INTERVIEW: Book Of Mormon

Published in The Music (NSW) on, Jan 2017


“People are singing about fucking a frog.” Book Of Mormon co-director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw tells Daniel Cribb the South Park creators’ musical is a lot like Disney’s Aladdin.

“They didn’t know some of the terminology, but they learned it really fast,” Book Of Mormon co-director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw says of Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s integration into the realm of Broadway. “I know [Trey] was a big lover of musicals — I just said ‘was’,” he laughs. “I don’t know why I said ‘was’, he is a lover of musicals.”

With the success the global smash hit show has had, it’s no surprise the team are still buzzing as the final touches are put on the Australian premiere in Melbourne. “As soon as I’m done with this, I go see the cast to give them notes,” Nicholaw explains. With previews set to open that night, he’s a little calmer than one might expect. “We’re way ahead of schedule — the cast has totally taken to the show and worked their butts off, so it’s pretty awesome.”

The anticipation surrounding the Australian debut can be felt around the country, with some avid fans lining up overnight to score cheap passes to previews, and a lot of those punters are not necessarily big musical fans, rather longtime followers of Stone and Parker — their names attached to anything means that quality and laughs are guaranteed.

“I was just in London checking on it, and you still can’t get a ticket there, which is awesome.”

If you’re only familiar with South Park in passing or as that crude cartoon that just aims to offend, then Book Of Mormon‘s success might be a head-scratcher, but a closer look at Stone and Parker’s credits show they were always destined for Broadway. Parker wrote and directed Cannibal! The Musical in 1993 as South Park was finding its legs, and a few years later penned Orgazmo, a film that features a Mormon as the protagonist. Their work has always largely been rooted around song — the South Park movie could quite easily be transformed into a Broadway production of its own.

Book Of Mormon is introducing an entirely new audience to the genre of musicals, which is exciting for someone like Nicholaw who’s a Broadway veteran, having worked on Dreamgirls, Monty Python’s Spamalot and Disney’s Aladdin (which had its Australian premiere in Sydney last year) among other productions. The thing about [Aladdin and Book Of Mormon] is they’re both funny and have a buoyant energy, and that’s where they cut together, and that’s what I like to see when I go to a musical, so that’s what I bring to both of them.”

While there’s a lot of similarities, there’s one big difference. “There’s a lot more swear words than there are in Aladdin, which has zero,” he laughs.

“Part of the success of Book Of Mormon is the fact that you had all of this shocking language in a musical, so people are singing about fucking a frog — they’re singing those words in a traditional musical.”

Success might just be an understatement. Since it opened at Eugene O’Neill Theatre, New York in 2011, it’s won nine Tony Awards and a Grammy (among countless other awards), destroyed box office and attendance records in New York (a crown only recently snatched by Broadway’s latest juggernaut, Hamilton), before touring the US and transferring to London.

With all that in the bag, Stone and Parker are confident to leave the hard yards to the cast and crew and will fly in for opening night. Given Nicholaw’s experience and US cast members Ryan Bondy and AJ Holmes resuming their roles as Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, it’s been smooth sailing.

“It’s not that we don’t want Australian [lead] actors — we’d love that. Once people know what the show is here, the auditions will be better; people will know what it is and it’ll be easier to cast. We just have to find people who totally get it. With all the buzz about it, it has to be really good. Those boys never leave the stage — they have to be able to absolutely lead and drive a company in order for a show to work and we’ve seen it happen where it isn’t as successful and you can’t take that chance.

“Even if someone shows promise, you say, ‘Okay, they show promise, but I don’t feel comfortable with them starting this whole show, so maybe they will do it later on down the line.’

“We just didn’t quite find someone who had that energy or that could do all of it — the singing, the dancing, the stamina — and also, we know what this show is now, and sometimes someone either has it or they don’t, and we didn’t find the person who actually really had it for that role.”

Nicholaw says there’s talk of the production potentially touring Australia, but cast and crew are focused on Melbourne as opening night approaches. With no end in sight to the New York production, there’s every chance other cities in Australia will get to experience the acclaimed musical at some stage. “I think probably 50 years,” he says on its expected lifespan, quickly laughing, “I’m joking but I hope it runs as long as it possibly can. I was just in London checking on it, and you still can’t get a ticket there, which is awesome.”