The Hollywood star, in search of a career reset, has returned to his Broadway roots with ‘Gutenberg! The Musical!’
“Welcome,” he croons, “to your liiiiife.”
That lyric opens Tears for Fears’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” a tune Gad covered in the 2015 movie “Pixels” and an apt earworm for a 42-year-old actor who has spent the past decade-plus conquering many a medium — stage and screen, comedy and drama, live action and animation.
Perhaps best known for voicing Olaf, the Frozen franchise’s enchanting snowman sidekick, Gad has also played supporting roles in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” remake, the Agatha Christie potboiler “Murder on the Orient Express” and the civil-rights-era biopic “Marshall.” His television exploits, meanwhile, have included starring turns on the space-age farce “Avenue 5” and the sketch-show mockumentary “The Comedians.”
But as his friend and collaborator Andrew Rannells puts it, Gad “really is a creature of the theater.” The Hollywood, Fla., native looks back on his 2006 Broadway debut in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” as the breakthrough that convinced him to not give up on acting. In 2011, his starring turn as the bumbling, Star Wars-evangelizing Elder Cunningham in “The Book Mormon” propelled his ascent into hyperdrive. After “Spelling Bee” defined his 20s and “Mormon” kick-started his 30s, Gad entered his 40s in search of another Broadway pit stop to reorient his career.
“I always find that when I do theater, it sort of resets everything,” Gad says. “I needed that reset. I had become cynical a little bit. It’s called show business, and a lot of times, I think we get derailed by the ‘business’ side of the enterprise. The ‘show’ part of it is something that I really needed to give more weight.”
Enter “Gutenberg!,” a manic metamusical that follows two nursing home workers as they stage an all-or-nothing Broadway reading of their ill-conceived show about the inventor of the printing press. Reuniting Gad with Rannells, his “Book of Mormon” co-star, the two-hander leans on the rib-tickling rapport of its leads for a two-hour romp packed with alt-comedy shenanigans, eccentric songs and heartfelt aspiration. After officially opening earlier this month, “Gutenberg! The Musical!” runs through Jan. 28 at the James Earl Jones Theatre.
“I mean, he couldn’t have picked a harder show to come back with,” director Alex Timbers says. “Any other show, you get to go offstage for a little bit and other people do scenes. You’re not moving the scenery yourself. You’re not doing all the dancing yourself. He literally sings in every song. I think it just shows his work ethic and his creative ambition.”
Performing in a show that’s a musical theater love letter and ode to dreamers everywhere is a natural fit for Gad, who traces his infatuation with the form to a trio of performances he attended as a child. The first, a production of “The King and I” that arrived in South Florida, exposed him to the escapism of acting. The second, a “Peter Pan” tour starring Cathy Rigby, left him enamored by sheer stagecraft. The third, a trip to Broadway to see Chaim Topol in the Jewish fable “Fiddler on the Roof,” showed Gad — the grandson of Holocaust survivors — the power of an emotional connection to art.
“Those three experiences made me fall in love with the possibilities of what theater can be,” recalls Gad, who says his corresponding comic sensibility stemmed from a desire to make his mother laugh after her divorce. “That was it. I was sold.”
Although Gad never planned on spending a decade away from the stage after leaving “The Book of Mormon” in 2012, the obligations of raising two daughters and nurturing a budding Hollywood career took priority. When a planned collaboration with Timbers on a revival of “A Funny Thing on the Way to the Forum” hit a roadblock, the director came to Gad with the decidedly riskier “Gutenberg!”
Scott Brown and Anthony King wrote and originally performed the show as a one-act endeavor at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in 2005. After directing Nick Kroll and John Mulaney in 2016’s “Oh, Hello on Broadway,” Timbers foresaw an audience for the spiritually aligned “Gutenberg!” — a show he helmed in its 2006 off-Broadway iteration — if the right stars aligned.
Initially skeptical of the off-the-wall premise, Gad quickly fell for the script’s irreverent ethos. He subsequently floated the idea of teaming up on the project with Rannells, only to realize that was Timbers’s plan all along. A March 2020 reading of the script proved promising, and though the coronavirus pandemic promptly put a pin in that plan, the conversation about bringing “Gutenberg!” to Broadway resumed late last year. Concerned his screen career was starting to stagnate, with truly challenging roles coming few and far between, Gad embraced the opportunity for another onstage “reset.”
“That creative hunger would be satisfied only by getting back on a stage and doing what I know is my favorite thing on Earth, which is making people laugh in real time,” Gad says. “I wanted to bring that experience of now being much more comfortable in my spirit and my body in my 40s back to theater and see what that looked like.”
Gad jokes that he tried to back out of his contract after getting his first glimpse at the 100-plus trucker hats his character, Bud, and Rannells’s Doug must don to differentiate the dozens of figures they inhabit in the musical’s show within a show. (Among Bud’s characters: Johannes Gutenberg’s love interest Helvetica, the villainous Monk and “Anti-Semitic Flower Girl.”) But Timbers and Rannells emphasize that it was usually Gad pressing ahead in the rehearsal hall — suggesting fresh gags, rolling with Rannells’s ad-libs and volunteering to work through lunch.
“Josh sort of underplays his skill,” Rannells says. “He’ll tell people that he was not in shape to do it mentally or physically and that’s why it took him so long to come back. But the first day of rehearsal, Josh just jumped right in and knew most of the material already before we even got on our feet.”
The comeback narrative, however, has had its plot twists. For starters, Gad deals with generalized anxiety disorder (appropriately shortened, he points out, to GAD) and still gets stage fright before every performance. His physical health hasn’t fully cooperated, either: An urgent abdominal issue cost him one preview performance, and an ill-timed sinus infection hampered his voice on opening night.
Yet to Gad, the thrill of performing for a live audience — which on opening night included his daughters, 12-year-old Ava and 9-year-old Isabella, both born after “Mormon” debuted in March 2011 — tends to convert any angst into adrenaline.
“As an actor, it’s important to constantly challenge yourself and keep yourself accountable,” Gad says. “There’s no greater form of accountability than being onstage and knowing that if you f— up, there’s no second take. I needed that. I needed to have my feet held to the fire.”
Gad forged such fortitude early in his career, when Carnegie Mellon University rejected him from its musical theater department and put him on a conventional acting track separate from classmates Josh Groban, Leslie Odom Jr. and other future stars. He feels Hollywood also tested his resilience, pigeonholing him in his 20s as the “fat, nerdy best friend.” Rather than develop a chip on his shoulder or outsize ego, Gad stayed grounded amid the ups and downs.
“Some of these people, success changed them — and not in the best ways,” Odom says of that stacked Carnegie Mellon class. “Some people became slightly different versions of themselves: a less kind version of themselves, a less warm, less tolerant version of themselves. But not Josh. Success and the journey hasn’t changed him at all, really. He’s still the same guy who really just wants to get you in the corner and make you laugh harder than you’ve laughed that day.”
That appealing energy has made Gad especially adept at playing hapless but lovable characters. “Mormon’s” Elder Cunningham and “Frozen’s” Olaf were early examples. He also brings an inherent innocence to the benevolent busker Birdie on “Central Park,” the Apple TV Plus animated series he co-created. When Hollywood has needed an actor to voice a canine companion, it has called on Gad no fewer than four times (for “Marmaduke,” “A Dog’s Purpose,” “A Dog’s Journey” and “Strays”).
In playing Bud, the composer behind the intentionally scattershot score of “Gutenberg!,” Gad gleans laughter with characteristically endearing quirks — offhand apprehension, nervous shouting and slapdash shimmying among them.
“He’s got a wicked sense of humor,” Timbers says. “But as a human being, he’s a very sincere, sweet person. So the fact that he plays innocence and naive — with a slight twisted comic edge — it’s actually very true to him.”
“There’s so many different types of funny,” Odom adds. “Josh is a big-hearted, really generous kind of funny.”
So will it be another decade before Gad and that earnest allure return to Broadway? That’s the question that Rannells recommends asking his co-star. “Because I’ve got to say, he seems happy doing it,” Rannells reasons. “I would be curious to see what he says.”
When queried, Gad demurs. “Part of me now loves the symmetry of coming back once a decade to do a show,” he muses. “So I don’t know.” But upon further reflection, he sings a clearer tune.
“I always think, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything,’ which is why I put myself in this situation to literally physically torture myself onstage eight times a week,” Gad says. “You are sweating your ass off, singing through inflamed vocal cords, icing your knees, constantly terrified walking out on the stage. And yet, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“So, yeah — I’ll be back.”
Gutenberg! The Musical!, book, music and lyrics by Scott Brown and Anthony King. Directed by Alex Timbers. Through Jan. 28 at James Earl Jones Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York. gutenbergbroadway.com.