Video: Denver native Nancy Gibbs: From T.J. High to Broadway

By John Moore
Aug. 28, 2013

Denver native Nancy Gibbs tells how she went from Thomas Jefferson High School to Broadway. Gibbs, producer of the Tony Award-winning “Peter and the Starcatcher,” playing in Denver through Sept. 1. She also produced “Bat Boy the Musical” and is the worldwide General Manager for all things “Wicked.” Her resume includes working in various capacities on “Fully Committed.” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” and “The Vagina Monologues.” She told her story to members of the Denver Center staff in conjunction with the “Peter and the Starcatcher” national tour launch in Denver. “Peter” plays through Sept. 1. Tickets: 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” plays through Sept. 1. For information, please visit www.denvercenter.org. Video by John Moore. Running time: 6 minutes.

Direct link to the video

Click here to watch our fun video reporting from opening night of “Peter and the Starcatcher national tour launch in Denver.

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New feature: Colorado theater schedules, however you like them:

All currently running theater productions

All theater listings by company
All theater listings by opening date

How you can donate to the Denver Actors Fund

The new Denver Actors Fund is a modest source of immediate, situational relief when members of the local theater community find themselves in sudden medical need. Photo by John Moore. To donate to the Denver Actors Fund, please go here (with our humble thanks):

Bonus photos: My day with Constantine Maroulis, Deborah Cox and ‘Jekyll & Hyde’

 

By John Moore
Feb. 2, 2013

Here are bonus images from my night visiting the cast of the Broadway-bound musical “Jekyll & Hyde,” featuring Constantine Maroulis (last seen here in “Rock of Ages”) and R&B star Deborah Cox, backstage at Denver’s Buell Theatre. This re-imagined production, which opens on Broadway on April 18,  fits best into the world of steam-punk. That’s a genre of fiction that typically plays out in an anachronistic, quasi-Victorian type of setting. Or, as urbandictionary.com puts it, “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” So you see the classic story of good and evil played out in a kind of industrial way, with Gothic video projections that are both Victorian and modern at once. But in the end, it’s still “Jekyll & Hyde” — the story of a good doctor who, while trying to cure his father of dementia, unwittingly unleashes his own dark side, wreaking havoc in the streets of late 19th century London as the savage Edward Hyde. And you still get the iconic songs “This is the Moment,” “A New Life” and “Someone Like You.”

“Jekyll & Hyde” runs though Feb. 10 at the Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100 or the denver center’s home page. All photos by John Moore of www.CultureWest.Org. Thanks to Heidi Bosk, Eric Sprosty, Amy Katz, cast and crew.

To see the our full photo series, “It’s Opening Night in Colorado Theatre,” featuring one intimate, iconic snapshot from 18 Colorado opening nights (and counting), click here.

Bonus coverage: Watch my “Skype Sessions” interview with Constantine Maroulis on YouTube.

Click here to subscribe to the CultureWest.org Monthly E-Newsletter

 

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 Deborah Cox stars as Lucy, the prostitute caught both in the web of “The Spider,” and in the evil clutches of Edward Hyde.

 

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Constantine Maroulis, of “American Idol” fame, stars as the doctor whose experiments seek to separate the good and evil that lurk within one man – every man.  

 

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“Jekyll & Hyde” marks the Denver return of actor Blair Ross, who has appeared in several Denver Center Theatre Company works, including “They Shoot Horses Don’t They” and “The Sirens,” and toured here in the Broadway production of “42nd Street.” Here, she plays the fated posh snot Lady Beaconsfield. 

(Please click below to go to the next page.)

Review: “Memphis” lifts you higher and higher

Felicia Boswell as Felicia and Bryan Fenkart as Huey in “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

 

By John Moore

Oct. 10, 2012

“Memphis” is a sparkling Broadway musical that, to start, takes on race relations in almost the vein of a superficial fairy tale: A well-meaning white man wanders into the danger of a blues club on the dark side of town with all the blissful naivete of Larry Kroger in “Animal House.” The power of music to heal centuries-old hate and social injustice becomes evident in the story’s first fanciful few minutes. We know where this is going.

Actually, we don’t.

Give writer Joe DiPietro some credit: Like any good grim (or Grimm) fairy tale, “Memphis” spreads frightening violence and surprisingly complex moral quandaries like bread crumbs along its unpredictable way. But it’s staged within the palatable structure of a traditional Broadway musical, which is largely why, paired with its gravity-defying choreography, soulful original score and huge heart, “Memphis” won the 2010 Tony Award for best musical.

When it won, it was the favorite, but not necessarily the obvious pick. It was seen then as the safe choice up against form-bending new musicals like “Fela!” and “American Idiot.” It was a worthy choice, but I preferred “Fela” — and it’s a shame the closest we may ever come to seeing that great musical about the legendary Afrobeat pioneer in Denver was a Boulder concert last March by his son, Seun Kuti.

But then came a surprisingly powerful simulcast of a Broadway performance of “Memphis” that was beamed to movie theaters nationwide, bringing a wall-sized immediacy to the racial stakes at play. “Memphis” is now touring the country, stopping in Denver through Oct. 21, and the biggest surprise might be how this visiting production manages to strike an even more resonant chord – both emotionally and vocally – than the dynamite original Broadway cast.

Check that. The biggest surprise, hands down, is that the Tony-winning original score was written by Dave Bryan, best known as the keyboard player for the big-hair metal band Bon Jovi. I overheard an older audience member at Tuesday’s opening performance in Denver  commenting on how surprised she was that she hadn’t heard the infectious pop ditty “Someday” growing up. She didn’t because she couldn’t. The song didn’t exist then. At a time when the easy route to Broadway is to populate your musical with existing, known pop sings like “Rock of Ages,” this one boldly writes its own period pop.

Like Jackie Wilson’s beloved song, this musical keeps lifting you “higher and higher” … and maybe because it doesn’t rely on existing songs like “Higher and Higher” to make its case. As Bon Jovi namesake Jon Bon Jovi himself said, Bryan’s house-imploding climactic ode “Memphis Lives in Me” “is the greatest song Elton John never sung.”

The touring cast is remarkable, though with four understudies on Tuesday, the staging was unsteady in brief places. Honestly, I never thought any woman could ever touch what Montego Glover pulled off as Felicia on Broadway, but touring star Felicia Boswell made it plain Tuesday that both women are clearly touched by some higher power.

Felicia (the character) is a young black singer with no chance of having her voice heard in 1950s Memphis outside her Sunday church service. Not until a renegade white DJ named Huey (loosely based on Dewey Phillips), well … wanders into her brother’s all-black club and promises to get her heard on middle-of-the-dial mainstream Memphis radio stations. Boswell presents a more hardened and opportunistic Felicia who understands from the start that stardom and freedom from the stifling hometown her lover is deeply rooted to will come at a profound cost — and the choices she makes may surprise you.

She is joined by co-star Bryan Fenkart, who, like Boswell, was a standby in the Broadway company of “Memphis.” Both were promoted to leading roles for this national touring production.

Felicia Boswell as Felicia in “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Fenkart is a poor sot who’s cursed by the physical inability to believably embody the short, odd-looking (and odd-sounding) man the character of Huey the DJ is often described to be. It’s curious whenever Hugo is referred to as a strange-looking man when, bizarre fashion sense notwithstanding, Fenkart is clearly cut from the cloth of the classic Broadway leading man. Well, there are curses and there are curses, I guess. Theater requires some  suspension of disbelief, so it’s best to just let that ride. Like Boswell, Fenkart is an accomplished singer who achieves emotional highs and lows as an actor with the same kind of range that a four-octave singer hits notes. Chad Kimball, who originated the role on Broadway, deserved his Tony nomination, despite employing a spoken cadence that seemed bent on intentionally alienating audiences. But even performing in a theater twice as big as Broadway, Fenkart connects with his love interest, and his audience, in a singular way.

Another standout is Julie Johnson as Huey’s mother, whose racism is initially sold as pure Southern comic caricature. But the audience’s laughter quickly shifts to justifiable seething and finally to catharsis as her Gladys slowly changes her deeply-seeded ways.

Having seen “Memphis” in three iterations now, I had no intention of reviewing this national touring production. But damn it to Jackson, “Memphis” had me tearing up again at its not-so-obvious climax. That, I figure, is reason enough to want to help spread its musical gospel.

John Moore was the theater critic at The Denver Post from 2001-11, and in 2011 was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in America by American Theatre magazine.

 

Ticket information:

When: Through Oct. 21

Where: Buell Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th & Curtis streets.

Tickets: $25-$105 

Contact: denvercenter.org or 303-893-4100

 

More coverage:

“Memphis” on the movie screen: Is it better than Broadway?

John Moore’s Broadway review of “Memphis” (originally published in The Denver Post on June 10, 2010)

Quote: “Everybody wants to be black on a Saturday night.”

Think of it as “Hairspray” — with a different kind of heft. Not the heft of that little fat girl who singlehandedly integrated Baltimore with the swivel of her John Waters hip. “Memphis” instead tells the tale of the first white DJ (loosely based on Dewey Phillips) to put so-called “race” music on mainstream radio in 1950s Memphis, to both his great wealth and peril. This musical has everything Broadway audiences have always loved — showstopping, singable songs set to fantastic choreography and the kind of story from our recent past that leaves us feeling slightly superior about how far we’ve come since the bad old days. Despite the truly wrenching potential of this story — it includes interracial love, racism, violence and professional betrayal — it’s palatably told here, straight down the middle of the road, just like Broadway audiences usually want it. (It’s written by Joe DiPietro of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”). What makes it a powerful musical to be truly reckoned with is its irresistible score. The songs are so authentic to the period, you may not believe this is all-original power-pop, R&B and gospel written by, of all people, David Bryan of Bon Jovi.

Colorado connection: Montego Glover, a favorite to win the best-actress Tony, appeared in the Arvada Center’s “Putting it Together.”

 

National touring production of “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

 

Felicia Boswell and the national touring production of “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

 

Bryan Fenkart as Huey in “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

 

Julie Johnson as Huey’s mother, Gladys, in the national touring production of “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

 

National touring production of “Memphis.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Robert Garner given Lifetime Achievement Award at memorial

CultureWest.Org video from the Garner ceremony: Click here

By John Moore

Sept. 8, 2012

Longtime Denver theater producer Robert Garner was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Broadway League of New York at a celebration Saturday honoring Garner, who died July 19.

The award was presented via videotape by Nick Scandalios, chairman of the board for the Broadway League and executive vice president of the Nederlander organization.

“Bob put Denver on the map, making it a must-stop for any tour,” Scandalios said. “And at the same time, he was instrumental in opening up many road markets in the West for Broadway touring.”

He added: “Bob was always plugged into Broadway. In fact, we always used to say, ‘If you wanted to know something about Broadway, call Bob Garner in Denver.’

“My boss, Jimmy Nederlander, always said, ‘You could always count on Bob Garner to be loyal and a friend. And friends in this business are the most important things. You can count them on one hand, and you could do things with a friend on a handshake.’ ”

The afternoon culminated with a tribute from Denver Center president Randy Weeks. “Bob was my Peter Pan,” he said. “He didn’t want to grow up — or he did not want to grow old.”

More coverage:

Here’s my look back at the man for all ages

In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to Project Angel Heart.

To read several tribute pieces to Bob, click here

Bill Husted, Judi Wolf and Donald Seawell at Saturday’s celebration of the life of theater producer Robert Garner. Photo by John Moore.

 

Video: Three minutes with … George Hamilton

In this new web series, journalist John Moore interviews prominent visitors to Denver. George Hamilton, star of the national touring production of “La Cage Aux Folles,” talks along with co-star Christopher Sieber. Episode 2.

“La Cage Aux Folles” plays through Sept. 16 at the Buell Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. For tickets, call 303-893-4100 or go to the Denver Center’s web site.

Is “The Book of Mormon” a treatise on atheism?

Gavin Creel as Elder Price in the national touring production of “The Book of Mormon,” now playing through Sept. 2 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2012

 


Spoiler alert. The following essay examines what the ending of “The Book of Mormon” (the musical!), might really advocate. It talks about what happens in the final 10 seconds, so if you don’t already know, or you don’t want to know, then don’t read it (even though it’s given away on the cast recording!):

By John Moore

People who haven’t seen “The Book of Mormon” often presume, wrongly — but for understandable reasons — that the very funny new musical is a mean-spirited attack on Mormonism, perhaps the strangest and least understood among all Christian denominations.

Once they have seen it, they know this is a surprisingly traditional musical — well, for one that includes a “Little Mermaid” riff that cheerfully admonishes God, “(Bleep) you, in the (bleep), mouth and (bleep).”

But for all the gentle fun it pokes at fundamental tenets of the Mormon religion, the musical is really not an affront to Mormonism. It is instead a pointed spoof on religious literalism of any kind. It is a witty, heartfelt testament to anyone who has undergone a crisis in faith, and come out stronger for it.

Or is there more to it than that?

By the end, the story’s affable young Mormon Elders have tickled our sensibilities to such an adorable degree that you might not think too much on the very last line of the night … which, upon further review, just might be the most subversive line in a musical that’s filled with them.

Forget Mormons: Do writers Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Bobby Lopez have a much larger target in mind? Because that last line sounds a lot like an advocation of atheism. And if it is, this precocious little musical might be a whole lot more subversive than any of us have ever really given it credit for. Because it’s one thing to pick on Mormons. When you start talking atheism in America, there are a whole lot more hornets in the nest.

A recent Gallup poll found that 18 percent of all Americans say they would never vote for any Mormon for president, but a whopping 54 percent say they would never vote for any atheist. Talk about a hornet’s nest.

But is that what becomes of our two teen protagonists in “The Book of Mormon”? Let’s consider what happens:

(Last chance spoiler alert)

In the play, Utah teens Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham are sent to Uganda for their two-year missions, where their primary charge is to baptize as many Africans into the faith as they can. To date, the Mormon branch has converted exactly zero in this  drought-, disease- and war-ravaged land where God seems remarkably absent. But Elder Cunningham, a portly teen with a penchant for making things up when he’s nervous, proves to be a wiz at winning over the natives — even though he’s never actually read the eponymous “Book of Mormon” (the New Testament sequel that Joseph Smith dug up from his upstate New York backyard in 1823).

Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham in the national touring production of “The Book of Mormon,” now playing through Sept. 2 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2012

 

That’s because young Cunningham makes (bleep) up as he goes along, changing sacred Biblical stories and updating their messages with modern pop-culture references that give relatable relevance to Africans suffering from AIDS, dysentery and starvation under a warlord who orders that all woman’s genitalia must be mutilated. Some believe the organ that brings sexual pleasure to women is the root cause of AIDS. Others believe the cure for the plague is having sex with a virgin, even if that virgin is a baby. This is not the writers’ envelope-pushing creative license; this is present-day African reality.

So you can understand why the dusty pages of a strange and foreign scripture would have no urgency to these Ugandans. That is, until Elder Cunningham offers a desperate, embellished variation of the sacred story, one that  promises God’s wrath against anyone who commits genital mutilation or has sex with babies. And he uses  characters from “Lord of the Rings” and other pop-culture standards like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” to spice the story up.

It’s hilarious stuff. But while Arnold’s story gets through to the natives and offers them hope for eventual delivery from their daily miseries, it also gets the Ugandan chapter shut down by Mormon leaders. The missionaries are, in effect, exiled. But while Elder Price still considers himself a Latter-Day Saint, his epiphany comes when he realizes it’s OK to change some things, and it’s OK to break the rules. “Even though we have complete doubt that God exists,” he says, “we can all still work together and make this our paradise planet.” Not exactly Mormon doctrine.

And that’s what they do: They commit to a new Ugandan mission focused on service. In the very funny final scene, the missionaries and the villagers alike come together for a new kind of door-to-door evangelism. But the book they are selling is (and here’s the spoiler) … “The Book of Arnold.” Take that and your golden plates, too, Joseph Smith.

In the end, Mormonism has been not just been gently tickled — it’s been pretty much repudiated. It’s out, replaced by a hip but clearly invented fable advocating a patently made-up god. And the idea of these boys embracing a self-created God? That’s … a whole lot more radical than just poking fun at Mormons.

But that’s nothing new. By embracing a hybrid, new-and-improved kind of Mormonism, these young missionaries are just following the historical evolution of Christianity.  For thousands of years, Christian faiths have splintered and mutated for the same reasons these boys splinter off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Rebels didn’t like one aspect or other of the Catholic church — a belief in the absolute authority of the Pope, say, or differences of opinion on how man can attain salvation, and voila … we have the Protestant Reformation, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Episcopalians and so on.

(Note: Here’s a helpful interjection on this point from my childhood friend Matt Miller, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sioux City, Iowa:)

First, if you’re charting the splintering evolution of the larger Christian church, the first comes with the Great Schism between East and West, Constantinople’s rivalry with Rome for primacy. Second, Luther and Calvin ARE the Protestant Reformation (no one outside the academy really talks about Zwingli, but he was in there too) … at least they started it. Luther mostly, who influenced Calvin. And you have to know that the Anglican church started as a power grab – Henry didn’t like the Pope. Their official story is that they are the “middle way” between Luther/Calvin and Rome. The interesting parallel to me from what you’ve written is that one of the hallmarks of the Reformation was the way in which the printing press made it possible for Christians to read the Bible (if they were literate) in their native tongue. Before that, most Christians were like Elder Cunningham – they had never read their own book. And of course the most recent evolution of Christianity is the rise of the Pentacostal movement. Phyllis Tickle posed a theory along these lines in her book “The Great Emergence,” about how every 500 years the church has a rummage sale.

The point is, we modify. We embellish. We tailor. And we have been bending sacred scriptures to suit our own purposes for centuries. When I was young, we were called “Salad Bar Catholics.” And we aren’t as welcome by the home base as we once were.

After now having seen “The Book of Mormon” three times — once on Broadway and twice since the first national touring production recently launched in Denver — I now can say that I know only these four things to be true:

  • The clitoris, as is often posited in “The Book of Mormon” (the musical, is a holy, sacred thing.
  • This is the funniest new musical of this century.
  • This national touring production isn’t even attempting to mask how much the lead actor, Gavin Creel, looks like a 19-year-old Mitt Romney, and …
  • I think this might really be a musical about atheism, after all.

Contact John Moore at 303-953-9907 or moore433@comcast.net

 

Previous “Book of Mormon” coverage:

Could “The Book of Mormon” determine your next president?

Broadway review: “Book of Mormon” place in history set in stone tablets

Is “The Book of Mormon” a treatise on atheism?

“Book of Mormon” scalpers: Score on for live theater

How Colorado’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone became the kings of pop-culture subversion

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

Follow “The Book of Mormon” on Twitter

Daily “Book of Mormon” ticket lottery: Do you feel lucky, punk?

 

The national touring production of “The Book of Mormon,” now playing through Sept. 2 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2012

Broadway review: “The Book of Mormon’s” place in history set in stone tablets

 

 Josh Gad, Nikki M. James and Andrew Rannells of the Broadway “Mormon” cast. The New York Times.

 

By John Moore

Yes, the cheerful new Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” is that funny. And outrageous. And profane. It is also a razor-sharp satire. But mostly it is a heartfelt testament to anyone who has undergone a crisis in faith, and come out stronger for it.

It opens with a clean-cut, all-American missionary-in-training named Kevin, who is determined to go out into the world “and blow God’s freaking mind!” But his destination is not Orlando, as he prayed – it’s drought- and disease-ravaged Africa.

“Africa is nothing like ‘The Lion King!’ ” realizes his shocked partner Arnold, an overweight, socially awkward kid who lies – a lot.

And here’s the heart of the story: Mission success is measured in converts, but, as the play positions it, the real Book of Mormon could put a crack baby to sleep, so Arnold embellishes its teachings with lessons from “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars.” And in doing so, he captures the imaginations of the natives.

Yes, lying is wrong, but people have been bending sacred scriptures to suit their own purposes for centuries. And if that actually brings needed urgency and relevance to people’s lives, then what’s the harm?

While writers Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez break all the rules – their love for the rules of musical theater is evident in every joyous, witty note. This is a love letter to theater, with evident affection for everything from “Bye Bye Birdie” to “Godspell” to “The King & I” to “Little Shop of Horrors” to “Beauty and the Beast.”

Shocking? You bet. But the ultimate message is a wholesome one: Even if we question or doubt our beliefs, we can still work together to make things better.

I’m not sure how the savagely funny lines will hold up over time and repeated listens, but there’s no question “The Book of Mormon’s” place in history is set in stone tablets.

Quotable: “Jesus hates you, this we know, for Jesus just told you so” (from the song “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”).

 

Note: Press night for the national touring production’s debut stop in Denver is Aug. 19. But I’m not gonna lie: I’m not invited. The preceding comes from my Denver Post report: Broadway 2011: “Catch it if you can: From war horses to ‘War Horse,’ A roundup of a “season of substance”

 

Previous “Book of Mormon” coverage:

“Book of Mormon” scalpers: Score on for live theater

How Colorado’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone became the kings of pop-culture subversion

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

Follow “The Book of Mormon” on Twitter

Daily “Book of Mormon” ticket lottery: Do you feel lucky, punk?

 

 

 

 

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.

——————

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.

 

 

Broadway series in Denver: There’s a lot to catch if you can

Joey the War Horse, and his human handlers, made an appearance with Denver Center president Randy Weeks at Thursday’s season-announcement celebration. “War Horse” comes to Denver in January 2013. Photo and video by John Moore.

By John Moore

Some years, when it comes to selling whatever New York has to offer cities across America, Denver Center president Randy Weeks must take on the unwilling role of Harold Hill: He’ll sell it, with gusto, a smile and gritted teeth — but some years that’s no easy task.

And other years, “the stars align,” said Weeks, who was positively giddy on Thursday while announcing an extended, expanded 2013-14 season that has a whopping 17 offerings, including just about every major title from the past two Broadway seasons.

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