“It’s Like Lightning in a Bottle”: Eli Gelb and Idina Menzel Geek Out Over Stereophonic

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Eli Gelb, photographed by Stephanie Diani.

Years ago, Idina Menzel’s acting coach told her it’s okay to take some creative liberties with her resume. And if a casting director happened to say, “I saw that show in bumfuck wherever and I don’t remember you playing Rizzo in Grease,” Menzel was to reply, “Well, I could have played an amazing Rizzo.” That’s the kind of moxie, she told the Tony-nominated Eli Gelb, who currently stars as the well-meaning, perpetually stoned sound engineer in the hit Broadway play Stereophonic, required of someone in show business. Gelb, who in 2018 played Menzel’s son in Joshua Harmon’s Broadway dramedy Skintight, didn’t land the role right away. “I got to do the table read a couple springs ago and I got the news that it wasn’t what they were looking for,” he told Menzel, on her birthday, over Zoom last week. “I was so bummed. And then, I don’t know what happened, but somehow I got it.” A few years later, the 37-year-old is channeling that initial sense of rejection eight times a week as Grover, who spends much of the three-hour production, directed by Daniel Aukin, hovering over a mixing console as he weathers the volatile personalities and toxic dynamics of a 1970s SoCal rock band attempting to record their new album. In many ways, it’s Gelb who makes the show—and the band—hum, bringing forth the show’s spirit of collaboration even as the bandmembers treat him as a nuisance. “In the second and third act, you’re like the heart and the glue of the entire play,” Menzel says. After seeing the show, she called up her old co-star to remind him to stop and smell the roses.


ELI GELB: Thanks for doing this on your birthday.

IDINA MENZEL: Yeah. Do you have a show tonight? Where are we?

GELB: That’s a good question. It happens to be Thursday.

MENZEL: So you do have a show tonight?

GELB: We do, yeah.

MENZEL: How do you feel? I mean, I was so blown away by the stamina and endurance that is required of all of you. As someone that’s done eight shows a week, this seemed even more exhausting. I’m not sure why I thought that, but how are you pacing yourself?

GELB: I feel like that’s an instructive question. It’s like, “Hey, Eli, you should pace yourself.” I don’t know if I’m doing that. Maybe I should talk to you about how to do eight shows a week.

MENZEL: Are you sleeping?

GELB: Not enough. Since the Tony noms came in, we’ve had different things to go to every day.

MENZEL: Well, first, congratulations.

GELB: I appreciate that. Usually I’d be sleeping until 2:00 in the afternoon, so rest is hard to come by right now. But it’s all good. I’m really touched, and eight shows a week, I don’t know how you do it. Is your life just like this all the time? Constant?

MENZEL: Well, when I’m doing eight shows a week it is. Or just being a mom. I will say that having a child helped me a lot with priorities. It really helped me have a perspective on what really counts. It helps knowing that someone else is depending on me and it’s not all about me. But when you’re young, like you and the cast [of Stereophonic], it’s so exciting and nerve-wracking.

GELB: Yeah. I feel as well taken care of as I can be. Also, there’s a lot of excitement about the show.

MENZEL: Is it overwhelming to have all that excitement about the show?

GELB: Sort of. It just feels really well-deserved. When I read the script, I was like, “This is incredible.” I saw stars. And the fact that it lived up to that understanding feels pretty natural to me.

MENZEL: Do you want to tell us about your audition process?

GELB: Oh man, that’s such a long story, but I can tell you. So in 2019, you and I did that play with Daniel [Aukin, the director], Skintight, written by Joshua Harmon. That was a wonderful, amazing process sort of across the board. You were fantastic. And you know how special Daniel is.


GELB: I got an audition for this show, which Daniel’s also directing, and I gave a pretty good audition. But the day after that audition, the pandemic shutdown was put into effect.

MENZEL: Oh, that’s the time frame? 

GELB: Yeah. I was gunning for this from day one, so that sort of disappeared, along with the many other things that were painful about that moment. Then I got to do the table read a couple springs ago and I got the news that it wasn’t what they were looking for. I was so bummed. David [Adjmi, the playwright] has crafted this thing over the course of 10 years. It is an incredible, symphonically scored piece; it’s very specific, and he has a very specific vision. But Daniel fought for me pretty hard. I auditioned for it two more times and then I learned I didn’t get the part.

MENZEL: Oh my god.

GELB: And then, I don’t know what happened, but somehow I got it. 

MENZEL: Well, I performed some sexual favors for you. [Laughs]

GELB: Thank you, I really appreciate it. You were always looking out for me. [Laughs] But during the lockdown, things weren’t going great for me, so this play was sort of the thing I’d pinned all my hopes to.

MENZEL: Would you say that you used a lot of those parallels for Grover? 

GELB: Totally. I mean, there’s something mystical going on in this play. It’s pretty wild.

MENZEL: Life imitating art?

GELB: I’ll mention this only because he’s talked about it publicly, but Will Brill went through a painful public divorce and substance abuse issues and has come out the other side. And that’s something his character’s dealing with. There’s just a lot of parallels. I think I really responded to the part of Grover that feels really undervalued and misunderstood, but also believes in himself deeply and wants to share what he has to offer. It’s a really interesting place to now be nominated for a Tony for a performance where I present two truths in a way.

MENZEL: What do you mean?

GELB: There’s the me who didn’t get this role, and then there’s the me who did get this role.

MENZEL: And the accolades…

GELB: Yeah. In some ways, it’s a source of validation for the self that felt unseen. We all want to step into the thing that we want to offer the world.

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MENZEL: You believe that you’re meant to do what you do. You’re good at what you do. But when deep down, you feel like, “I deserve to be doing this and I’m really good at it,” and then to have the universe keep throwing a wrench in that, you still have the fortitude and belief in yourself. And then, you get to see it all come to fruition and know you were right and, I would say, get some retribution. You don’t have to say it, I’ll say it for you.

GELB: Yeah, but I don’t see it quite as retribution.

MENZEL: I know you don’t, but I’m feeling that way for you.

GELB: Thank you. You’re so sweet. I just read the script and I was like, “I understand this character so well.”

MENZEL: That’s how I felt when I read the Wicked script for Elphaba. When I left the audition and I walked outside, I cried. I felt so connected to her and all of a sudden, I really wanted it. So when I had my callback, I was super nervous. Often I tell myself, “Don’t wish for things so you won’t be disappointed.” But I wanted it because I could bring stuff from my life that feels like her. She’s misunderstood but feels really powerful inside and is almost afraid of that power sometimes. It was about someone embracing that finally and turning their anger into something useful. I think it’s similar. In Stereophonic, it feels like Grover’s always brimming. You’re just sizzling the whole time. And then there’s the anger you have that you’re trying to temper because you’ve been hired to do this job, which is often very thankless.

GELB: Totally.

MENZEL: And I love that in the first act, so much of the time we see your back. You do a lot of back acting, which really is so hard, but we feel it. We feel every sigh, every breath, every move of your hands, without even seeing your face. I’m not sure people realize how hard that is to do. And then in the second and third act, you’re like the heart and the glue of the entire play. I didn’t know that that was going to happen. 

GELB: Thank you, that means a lot. Grover walks such a delicate line in terms of how he serves the play and who he is as a person. I mean, every character in this play is so complicated. He was extraordinarily mysterious to me as an actor. I knew how deeply I connected to him, but I wasn’t sure how to fully embody it. I think the piece of Grover that I connect with the most is that I’ve always sort of held space for people to have their realities. And I think a lot of what Grover’s doing in this play is trying to balance the different realities in the room.

MENZEL: But ultimately, you are the truth, which is interesting because he lied to get there. Which I totally relate to, as someone that put all of these roles that I had never played on my resume after college. My acting professor said, “Just put them on. And if somebody says to you, ‘I saw that show in bumfuck wherever and I don’t remember you playing Rizzo in Grease—'”

GELB: Oh my god.

MENZEL: She said to just say, “Well, I could have played an amazing Rizzo.” So yeah, I’m all for it.

GELB: I can’t believe you did that. That’s so great. That totally goes with the whole thing of me knowing what I have to offer.

MENZEL: You’re going to have to keep fighting for that, because people now see you this way. I was so happy to do Skintight, where I wasn’t singing, because I rarely get offered things unless I’m singing and I want to be known as a great actress as well. So that was a gift.

GELB: And you are a great actress.

MENZEL: Thank you. One thing I loved so much about this play was that it’s about the creative process, especially the recording process, which I really think people take for granted when they listen to music. How much research did you have to do to really know how to move the faders and understand it enough?

GELB: I mean, basically the first thing I did was talk to my friend Zach, who’s a composer and producer. I met up with him in Queens and we took this really old live mixing console out of his trunk and brought it up to his apartment. He gave me the rundown on all the different components of the board. I just needed to know like, “What are the different dials?”

MENZEL: It was like a spaceship?

GELB: A little bit, yeah. I was really intimidated by the idea of needing to be able to connect with this prop so intimately.

MENZEL: Right. And were you recording live? 

GELB: It’s all recorded live. The entire band, every instrument, every audio signal.

MENZEL: Every night?

GELB: Yes, every night. Every audio signal that you hear is routed to a mixer.

MENZEL: Why do you think Daniel and David chose to take that risk and do that every night, as opposed to just having the band kind of finger-sync?

GELB: There’s so much authenticity in this play, and it’s about the task of making something together, specifically music.

MENZEL: That’s what I love so much about the play. You could actually see the tiny nuances. I love the recording studio, whether it be something in Frozen or in the studio doing my own music. And the singer and the producer really relies on the engineer there. I feel like I want them to approve of me. The engineer sees all of your insecurities and your flaws, and exposing yourself to each other that way is what I really connected to in the show. You all really nailed that.

GELB: Thanks. That’s the reason it needed to be real. I mean, I think what the play is really about is being a part of a group, a collective. Whether it’s a family or an ensemble or a culture, we all need each other in different ways. We need to have difficult conversations sometimes.

MENZEL: I think theater and band are these art forms where we really are family. It’s a sanctuary for us, because the rest of our lives are so isolated.

GELB: Ditto. I think that it comes down to communication. There’s such a shortage of healthy communication in our world. And working with Daniel, any break in communication along the way, we’d all lose out.

MENZEL: He just provides this incredible safe space to take risks and make mistakes. That all sounds pretty actor-speak, but—

GELB: But it’s true. I was like, “I love this play so much, I want to do it exactly how the people who created it envisioned it.”

MENZEL: But Daniel leaves so much room for not knowing. He’s really okay with saying, “I haven’t figured it out yet.” He knows that the process will illuminate the answer. And it will come from a much deeper place if we find it on our own than him telling us how to do it.

GELB: Absolutely. He welcomes the idea that he will be surprised. And I think that’s true for every good artist. It’s equal parts hard work and curiosity and openness. The constant curiosity is one of the things that I love the most about this cast. We got the news we were going to move to Broadway and there were things that we wanted to revisit in a different way, so everybody just sort of brought it out.

MENZEL: Yeah. People always say, “How do you do eight shows a week? Don’t you get bored?” And I always say, “No, because every night is completely different.” I’m bringing in a different experience of my day with me. Every audience is different. I’ve been lucky to be in long-running shows, and sometimes you discover something nine months in and you say, “Why didn’t I say it like that all the time?” or “Oh, that’s what that means.” That’s what I love so much about theater.

GELB: That’s undeniable. And Daniel’s the first director I’ve ever worked with that didn’t do much table work at all. It was really cool to see how his process was.

MENZEL: Like the cast is the marble, and he’s just sculpting.

GELB: Yes. The respect he has for actors just couldn’t be more clear.

MENZEL: I hope in the commotion and the chaos, you’re able to really take in the moment and appreciate everything. I know when I was in Rentand I guess that was looked at as a zeitgeist kind of show—none of us had been on Broadway before and we were so excited. There were so many emotions going on, but it’s like lightning in a bottle, so I hope you can all take a moment together. When the wind is swirling and the press is around and people are all up in your faces, just enjoy it. Because it doesn’t always happen like this.

GELB: Yeah, we all feel so lucky. I certainly do. It’s hard to stay present, but I will take that to heart. I’m just so touched by the fact that you continue to be in my life after working with you—

MENZEL: Oh, I love you too. I see you as a peer, but I also feel a maternal instinct for you. Or maybe just a big sister. I don’t have to age myself like that…

GELB: You’ve always really looked out for me.

MENZEL: You’re terrific in this play. I’m proud to know you.

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Grooming: Scott McMahan.