Two years ago, comic Dan Fogler created the character of William Barfee, a slobbish preteen spelling champ with a “rare mucous-membrane disorder,” for a friend’s improv sketch called “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E.” Next week, he’s likely to earn a Tony nomination for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the show’s Broadway-musical incarnation. Fogler talked to Boris Kachka about his good fortune, his inner child, and his brother’s inspiring nasal difficulties.
How do you get into a character that’s so weird?
He’s not very weird to me. He’s like a member of my family—the embodiment of the anxieties and the weirdness that I had in my middle-school years. The way I felt on the inside, that’s how he looks on the outside. My brother and I, we were both relatively good-looking guys growing up, but we had our awkward stages, where we were just hard to look at. Those feelings run deep. And there are specific things, like the collapsed nasal passages—that was my brother. He sounded like a buzz saw when he was sleeping.
Where did you get that voice?
Barfee cannot breathe through his nose, so the only way to talk is out the back of his throat. Over time, it’s gotten less irritating to do. More irritating for the audience, less irritating for me.
Has the character evolved from skit to musical?
In the very beginning stages, people loved him because he was like [The Simpsons’] Mr. Burns. He was diabolical. But if you want a full journey, then you’ve got to give it the heart.
He’s still kind of a bully, though.
Well, everyone’s a bully for a reason, because everyone’s been bullied. If you’re not realizing that he’s a porcupine because people are constantly picking on him, then you’ve missed it.
Even when James Lapine and William Finn stepped in, Broadway still seemed like a long shot. How did you manage it?
I think we had a lot of people who were blockers before us, if you put it in football terminology. We had some Urinetowns and Avenue Qs—these little-train-that-could shows that have had some commercial success. So I don’t think it was such a crazy leap. But when they told us, it was still a beautiful, beautiful moment.
So you must feel like an overnight success.
Maybe if I was younger—but I’ve been paying my dues. I’ve been working very hard off-off-off-off-off-off-off Broadway, and doing little films and really sweating my butt off in tiny little black boxes. You pray and you do your thing, and then you’ve just got to appreciate it when it does happen.
Yeah, but now you’re famous for playing this repulsive kid.
You know what? I love him so much that I would dedicate the Tony to the character. That character that came out of my subconscious childhood. If you’re not able to let them look at you while you’re being vulnerable, then get out of the business.