When Broadway finds a ka-chinging trend, it really sticks with it, which is probably why I counted no fewer than five shows about con artists this season and six about religion.
And The Book of Mormon and Sister Act fit into both genres! In that bodacious pair of hit musicals, “religious” folk lie about either who they are or what they’re selling, but everyone winds up being liberated by them anyway, so they all end up gleefully singing showtunes together. And that could be a metaphor for Broadway itself.
At the reception for the Drama Desk Award nominees last week, Sister Act’s star Patina Miller told me, “Religion is so strong, it can make or break a conversation. We’re highlighting it without making fun of it. We’re celebrating it!” And jazzing it up just a tiny bit. The night I saw the show, a nun in the audience wasn’t crossing herself, even though the onstage sisters were rapping, swiveling their hips in lamé habits, and talking Yiddish.
Meanwhile, Mormon is disturbing the occasional prudish straggler. (“They can’t get past the third song,” the show’s Rory O’Malley—who sings the hilarious “Turn It Off,” about how to deal with gay urges—told me at the Drama Desk event.) But for the most part, customers are screaming with joy, since the show has the uncanny ability to poke merciless fun at its targets while making you smile with recognition and even affection. It’s the new Producers.
O’Malley went so far as to swear to me that real Mormons have told him the show is spot-on accurate about the rigors of missionary work. “Really?” I moaned. “I didn’t realize this was a documentary, especially when the villagers sing ‘Fuck you, God, in the cunt’!” “They hear it,” he played along, smiling, “but it’s not sung.”
At the Tony nominees meet-and-greet two days later—yes, I’ve been working the circuit like a missionary—Mormon’s co-director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw gave me his documentary-like memories of rehearsing that outrageously cunt-agious scene. “I came aboard late,” Nicholaw said, “so everyone had numbed themselves and been OK with it. But for me to say, ‘OK, folks, let’s take it from blankety-blank in the blank’ into the mic was a little jarring. I had just done Elf, so I went from ‘Let’s take it from sparkle, jolly twinkle’ to ‘Let’s take it from blankety-blank!’ ” “Actually, the Elf saying sounds dirtier to me,” I suggested, wickedly. “In a strange way!” agreed Nicholaw, laughing.
Did the moxieish musical ever include a specific reference to the Mormons’ stance on gay marriage? No, said Nicholaw, “it was actually written before all that Prop. 8 stuff. There were discussions about it, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone didn’t want to go there.” They turned it off! But as Nicholaw reminded me, there’s a satirical line in the song “Salt Lake City” that pretty much makes the case anyway: “The people there are open-minded and don’t care who you’ve been.” Oh, yeah, it’s a regular bunch of sparkle jolly twinklers, LOL.
Alas, Parker and Stone were away working on something called South Park. (They’re the Mo’Nique of the Tonys—unable to pound the whole schmooze circuit, but slam-dunking the awards anyway.) But co-writer Robert Lopez popped up to deliver insight about cross-pollinating with the daft duo. “We met randomly,” he told me, “when they came to see Avenue Q [which Lopez co-wrote] from a puppet point of view because they were doing Team America.”
Collaborating on Mormon from a human point of view, said Lopez, “We had a zillion laughs, and we got stuck a lot.” Whenever that happened, they’d find funny clips on YouTube to massage the pain—like one of a guy who ends up caught in a big, collapsed balloon, “so it’s like he’s trapped in a giant condom. That became our metaphor.”
Where did they draw the line, humor-wise? “At unfunny,” said Lopez. “Something that doesn’t work or get a laugh, especially if it’s offensive and hardcore.” This prompted the greatest story of all time—even greater than the saga of Joseph Smith—and it did get a laugh. Lopez told me that at one tech rehearsal, Lewis Cleale—who plays both the father and Jesus Christ—didn’t have time to make a costume change. So during the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” number, where the father gets fucked by Jeffrey Dahmer, he came out dressed as Jesus. “So Jesus was being fucked by Jeffrey Dahmer!” remembered Lopez, cringing. In the blankety-blank!
Dressed like a working actor, Josh Gad—who plays Elder Cunningham—told me the show’s sacrilegious hijinks initially gave him pause. “When I got the demo,” Gad said at the Tonys event, “the first thing I heard was the ‘Hakuna Matata’ send-up.” Huh? Is that what “Fuck God in the cunt” was originally called? “No, they’ve asked us not to talk about the name,” he explained. “They don’t want that to be out there.” Oh, I see. Cunts! Anyway, said Gad, “I told my agent, ‘I don’t know if I can be a part of this. I don’t want to get shot’! Then I read the script and I said, ‘Great!’ ” And that, it turned out, was the perfect missionary position to take.
By now I had asked so many blankety-blank questions that after I requested a chat with Elder Price, a/k/a Andrew Rannells, he was quickly pulled away to the opposite end of the table.
Oh, well. I was happy to talk to Tony Sheldon and ask if his own moxieish musical, Priscilla, killed La Cage because there was room for only one drag show in town. “Nothing can kill Harvey Fierstein!” he deadpanned. Hallelujah.