Broadway’s Rory O’Malley: On “Book of Mormon,” Turning it Off and Shutting the Closet Door

Rory O’Malley of “The Book of Mormon” Broadway cast

 

By John Moore

Note: The following Q&A comes from an interview I conducted for The Denver Post in May 2011, for a front-page story on Colorado’s kings of pop-culture subversion, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. That was just before “The Book of Mormon” won nine Tony Awards, including best musical. With the Denver launch of the national touring production now just days away, readers might be interested to read more of what the Tony-nominated O’Malley had to say. O’Malley, who remains in the original Broadway cast playing Elder McKinley, is a co-founder of the gay rights activism group Broadway Impact. In “The Book of Mormon,” he sings the tap-dancing showstopper “Turn it Off.” It’s an irresistibly wide-eyed tune, sung in the same chipper vein as the classic toe-tapper “Put on a Happy Face.” It’s about how church leaders might advise a Mormon boy with conflicted sexual feelings: Just turn it off . . . like a light switch. (“Being gay is bad, but lying is worse. So just realize you have a curable curse . . . and turn it off!”) 

Listen to Rory O’Malley sing “Turn it Off”

John Moore: Hi, Rory. I wanted to talk with you about our local boys, “Book of Mormon” writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and how they have redefined pop culture subversion. No matter how hard they have tried to alienate people, it seems everything they’ve touched from TV to film to stage has turned to gold. Bill Maher makes a film about religion … and it polarizes and angers people.  But the “South Park” guys make a Broadway musical about religion … and everybody loves it.

Rory O’Malley: It’s true. Literally everyone from atheists to bishops, both spectrums of people have loved this show.

John Moore: So my question is, how do they keep getting away with it?

Rory O’Malley: Because they are storytellers. At the end of the day, that’s it. They have no agenda. A lot of people come in thinking, “Oh, they are going to get those Mormons. They are going to tear them apart.” That’s not how they write. They write to tell a story, and they are so meticulous about making sure that story is right. If you are telling a good story, you can get away with anything because you’ve earned it. You’ve explained why you’re going down the road that you are going down, and the audience comes with you. That’s what’s different.

John Moore: I am totally with you, especially after having seen “The Book of Mormon.” But at the same time, we are not exactly at a time in human history when we are evolved enough to laugh together at anyone’s religion except (maybe) our own. We still kill people over religion. Even Matt and Trey had death threats over their episodes of ‘South Park’ about Muhammad.

Rory O’Malley: Sure.

John Moore: I saw this stat that said 85 percent of all Americans identify themselves as Christian. And these guys are on a stage saying, “(Bleep) you, God in the ass, mouth and (bleep).” So why is this different? Why do your audiences laugh when they sing, ”(Bleep) you, God in the ass, mouth and (bleep)”? when, if Chris Rock said the same thing on a stage, he’d be getting picketed?

 

Broadway cast of “The Book of Mormon.” Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

 

Rory O’Malley: I think the difference is that they’ve earned it. They have trust in their audience. That first episode of “South Park,” when Cartman, a child, gets an alien anal probe? That was a pretty big deal. People made a really big fuss about it. This was far beyond “The Simpsons,” or the other things that used to be controversial. I remember talking with Josh Gad (the original Elder Cunningham in the Broadway cast) early in the rehearsal process, thinking, “These guys have a license not to be on the cutting edge of comedy, but to be the cutting edge of comedy. They have proven themselves time and time again.  So that’s true. I don’t think just anyone could get on a stage and sing, “(Bleep) you, God in the ass, mouth and (bleep).” Even a lot of talented, funny people could not get away with doing that. But these guys have earned the respect of people who enjoy comedy. They are not just lowbrow people. They do not have an agenda. They have a great story to tell, always.

John Moore: How much does tone have to do with it? Trey grew up doing musicals in a mountain suburb west of Denver. Do you think part of the reason Broadway audiences are embracing what they are doing is because there is such an evident love for the form?

Rory O’Malley: Absolutely. You can’t even control the joy that you feel at the end of the (“Bleep”) song. There is so much joy and respect for the art form, and it is being celebrated on the stage, so you can’t help but be caught up in it. There was a conservative New York Times writer who wrote that, “I found myself just jumping to my feet and celebrating with everyone … but then I went home and after the next couple of days, I started thinking, ‘Well this isn’t really the case, and God should not be taught like this …’ ” And it’s just funny to me because when you are in that theater and you are having that moment, you can let yourself be caught up in the joy of it. That’s what theater is supposed to do. It’s supposed to inspire joy. And I was so sad for this guy who went back to his intellectual prison and tried to turn it into some kind of an agenda. It’s a celebration.

John Moore: Speaking of tone, I think it goes back to your song, “Turn it Off,” which I think is arguably the most celebratory song in the whole show. I saw “The Book of Mormon” right after seeing “The Normal Heart” …

Rory O’Malley: Oh, wow.

John Moore: … and before I brought up “Religulous,” by Bill Maher. Even if you are a Bill Maher acolyte, that’s a film that makes you feel smug and angry, even when you agree with it. You are sort of feeling vindicated by what he is pointing out, but you are also having your anger validated. “The Normal Heart” can’t help but get you incredibly fired up and angry — that’s the playwright’s intent. But then there’s your sweet song in “The Book of Mormon” called “Turn it Off,” and they are almost companion pieces in a weird way, because the song brings out the same kind of societal hypocrisy — in a much more loving way.

Rory O’Malley: Absolutely. I have seen both “Religulous” and “The Normal Heart,” and I think that’s true. It’s funny, especially what you are saying about tone, and getting the same kind of point across, but in a different way. Because to me, as someone who was in the closet, it is the most sad, dark, awful, depressing place to ever be, and a true satire can find the irony in that and make a joyous, amazing tap number out of it, and have it be all that much more funny because of what’s going on onstage. It really is a companion piece. I see what you are saying. It certainly gets to the same kind of points as that movie and that other play, but in a way that probably is a little more palatable. A lot of people are like, “These issues … should that be sung about on a Broadway stage?’ ” And I am like, “There are so many more people who are going to see and understand these problems in Uganda or these horrible things that probably did not see other great works.” So it’s bringing them up to a different kind audience and in a different tone, yeah.

John Moore: This brings up the question of how we as human beings receive comedy. If it’s George Carlin or Bill Maher, there is that inherent, polarizing factor: You are either with them or against them. But when Matt and Trey do it with a certain level of sweetness, then we as humans just seem to be more open to going along for that ride — as opposed to simply “turning off” the song.

Rory O’Malley: Really, when you are dealing with all of the things that we are dealing with in our show, we have to extend our hand to the audience and say, “Come with us.” If we were screaming and yelling and trying to tear our subject matter into pieces, I don’t think anyone wants to go on that ride for two hours. But by having a tone the way it is, I think people’s hearts are open to at least, “OK, I can go on this ride with them, and it’s not going to be a total negative thing. I have so much respect for all the different kinds of comedy, for the George Carlins and the Bill Mahers of the world. I love that so much. But I do think there is something to be said for a show that brings so many people into it who leave thinking … well, just thinking. I’ve had a lot of people say they have had religious conversations after the show that they’ve never had before because of it. If you slam the door and start saying from the first moment, “This is what we believe, and if you don’t like it, get out,” you aren’t going to get too far with that many people.

John Moore: Isn’t that the ultimate irony: That here is this profane musical that looks to many in middle America as an attack on Mormonism; and yet it is more likely to lead to a calm conversation about these polarizing issues than anything going on in any political forum because this is something we can sit through and laugh at together?

Rory O’Malley: Absolutely. To me, this is such a pro-faith show, and I think that really is what people are going away with. Matt and Trey say this show their “atheist love letter to religion.” I am a person of faith, and I am very skeptical of religion, too. I think that pride is a huge theme in our show. And to me, that pride, when it is entered in with faith, it distorts the faith and hurts it. To me, that is a common problem. It’s really trying to dissect what religion is in our culture. And to separate that pride from the faith, and the stories and the dogma, from what is really important. So, yeah, I think people are a lot more willing to have that conversation when it’s being sung – and when there are tap numbers involved.

John Moore: And who would have thought it would be the guys who brought “South Park” into the world who are facilitating that conversation?

Rory O’Malley: Right?

John Moore: You are from Cleveland, right?

Rory O’Malley: Yep.

John Moore: What impact did these guys have on you growing up?

 

Rory O’Malley: I watched every episode of “South Park,” but that was standard when you were in high school in the mid-to-late ‘90s. That was the coolest thing that ever happened to TV. I was a huge fan. I would say that “Team America” was the funniest movie of the past decade, and I was truly on a one-man campaign for it to win the Pulitzer Prize. It took the temperature of America in 2004 better than anything else. That’s when I realized that these guys have such a great voice and a way of articulating the absurdity of our culture, and I think that’s going to last for generations. I think their satire is important. I know they wouldn’t want me to say that it’s important. But to me, it is, because it makes us laugh at ourselves for how seriously we take ourselves, whether it is religion or politics or anything.

John Moore: I imagine the day a script was handed to you and you realized you were going to be singing that song, “Turn it Off,” you probably felt like you had just won the lottery.

Rory O’Malley: Oh yeah, absolutely. It was literally like, “Keep breathing … Pretend that this is NOT the greatest thing that has ever happened to you in your career.” We’ve done the show about 100 times now, and it’s still such a joy because we know the show, and we know how it got here. And being part of that journey with Matt and Trey and Bobby (Lopez), it’s the greatest creative experience that I will ever be a part of. I’m sure of that.

John Moore: Well, I know Denver is already atwitter about getting to host the launch of the national touring production next year in Matt and Trey’s hometown.

Rory O’Malley: That is so exciting. It’s so perfect.

John Moore: It is perfect. It just seems like a long, long time away.

Rory O’Malley: Yeah. Believe me, I remember saying that about our Broadway opening. It will be there before you know it, and when it gets there, it’s going to be such a big deal. It’s so, so exciting.

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This just in: 

The “Book of Mormon” tour launch will make 24 tickets available for all performances through a daily lottery. For the winners, tickets will cost $25 each.  For the losers, tears are free.

 

Fun with video:

Rory O’Malley takes a field trip with his fellow Broadway cast members to watch the first “Book of Mormon” national tour cast perform. Check out what the Broadway company had to say.