PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Book of Mormon — After All, Tomorrow Is a Latter-Day
By Harry Haun
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."
The collaborative musicalization of this debatable Holy Writ is anything but boring, thanks in large heaps to the career-making star turn by Gad, who comes up slowly on the outside to become the show's real hero. (He brings off this feat when he backslides into lying and wins over his African flock by sweetening his message with some latter-day myths from "Star Trek," "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings.")
"It's a very interesting arc that they've given me. My character is a little bit of a mishmash at the start and then finds his way as the story progresses," he said. "I love playing this guy who's a mess in every way, has no sense of self-worth and really just wants to fit in. Left to his own devices, he eventually rises to the occasion where people say, 'You're the guy now. You're the one we're going to depend on.'"
Gad, a somewhat softer, shorter version of Tony winner Dan Fogler (whom he did, indeed, replace in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), has been with the show since its first workshop three years ago. Rannells entered the picture last summer — rather glamorously: "It was pretty standard audition process, except that they flew me out to L.A. to read with Josh. It's sort of a Hollywood idea to go out for 'a chemistry read.' They really don't do that much in musical theatre."
Looking wide-eyed innocent and impossibly young (he's actually in his 30s, but he convincingly passes for 19), Rannells credits his image to his roots. "Obviously, there's a Donny Osmond in there, and I tried to imagine young Robert Redford in the part, trying to be as earnest and pure as possible. But for the most part I just tried to tap into my Midwestern-ness. I come from Nebraska, so it comes naturally." Specifically, Omaha, home of Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire — "we'd better stop there," he injected, ducking the awesome comparisons.
His favorite quality about Elder Price is his bright, blindingly sunshiny confidence, and that synchronizes with his favorite number in the show, "I Believe," which he passionately delivers in the second act to an utterly unmoved murderous war lord.
Michael Potts, last seen on Broadway as butler to the Beales in Grey Gardens, has risen in life to village chieftain here, and he plays the part with gravitas and considerable authority. "It's unbelievable the amount of fun I'm having," he admitted easily. "I've been cracking up every day, every show."
And if you ask him his favorite moment, he cracks up on the spot, throwing his head back, laughing loudly and long. Translation: his best-left-untranslated showstopper in Act One: "It is a hoot because you get to be unapologetically irreverent," Potts declared. "You get to do the unspoken thing, the dangerous thing: You give God the finger. No matter who you are or what walk of life you're from, people take that very, very seriously, and here we're doing it for a huge laugh because it's funny."
His lovely daughter, Nabulungi, who is the first trusting soul ensnared by the boy missionaries, is the character who leads the ditzy antics to a loftier dramatic plane — and Nikki M. James brings some genuine emotion to the show doing that.
"What's fun for me," she said, "is that I get to be playing a really compelling, truthful story. I'm not really joke joke joke — that kind of stuff — and I think that's a really great balance for a lot of the silliness that happens. I get to be the heart of the show, which is a big responsibility. I think that's important for a comedy like this. You can't just have people come to the theatre and spend their hard-earned money and then just give them a few belly-laughs. You've also got to be telling a story, and Nabulungi's story is the story of any girl who wants to get out of whatever her situation is. Unfortunately, she gets tangled up with some well-meaning but ineffectual people."
All that, and she gets to sing "one of the most beautiful songs, I think, ever written," a little ditty called "Salglay Kasiti," which is how Salt Lake City comes out in her African dialect.
The ever-reliable Lewis Cleale plays five different characters but is billed for two, so as not to spoil any surprises. One of his numbers injects a historical footnote about Joseph Smith into the proceedings. "A challenging song," he called it. "It has been their Waterloo for five different workshops. There were different songs in that spot, and they wrote a new song for this version. They've done five workshops of this, and, over the course of things, each time they would do a different version. This is a new song that they gave for me, and even it has had some lyric changes."
Playing the mission president whose jaw drops at how native the natives have gotten under missionary supervision, Cleale lands his biggest and longest laugh. "It's a big reaction, and, if you play it right, you can get five or six laughs, as Jack Benny might."
As the limp-wrist leader of the greenhorn missionaries, Rory O'Malley fairly screams subtext. "I identify with him in so many ways," he admitted. "I love that he truly, truly wants to be perfect. He wants to have this perfect faith, and he doesn't want anything to taint it or change it. That includes his own sexuality. He just wants to get rid of that. I grew up Catholic so I understand this, and I'm an out gay man. I understand that struggle — to have your faith in conflict like that."
Among the overqualified chorus-boy religious recruits are Justin Bohon, an Astaire Award winner as Will Parker in Broadway's last Oklahoma!, and Scott Barnhardt, an easily excitable and very nervous Elder Pop-Tart.
Lucky to be in the throng on opening night were Paul Rudd (who, of course, had no problem following the show's humor) with wife Julie Yaeger; producer-comedienne Jamie deRoy with Tony Roberts; "SNL" actress Kristen Wiig; David Hyde Pierce, only yesterday a Tony winner for Curtains and now a "director of a new musical out of town"; Gbenga Akinnagbe of "Nurse Jackie"; Ben Rappaport of "Outsourced"; Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, sufficiently recovered from their Next to Normal and now readying their new nightclub act, He Said/She Said, for the Café Carlyle May 10-21; Tovah Feldshuh; directors David Leveaux and Kenny Leon; TV's Norman Lear; playwright Paul Rudnick and Claudia Shear.
Agent Susan Douglas was crowing about what a busy time is lying ahead for her client, Tony-winning composer Maury Yeston. Not only is his Thomas Meehan-Peter Stone musical, Death Takes a Holiday, lifting off this summer at the Laura Pels, but also "we're opening the Kaufman Performing Arts Center in Kansas City, Oct. 14 this year with a three-act ballet by Maury, based on Tom Sawyer. The artistic director of Kansas City Ballet, William Whitener, is doing the choreography, and it will premiere with the Kansas City Symphony." (Playbill.com had the scoop weeks ago, natch.)
Three-fourths of the God of Carnage cast arrived, fresh from re-rehearsing the Tony-winning thing — Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels. "We're remounting it to do in L.A. at the Ahmanson," explained Daniels. "We rehearse this week, and we rehearse next week, and then we'll do it for two months, starting April 5. It might be the best production because we know how to do it, we're all looking forward to doing it again. The New York experience was once in a lifetime — for a nonmusical to play to the crowds we did for seven months. It reminded us of why we all got into the business…"
Their missing-in-klieg-light-action co-star — shy guy James Gandolfini, otherwise known as Tony Soprano — called it an early day, but Mrs. Soprano was present: Edie Falco, only now she's professionally married to Ben Stiller, and, unlike the loony Bananas she's playing in The House of Blue Leaves, she has no problem leaving the house. Jennifer Jason Leigh, her romantic rival in the John Guare comedy, arrived on the arm of John Benjamin Hickey, forming a perfect three-name symmetry. The House director, David Cromer was also there and raving over Mormon.
The cast as well as the creatives had fans turn out for their opening night. Tyne Daly, this summer's upcoming Callas in Master Class, came out for pal Lewis Cleale, and Aaron Sorkin was there for Scott Rudin, who produced his recently Oscared screenplay for "The Social Network." Sorkin's next move: back to Broadway via the musical, Houdini, which, he promised, will have nothing to do with the Tony Curtis movie, "Hooeydini." "I'm just not allowed to talk about it too much right now," he said, "but you absolutely know the composer — he's great — you know the star — he's great — you know the director — he's great, and in a couple of weeks we're going to make the announcement." (It seems like Hugh Jackson mentioned this show quite a few red-carpets ago . . .)
Lindsay Sloan of film and television was showing support for Josh Gad, as was the Oscar-winning Opie, Ron Howard. "My son-in-law is a lifelong buddy of Josh's — he used to crash on their coach — so I've known him since his college days, and I'm anxious to see him in this," said the movie director. Bill Hader of "SNL" claimed allegiance to the "South Park" two, Stone and Parker.
Zuzanna Szadkowski, otherwise known as Dorota on "Gossip Girl," was likewise focused on a favorite. "Andrew Rannells is my best friend since I was 18 years old," she revealed happily. "We met at an arts conference in Miami, and we moved to New York the same day so we've been kinda chasing the dream together. The fact that I'm here at the opening of the show, and he's so spectacular in it, and it's his leading-man debut. I have had a little bit of a chance to play on television, and he's up on Broadway. It feels really good. It's a good moment for us as friends."
When asked if he was at the show for any particular person, Alan Cumming just couldn't commit. "Well, the night is young," he signed wistfully. "Who knows?"
There were two specialty drinks at the party: Jumamosi (champagne, blood orange juice) and the Elder Martini (white grape juice, elderflower syrup, vodka — shaken, not stirred). Stan Shaffer, treasurer at the Eugene O'Neill, partook of neither. "I've a big day tomorrow," he said. Amen, Brother. The floodgates are open.
Here's Playbill.com's interview with the Book of Mormon authors:
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