The Book of Mormon had its world premiere in March 2011 on Broadway and then opened in the West End in March 2013. The show won nine 2011 Tony® Awards including Best Musical, the 2011 Grammy® Award for Best Musical Theater album and four Laurence Olivier Awards in 2014, including Best New Musical. The Book of Mormon has also won five Drama Desk Awards and four Outer Critics Circle Awards in New York, four Whatsonstage.com Awards and an Evening Standard Award for Best Night Out in London. However, The Book of Mormon has not only been popular with the critics, it’s been hugely successful with audiences.
The Book of Mormon has played at more than 100% capacity each week on Broadway since it opened and sold out every single performance, thus far, in London’s West End. Casey Nicholaw is the codirector and choreographer of The Book of Mormon. He says these sort of statistics are still mind-blowing.
“When I go back to London they say, ‘It’s still sold out, you still can’t get a ticket!’ and I’m like, ‘Really?” said Nicholaw.
However, Nicholaw puts all the success out of his mind and says, for the most part, he is somewhat oblivious to it all.
“All I want to do is work on the show, so I just put all that out of my mind,” he said.
The Book of Mormon is written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Avenue Q co-creator and Frozen composer Robert Lopez. Walking outside the Princess Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District, the advertising banners are effectively warning potential audiences the show is offensive. I asked Nicholaw why he thought The Book of Mormon was so successful.
He replied, “Well, I think South Park does offend people and that’s what made them so popular … it’s heightened satire … everyone knows it’s for comedy … and that’s what we do here too (with The Book of Mormon).”
Nicholaw describes The Book of Mormon as contemporary satire “put into a comfortable musical theatre box”.
“Putting those two together works. I think if you were to do contemporary satire out of the box, that might offend half of your audience, and if you just did a straight forward musical, that loses the other half of the audience, but I think that everyone enjoys it together and the two just blend well,” explained Nicholaw.
The Book of Mormon has broken numerous box office records on Broadway and in the West End and much of the success has been due to the large number of people in the audience who usually don’t go to musical theatre.
“Many people start by telling me they normally hate musicals, but they really liked this one – this happens all the time,” commented Nicholaw.
The Australian premiere of The Book of Mormon features a mix of international and Australian cast members. When asked about directing a show where half the cast already knew it and the other half were all new, Nicholaw replied, “It’s actually worked really well. It really has. A lot of the people who came over from the US hadn’t really gotten their shot yet – they were standing by, or they got to do it a little bit, or a chunk of time here and a chunk of time there, so some of them can make it their own. Some of them were swings and some have done four companies of it now – and have jumped from one company to another. So it’s good. It’s been a nice mix.”
Will this Australian premiere be the same as the original Broadway version?
“You know, the thing is, each production we’ve done has been a little bit different because of the different people in it. So we’re not changing any of the dialogue or anything, because we worked so hard to get it to work a certain way. It just morphs because of who’s doing it and that’s the fun of theatre, I think, because it changes. Or it’s the thing that drives you crazy about theatre!” laughed Nicholaw.
Nicholaw is the codirector of The Book of Mormon along with writer Trey Parker. Although both were used to directing on their own, the pair worked really well together.
“I was more the hands-on guy, because I was also choreographing and then he was directing and writing at the same time, so we meshed in a perfect way,” explained Nicholaw.
Being able to both direct and choreograph is something Nicholaw enjoys.
“I love doing it, because it’s just one vision and also you don’t argue with the choreographer. I argue with the director and choreographer all the time but that’s all in my head!” laughed Nicholaw.
The dual role also allows for a more seamless transition from scene to song.
“I like that you get from the scene to the song more seamlessly, because I’m the same person. And the dance – it just all feels more unified. I think I’m more able to make a musical comedy move better,” said Nicholaw.
“Everything has to come from the script to start with, so my job always starts as the director,” explained Nicholaw.
“Then I bring the whole next part to it. There has to be a reason to dance and a reason to do it and I think that that’s – I’ve never really thought of it before – but I think that’s where doing both jobs is helpful, because the director wants to make sure there is a reason that they dance. I think if you’re just a choreographer you want to show off your dance stuff. That’s not my impulse for dancing. My impulse is that it makes sense with everything. If you’re doing something that’s a big comedy, and its written by Matt, Trey and Bobby, the numbers have to be funny too. You can’t just stop this comedic show and just dance. They have to have the same comic hook.”
Working on yet another new production of The Book Of Mormon, Nicholaw says the process remains fresh because of his love for the show.
“It’s nice to get an opportunity to go through that process again, with new people.”
The Book of Mormon has opened in previews, ahead of the official opening night on February 4th, with a huge response already by Australian fans, despite the American feel to the show.
“It is, in many ways, an American show, but when comedy is good, it’s not going to be for one group or another. I was a little nervous when we went to London … but you still can’t get a ticket three years later! I think audiences are smart enough to get the premise. You also get the idea that this group is squeaky clean and they go to Uganda. I think it sort of makes sense!”
Casey Nicholaw is also the director and choreographer of Disney’s Aladdin, currently playing in Sydney and opening in Melbourne in April. He explains The Book of Mormon has the same energy levels as Aladdin.
“The Book of Mormon has dirty words, Aladdin doesn’t, but the love of musical theatre is there in both of them.”
Nicholaw is very used to the offensive elements in The Book of Mormon, but still loves the reaction by audiences watching it for the first time. He’s no longer surprised at the range of age groups and people who come along to see The Book of Mormon, although admits it’s not suitable for children and feels 13 years old is probably the youngest he’d suggest for audiences.
He admits the naughtiness of the show is part of its appeal, but also explains it’s very cleverly written.
“It’s not like we’re just going to shock you. There’s a reason and it’s just so smartly written. I just think everyone’s done such a good job,” said Nicholaw.
“I think the fact a traditional musical is funny, in that way, is part of the appeal. There’s something funny about people singing those words.”
If you want to know just what “those words” are – and how funny they really sound in song – you’ll need to buy a ticket .. in Melbourne, because you still can’t get one in London!
The Book of Mormon is now playing at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District.