If you’ve clicked your way onto this article, it’s pretty safe to assume that you already know the basic info on the history of The Book of Mormon. Winner of all the awards and sold to full capacity for years on both Broadway and the West End, the show has transcended the ranks of most Broadway musicals and has cemented itself as a modern classic, one that audiences will look back on as a modern standard in years to come.
Talking to Casey Nicholaw (the co-director and choreographer of the Broadway, West End and now Melbourne show) on the morning of the first Australian preview, I wanted to get a sense of how he measures the show against others that he would consider musical theatre classics. Fans of Book of Mormon can be almost cult-like in their reverence for the material, and I wanted to know how it feels to be directly responsible for the creation and continuation of a work that inspires such love from audiences. Nicholaw hadn’t yet considered the long term impact or “modern classic” status of The Book of Mormon, and responded as only a true musical theatre fanboy could.
“Oh wow, umm, you’ve actually got me a little emotional there, because I don’t think about [the longevity of my shows], but hearing it from someone else, that’s a cool thing… I hope that’s the case, because you know, as a kid who absolutely loved and still loves musical theatre, to think that my work would be considered a classic like the people that I grew up loving, is pretty exceptional.”
For many, The Book of Mormon’s appeal is in the way it respects the traditional musical theatre format, but subverts the expectations of the general musical theatre audience. The show hasn’t been constructed in a way that revolutionises the art form, but the combination of traditional tap dancing chorus boys balanced against things like the repeated use of “clitoris” as a punch line or a religious baptism presented as a loss of virginity certainly make for something audiences rarely see on the Australian mainstage.
“The idea behind Mormon, the way Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Bobby Lopez structured the show was that [subversion of expectations] was going to make the show stand out, by taking something traditional and putting contemporary satire and a lot of dirty words on top of it. So that’s what I think is what makes this show successful… [Even the title] subverts expectations, I know when they were originally talking about a title, The Mormon Musical came up, but I think that the idea of The Book of Mormon as a title is so dry, I think it’s good, ultimately.”
Following on from our discussion of the critical and fan-based success of The Book of Mormon, I questioned Nicholaw about the thought process of a director who continues to return to the same long-running shows throughout his career, having now assembled Mormon across three different continents, as well as multiple productions of Disney’s Broadway hit, Aladdin. Teaching a show to new performers, he told me, is a completely different process than returning to a company that have lived the material for an extended amount of time.
“I [recently] went in and did a two day acting clean up for Mormon in New York, and then my associates do dance clean ups, understudy rehearsals and whenever anything else is needed… When you go to clean something up, you’re just stripping away bad habits, and when you’re starting something, you’re all about encouraging good habits and making sure [you are] telling the story. It’s very hard for anybody to do something eight times a week, and if performers are doing the show for a period of a year or two, it’s hard for them to have any perspective on what they’ve added.”
He also mentioned that the mix of Australian performers new to Mormon and imported actors already familiar with the material has made for an interesting rehearsal process for the Melbourne cast.
“[Working with actors already from the Book of Mormon world] has absolutely helped us, because they can set the tone at rehearsals. The tone for the show is so specific, so I think it has helped, and the cast has gotten along famously and great and everyone has worked really well together.”
Having been with the show so long, I asked if Nicholaw is still able to laugh at any of the jokes within Mormon. I also wanted to know if he could reveal any references (including Nabalungi names) that had been updated for Australian audiences, but as I suspected, my questioning got a few laughs but no direct response.
“I laugh at the material, it just depends on who does it. For me, it’s about when actors find new things and make me laugh out loud, because after six years with Mormon, there’s no surprise anymore. I love it when an actor surprises me somehow, but then again it has to be a good surprise, they still have to be telling the story, because if it’s a bad surprise it’s like ‘oh, no.’”
“I know that in London they change references all the time. The guys that play the part will just change Nabalungi names all the time, so I’m hoping our actor will ask the Australian cast members what a funny one would be to say here or there…”
We continued to joke about not revealing the secrets of the show, and Nicholaw told me that he is constantly questioned about stage magic in his most popular shows, Aladdin and Mormon.
“Hahaha, it’s never gonna happen! They are surprises, I can’t tell. It’s the vest trick in ‘Turn it Off’ and it’s the magic carpet in Aladdin, I will never spill…”
Nicholaw hopes he can return to Australia in the coming months, to see both Aladdin and Mormon playing the East End theatre district at the same time. He says he never expected to see his work in Australia, let alone two shows taking up residence in the same state, but he’s happy to be working here. For now, he doesn’t have any expectation of Mormon attendees, but wants them to see the show as an escape from life, and to use their time as audience members to take a break from the impossibility of our world.
“I think that any time people feel that something dark is going on in the world, there’s always room and need for singing and dancing… People should come to have a really good time, to laugh their heads off and forget about their day.”
The Book of Mormon officially opens in Melbourne on Saturday night, with tickets for the season to be found at this link.