"I Believe!": Cody Jamison Strand, Denee Benton and Pierce Cassedy Share Stories From The Book of Mormon National Tour With Second City
By Evan Henerson
Cody Jamison Strand, Denee Benton and Pierce Cassedy, stars of the touring production of The Book of Mormon, shared wisdom from the road during a talkback with Second City in Los Angeles.
Observations from a remote Ugandan village... by way of Hollywood Boulevard...
Where the composition of beds is concerned, metal trumps wood every time.
When casting associates have passed on you four times, be a glutton for rejection and try for a fifth.
And several months spent dropping melodic f-bombs and giving the finger to the almighty eight times a week makes for one heck of a nice "semester abroad" from conservatory training back east.
Such were the pearls of wisdom dispensed by members of the national tour of The Book of Mormon to comedy students from Second City Hollywood. The Mormon talkback was held at Second City's Hollywood studios a few blocks down Hollywood Boulevard from the Pantages Theatre where The Book of Mormon is playing through May 11.
Cody Jamison Strand, who played Elder Cunningham on Broadway before joining the tour, shared Mormon war stories with national tour first-timers Denee Benton (who plays Nabalungi) and Pierce Cassedy (Elder McKinley). Topics ranged from preparing family members for the onslaught of raunch that comes with the show to training to the gusto of "rock star audiences" in every city that The Book of Mormon visits. One Second City student took home a stuffed frog courtesy of the show, although the usually quick-witted Strand had a rocky time explaining the amphibian's function in The Book of Mormon to the talk-back audiences, nearly half of whom had not seen the show.
Context or no context, swag or no swag, the Mormon visit was good for a ton of laughs and also served a useful educational purpose, according to Second City administrators.
"The actors in Book of Mormon are really living a dream of a lot of our students here," said Marc Warzecha, Second City Hollywood co-artistic director who moderated the event.
"Many of our students are working in theatre, film and television, but a lot of them are not yet at that point. I hope that it's really informative for them to hear about the actors' experiences, what it's like to do the show eight times a week, what training does it take to get them there and what was the break that got them the show. I hope all that stuff is valuable to them."
Featuring book, music and lyrics by Robert Lopez, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, The Book of Mormon chronicles the adventures of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, a pair or Mormon missionaries sent to a poverty and disease-ravaged village of Uganda. A critical and box-office smash, the musical earned nine Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score.
Humor and gratitude for the opportunity were in abundant supply among all three of the touring actors. Benton, who is set to earn her BFA from Carnegie Mellon University in May, won the role in an open call and had to beg her instructors for the time off from her classwork. The South Daokta-born Strand, the son of a pastor, was a touring standby before moving to the Broadway company in 2013.
Of the three participants in the talk back, Cassedy wins the award for persistence. The Tallahassee native flipped for the Mormon score based solely on listening to the cast recording and reported "auditioning my face off" at open calls — including one in which he was cut because the casting agents didn't take to his headshot.
"I got sent home just based on how my face looked," said Cassedy. "So don't let that ever deter you. Sometimes they just don't like your face. And then sometimes they do because I went back a little bit later for this specific role, and I guess it worked out."
Although Mormon has been playing on Broadway for more than three years, all three actors logged preparation time with the show's original co-director Trey Parker, who assisted with their respective put-ins. The performers lauded Parker's creative and comic instincts as well as his rapport with actors and love of musical theatre. Cassedy said his jaw nearly hit the floor when Parker offered him a piece of stage wisdom "from one comedian to another."
They largely affirmed the show party line that Parker and Stone (the creators of "South Park") are not using The Book of Mormon to sharpen their satiric scalpels on the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
"I think religion (as a whole) is this beautiful mystery to them even if they don't necessarily partake in it," said Benton. "I feel like the writers have the best of intentions."
Agreed Cassedy: "It has this incredible message that it doesn't matter what you believe. You have to work together as a human race to make the best life for each and every person."
"But it is in your face getting there," added Strand.
On the subject of performance mishaps, Benton and Cassedy both recounted faulty light and sound cues which left them all but marooned. Thanks to a technical glitch that left only his microphone operational, Cassedy nearly ended up turning "I am Africa" into a solo for Elder McKinley.
Strand, meanwhile, got a little too zealous at a performance during his first week on Broadway. In the first act scene that includes Elder Cunningham delivering a pep talk to Elder Price, Strand decided to leap onto his fellow Elder's bed — only to split the wooden prop down the middle.
"We sort of tumbled toward the center because the beds were like two and a half years old by that point, and nobody had fixed them or thought to put metal into them," said Strand. "But we had to finish the rest of the scene on the floor and I had to tuck him into his broken bed. I was sure I'd get fired."
Tales of how they conditioned uninitiated members of their immediate family also generated plenty of laughs. Whatever their initial misgivings, Strand's parents could take some comfort in the fact that Elder Cunningham never uses profane language. Benton, who grew up in a church-going family, received her parents' blessings when they saw how much of a break the experience would be. "They were so excited," Benton said. "It was like, 'OK, it's fine. You can sell your soul.'"
After listening to the soundtrack, Cassedy's mother sent her son a text message asking for clarification on some of the saltiest language in the infamous "Hasa Diga Eebowai." ("F--- you God in the a--, mouth and c---? Is that what they're saying?") But the Cassidy clan was also won over.
"Everybody has seen it — my mom, dad, grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins," said Cassedy. "They've all seen me blow Hitler on stage."
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