class, but he helped me love Shakespeare, which I think is really important. Jane Paige directed the first mainstage that I was in at UCI which was “As You Like It” my freshman year and that really gave me the confidence to feel like I could make it at the school. Andrew Palermo kicked my ass in dance class, and I’m forever grateful for that. I’m sure I’m forgetting people. Eli Simon. Now, I’m literally just naming every drama teacher, so there’s Robin Buck as well. There were so many. I fear that I have forgotten someone, and I apologize to whoever I forgot, but the faculty is fantastic over there. Andrew Borba. He’s brand new, but he’s awesome. I mean, there’s too many! There’s too many. I mean I could literally name every professor in the drama program, and I had a meaningful interaction with them that changed the way I think about theater. So I’m sure that I — Phil Thompson. There. See? I almost forgot Phil Thompson. That’s the thing. I will probably forget some people. You could just say, all of them. Great job everyone! That would probably work. Like I said, I had a great support system at UCI.
E: So what were some of the most important things you learned during your time here?
J: I learned — kind of tying in to what I was talking about with having so many professors that made a real impact on me — everyone’s got an opinion, and everyone’s opinion is probably valid at least in some way. And the only way to be happy with your work at the end of the day is to listen to those opinions, figure out if they work for you, and take as much advice as you can, and then at the end of the day realize that it’s you up onstage or in the writer’s room or whatever it is. You’re the one doing it so take the advice, and you have to make it your own. People always say that when you go into an audition, they’re looking for you. The thing that is special about you is that you are you and no one else can replicate that. And that is so, so true and other people can help shape you and help build you up and make you better but at the end of the day you have to make your own choices. You have to figure out how to make stuff work for you because otherwise you’re repeating what somebody else told you, and that’s not gonna be as good, as authentic, as what you bring to the table. I think that’s probably what was most important. But you know, also, I had never taken voice lessons before I got to UCI, so Gary Busby taught me how to sing properly so that was also really important. In a less philosophical sense, that was really important. So I guess those things.
E: Do you have any fond or maybe not-so-fond memories of your time here that you want to share?
J: You know, just the shows that I’ve talked about. Like you said, “Merrily We Roll Along,” that was a cool thing that I got to do, and that is a very stressful memory. We put that up without very much time, and we were all doing a million other things, so that was a stressful show to put up, but … the show’s so worth it, so that was also a wonderful memory. Doing “Avenue Q” with my stepdad’s puppets, that was really awesome. In terms of not-so-fond memories, there’s none that I think of that I’d care to share, but the ones that I have they made me a better person in the long run. I choose to focus on that rather than the negative memory.
E: What did you plan to do right after graduating, and what was your path from graduation to landing your role in “The Book of Mormon”?
J: Actually originally, I was cast in the New Swan Shakespeare Festival, which is the Shakespeare festival that happens every summer at UCI. You should go see it, everyone. It’s a really cool opportunity for students to be in Shakespeare, and it’s a really awesome stage. And I was originally going to be in that but then I got called in to do this weeklong mormon camp thing, and they conflicted so I wasn’t able to be in the show. But originally my plan was to do something — do a show or something — over the summer and then move to New York in fall so I could start planting my roots and auditioning for stuff, but then I started getting callbacks for Mormon and then i was just kind of hoping that Mormon would pan out, so I didn’t make any plans to move once I knew that this was a possibility and then Mormon happened, so I’ve been doing this ever since.
E: So do you have any advice for those of us who are still in school or about to graduate?
J: Enjoy the time that you have left at school. I can’t really speak for people outside of the drama department because I spent very little time outside of the drama department. But while you are in school you will have the easiest time putting up your own work and seeing all of your friends, but they really are memories to last a lifetime, as cheesy as that sounds. And once you leave, you never get that opportunity again. You might not see these people for months at a time or years at a time. So treasure it while you’ve got it because it’s a special thing. And you know, I’m lucky in that I found another family with “The Book of Mormon” crew, but college family are family as well, and you should spend as much time with them as you can before you leave.