What’s in a name? … acting, auditioning

What’s in a name? … acting, auditioning

Jacob Ben-Shmuel appears at and looks beyond the Paper Mill

Jacob Ben-Shmuel, who stars as Barry Mann in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s latest production, “Beautiful: The Carole  King Musical,” has a great guffaw.

It erupts shortly after I ask my first question: “Is that your stage name?”

“No, that’s the real name,” he said in a Zoom interview. “That’s a great question. You know, I considered [changing] it growing up. But I couldn’t find anything that felt right, felt like me. And the other thing was that I was fortunate and booked my first Equity  national tour right out of college.”

Equity is the stage actor’s Teamsters, and one of the requirements is that you immediately pick a name that stays with you exclusively for the rest of your career. If someone already has selected your name — even if yours is your birth name and theirs is fake — you have to pick a pseudonym.

As luck would have it, no other actor was using Jacob Ben-Shmuel, so he went with that.

“I had to make my decision immediately upon getting cast in an equity tour, and nothing else felt right,” Mr. Ben-Shmuel said. “And I like my name, so I stuck with it. It’s unapologetically Jewish, and that is okay.”

He signed on to understudy as Elder Cunningham in the national tour of “The Book of Mormon.” It’s a role he played “many times” over the 2 1/2 years he was on the road, he said.

His theatrical journey began 29 years ago in small communities on California’s East Bay, outside San Francisco.

“I’ve been doing theater since I was very, very small,” he said. “My mother was a stage manager for a theater in the East Bay that no longer exists. I did “Merrily We Roll Along” when I was 5.”

His parents, Christine Marshall and Eliezer Ben-Shmuel, divorced when he was 8 and his sister, Jordan, was 4.

His father is Israeli, but he grew up in the United States. “My saba” — his grandfather — “Shmuel Ben-Shmuel, was born in Bulgaria, and my savta” — his grandmother — “Geula Ben-Shmuel, was born in Yemen,” Mr. Ben-Shmuel said. “They met in Israel, and brought my father and his two siblings to the U.S. when my father was 6 so that my saba could get his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering.”

Mr. Ben-Shmuel’s mother is not Jewish.

Samantha Massell and Jacob Ben-Shmuel are in “Beautiful.”

After the divorce, his father moved to Anaheim, in southern California, and the kids spent a great deal of time in both places; his father remarried, and eventually Jacob and Jordan had two younger half-siblings.

And everyone was Jewish.

“My sister and I converted when we both were very young,” Mr. Ben-Shmuel said. His father and stepmother belonged to a Conservative shul, Jacob and Jordan wanted to celebrate becoming b’nai mitzvah there when they were old enough, and the only way to do that was to convert.

That was an easy choice for them. “We always have considered ourselves to be Jewish,” he said. “We simply wanted it to be more official.” And his mother didn’t mind. “She was always happy for Jordan and me to be raised Jewish.”

His Jewish connections weren’t only to the synagogue. “In high school, I would spend my summers in southern California, doing shows at the local JCC in Long Beach,” he said.

The following excerpts from the interview have been lightly edited:

Curt Schleier:  I guess your mom provided the inspiration for your career.

JBS: Like I said, I’ve been doing this since I was very young, and my mother had a career in it. Before the recession, when she lost her job, she’d worked at the same theater for over 20 years. And so I saw growing up an example of someone making their way in theater and being able to provide for a family. Now it wasn’t always easy, obviously. We struggled financially quite a bit, but I knew that that was a possibility. And so having that example in my life and knowing that the thing that brought me the most joy in my life was theater, I never really considered doing something else.

CS: What was it like being a theater kid in high school? Did that make your life difficult?

JBS: The thing about being a theater kid is that once you find your community of fellow theater kids it stops being hard. I was lucky. My high school had several what they call academies within it, where you take specialized classes. I was in the arts academy, which covers theater, studio, art, photography, and video. And so I was taking classes with a bunch of other kids who would be doing the same thing that I was doing. I found my community very quickly. And then when I went to get my BFA at UC Irvine, I had a community also. So it wasn’t as difficult as you may think.

CS: Apparently neither was getting your first part. How did that happen?

JBS: Honestly, I don’t know for sure, but what I think happened was our school sent out [acting students’] head shots to various casting directors, including the casting director for “Book of Mormon.” The play is constantly looking for young talent. They want folks fresh out of school, because all the characters are very young. And so I think someone saw our headshots, looked at mine, and said, “yeah, this guy looks like he could be Elder Cunningham.”

They called and said we have an audition slot open for you if you want to come in. So I did. I auditioned and had many, many callbacks, something like five or six callbacks. Including one where they brought me to New York for a week in the summer of 2017 to learn a good chunk of the show. They filmed that and sent it off to the producers. When a spot opened up on the tour and they needed another standby, I was at the top of their list.

CS: You were in the show for 2 1/2 years. Did that get boring?

JBS: I was fresh out of school. I’d traveled a little in my life, but I was basically now being paid a handsome salary to travel the country and see places  I’d never get to see otherwise. I got to go on in this dream role. And I was very fortunate as well. I met some of my best friends in the world on that tour. So I would say the first year and a  half, it was very little boredom. Maybe the last year there was little spikes of that here and there.

CS: Was there a point, though, where you said, “Great. But I can’t do this forever. What do I do next?”

JSB: I put in my notice at the end of 2019. My contract was up in May 2020, and I was going to leave the show then. I actually had a lot of plans. I’d found a place in New York. I was going to move to the city for the first time and start auditioning there. But covid threw a wrench into that. The tour closed in March. Instead, I went back to Southern California and stayed with my grandparents for a bit. And then I went to Northern California and stayed with my mom and stepdad for a while, and  then I worked on a podcast with my writing partner Alan Blake Bachelor that was called “One Million Musicals.”  We wrote one a month for 10 months, partly because we were crazy doing nothing and needed a creative outlet.

CS: When did you get back in the game?

JSB: I finally made the move to New York in January 2022. and I immediately started auditioning. I booked a few shows that first year, I did “Godspell” at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. And then that fall I did a production of “An American in Paris” at the Argyle Theatre in Babylon, on Long Island. And I also put on a concert of a bunch of my original work from the podcast and elsewhere.

CS: So it was audition, audition, audition. Was there one that stands out as being especially cruel?

JBS: I’m so excited to be doing this show at the Paper Mill. I’ve tried to book “Beautiful” so many many times. My worst experience was for another production of the play. They gave me like four sides [pages of dialogue] and two songs to prepare, and the whole time the entire team, especially the director, didn’t even look at me. They just had their heads down in their notes.

CS: Is that common?

JBS: I wouldn’t call it common. It’s one of those things where you never know what’s going through their heads. Do they already have someone they want and are seeing you just as a courtesy? I try not to take it personally.

CS: Do you ever get used to that level of disappointment?

JBS: I will say it gets easier the more times it happens. I had a lot of opportunities in school. There were some rejections, but there was a lot less of it than in the real world. So really my education on rejection is still pretty new. It’s been since I moved to the city, started auditioning, and getting rejected all the time. The sting never goes away, especially when you care about the [project] you were auditioning for. But at the end of the day, if you love [theater] and you want to do it, then rejection is part of it. I try to keep in mind that one didn’t happen, but something else will.

CS: So what happens now? When do you begin auditioning for your next project?

JBS: I’ve already started auditioning. I sent in two self-tapes yesterday. I have a callback for another show that’s happening in the fall. It kind of never stops. In some ways it can be anxiety-inducing because you’re constantly looking for the next thing. But I love jumping from thing to thing. I’ve always kind of done that. So it also feels exciting and it feels like I’m doing what I should be doing.

CS: Are you happy with where you are at this point in your career?

JBS: I lost two years of my life to the pandemic. Considering that, since moving to New York I think I’ve been able to build a reputation as someone people want to work with. someone who is reliable. I know my name is not going to sell a bunch of tickets right now, but that doesn’t mean that can’t change. I think what’s important for me now is to make connections with the kind of artists I want to work with. I mean the director of this show, Casey Hushion, is an excellent example of that. She’s just amazing. Really one of the most dynamic, exciting directors I’ve ever worked with. Now I get to do this amazing role in this amazing production. So there’s that.

Do I wish I’d been on Broadway already? Sure. But I’m not worried that it’ll never happen. Because I feel I’m now building a foundation where that’s going to be possible.

“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” runs at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through July 3. To learn more, and for tickets, go to papermill.org.

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