PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Book of Mormon — After All, Tomorrow Is a Latter-Day

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25 Mar 2011

Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells; guests Alan Cumming, Hope Davis and Ron Howard
Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells; guests Alan Cumming, Hope Davis and Ron Howard
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Meet the first-nighters at opening night of the new Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.


Those subversively silly boys from "South Park," Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and the equally iconoclastic composer of Avenue Q, Robert Lopez, established their Broadway beachhead March 24 at the Eugene O'Neill in no uncertain terms with a platoon of Peck's Bad Boys guised as a gaggle of Goody-Two-Shoes Mormon missionaries bringing their bland brand of empty sunshine to the Dark Continent.

Praying for an assignment in Orlando, FL, fresh-faced and pimple-free Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) is sentenced instead to Uganda — oh, well — and further saddled with a needy nerd of a sidekick, Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), but manfully the two march on with great pluck to an Africa where the tribes cope with AIDS, a trigger-happy war lord and female circumcision. Onward, Christian soldiers, indeed!

The natives have a phrase for it — "Wasadiga Abowai," they say a lot — but don't ask.

The Book of Mormon, which is hardly based on the book by that name which Joseph Smith translated from some gold plates he dug up once, is a cautionary tale of beautiful Americans abroad, running amok with do-good intentions in places that are dry on hope.

The opening-night performance was up to the buzz that had preceded it for weeks of previews, and, at the Gotham Hall afterparty, its creators started sifting through the confetti and rave newspaper reviews to see exactly what it was they had wrought.

Casey Nicholaw, the choreographer who co-directed the show with Parker, arrived with his Elder Nicholaw nametag intact and advanced his theory about the show's immediately warm response. "It's contemporary humor in a traditional musical-theatre package, and that's what makes it so much fun," he theorized. "I think people are not expecting the traditional musical-theatre package part."

Despite the irreverence it waves like a banner, The Book of Mormon conceals an innocent, accessible, vulnerable heart, he contended: "You know what's funny? At first, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh. Listen to all those words. What's my mother gonna think?' But, in context, with a heart behind it, it doesn't feel shocking to me.

"There's a reason behind all of that. I think if you heard those songs out of context, you'd go, 'Oh, that's not for me. Are they just trying to shock us with the words?' But it doesn't feel like that in the show. My favorite part of the show is when its heart kicks in. People are laughing, laughing, laughing, then all of a sudden, they're thinking, 'How did I get tears in my eyes? Why did that happen?' That feels great.

"It's so much fun to be able to choreograph comedic numbers — and also numbers that are inherently danceable. These guys are kings at comedy writing, and to be able to have that stuff so easily and be supported by that — as opposed to 'How can I make this number funny?' The numbers are just funny. The material was there and good, and it made my job much easier. It was an easy show. The stars aligned for us."

Even the co-directing division came easily, he claimed: "It was quite natural, honestly. It really was. The thing of it is: both of us had two jobs. We're both directors. I'm choreographer, he's writer. It kinda goes like that. We meet together in the directing. He's dealing with the writing aspect of it, and how to convey to the actors what he meant when he was writing it, and I'm doing a lot of physical stuff and the logistics."


That's how co-director Parker saw it. "Casey really did most of the theatrical directing. It was just a matter of doing what I always do, which is make sure that the stuff is there comedy-wise and just visually making sure that it's what we want it to be."

He drank in the excitement of his first Broadway opening in huge gulps, and it had a slightly melancholy aftertaste. "This is more fun than a movie premiere, for sure," he had to admit. "A movie premiere is kinda like giving birth to a baby and saying, 'Okay, here's the baby.' And this is more like saying goodbye to your 18-year-old and saying, 'Okay, go off in the world and see how you do.' It's really different that way."

The compliment that pleases him the most is how well-constructed the comedy is, how it hangs together. "It's a magic trick. That's working on something for seven years. And we know. We're big in structure on movies and 'South Park.' We know it's just all about work, about making sure we work on something. It was six hours of boredom and 30 minutes of spectacular stuff — like writing anything. There was a lot of sitting around, going, 'I dunno, I dunno,' and then 20 minutes later, a good idea."

Lopez remembered it that way, too. "It wasn't always thunderbolts," he understated. "There was a lot of just sitting around and staring at each other and surfing the web, but, when we made each other laugh, it was a lot of fun. We're all in a room together, collaborating — like a band, almost. That's the way comedy needs to be written. You need to have people in the room so the comedy can actually happen."

The idea of doing a musical about Joseph Smith and the creation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints already existed with Parker and Stone before they met Lopez. What solidified their collaboration was when Lopez told them this was going to be his next project as well. "They said, 'This is too much of a coincidence. We love Avenue Q. We love this guy, and he loves Mormons, and we love Mormons, and we love musicals, and he writes musicals. Let's do it together.'

"What I had wanted to write was a musical epic comedy — a spoof epic. I wanted to write about religion. I'd never read 'The Book of Mormon,' which is about these ancient Jews who supposedly sailed to America before Christ and were visited by Christ and then were eventually wiped out, and one of the tribes became the Native Americans — which is utterly amazing, but, whatever it is, it inspired a group of people to cross the U.S. and lay down their lives for this guy. That's another miracle. Finally, I got my hands on it, read it and fell asleep on page five. It's pretty boring."


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