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Satire and Sweetness in "The Book of Mormon" Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw on the tone of the hit Broadway musical

By MARK BLANKENSHIP


If you think about it, The Book of Mormon is a fairly traditional Broadway musical.

Co-written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park) and Robert Lopez (the composer of Avenue Q), the comedy follows Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, Mormon missionaries who are sent to a Ugandan to convert the natives. Just like characters in a golden-age musical, they begin the show with naïve confidence, get shaken by unexpected challenges, and ultimately succeed by learning more about themselves and each other.

The story is so uplifting that you could bring your kids… if it weren't for the dirty jokes, obscene gestures, and a merciless satire of religion. The Book of Mormon may be the first Broadway smash to feature a Star Wars-themed spin on Jesus' life, a demon dance break, and a soaring ballad about white men who believe they inhabit the spirit of Africa

But while inappropriate behavior and biting commentary are part of the show's DNA, the creative team doesn't let them dominate the stage. Instead of irony and camp, the cast performs with joy, inviting the audience to revel in the distance between their bright-eyed energy and their filthy, filthy mouths.

"There's no way any of us would let it go to that campy place," says co-director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who recently received two Tony Award nominations for his work. "None of us were interested in commenting on what we were doing, because then it's not funny."

For Nicholaw, there are two numbers that especially capture the show's balance of sincerity and satire. The first is "Two By Two," an early song performed by a group of missionaries as they're about to fly around the world. The lyrics include declarations like, "Two by two/ go door to door/ because God loves Mormons/ and He wants more." You can hear Parker, Stone, and Lopez peeking through the rhymes, joking about how some missionaries have an unsettling dedication to transforming the world. But at the same time, the performers are enthusiastic, and they dance like members of a wholesome show choir.

"It's so energetic that it could go to that place of judgmental humor, of making them seem ridiculous, but it's the enthusiasm of being sent somewhere," says Nicholaw. "[That number] captures the Up With People feels of the choreography. That's how I choreographed it to start with, and [that energy] sort of infiltrated the show as we went and became the vocabulary of the show."

He also points to a number in Act Two where many of the African characters decide to be baptized. "It's touching," he says. "When you're at that moment of the show, it's moving, and you're like, 'Oh my gosh, how did we get here from the beginning of the show?'"

The swells of emotion make the production more than a collection of audacious jokes. As Nicholaw says, "You get more involved if it's sincere."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor