I headed out with my daughter Lizabeth Tuesday evening for opening night of “Les Miserables” at ASU Gammage in Tempe.
One can never have enough “Les Miserables” — as evidenced by the tear-strewn faces and standing ovation in Tuesday night’s packed house.
I feel the same way about a new musical titled ”The Book of Mormon,” which I’ve adored since I first learned of its existence — long before it shot to the top of every critic’s list and became the toughest ticket to land on Broadway. We pre-ordered the CD, a birthday gift for Lizabeth, and I’m working my way through the complete book and lyrics for the show now.
By the time we snag tickets to the show, I’ll have memorized it a million times over. For now, the best I can do is experience it vicariously through Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director for ASU Gammage and Arizona’s sole Tony Awards® voter. We chatted about the show by phone on Monday as she readied for a busy week of business in New York City.
I started by asking whether she’s a big fan of “South Park” despite suspecting her time for television viewing is nearly nil. “I have a 20-year-old daughter,” she reminded me. Seems she felt a bit saddened after Isaac Hayes left the show — reportedly a reaction to an episode about his religion, Scientology.
But she sounds like a serious convert to “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway — which features book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez. Parker and Stone created “South Park” and Lopez is best known to many for his work on the musical “Avenue Q.” Parker serves as the show’s co-director, along with Casey Nicholaw (also its choreographer).
“The Book of Mormon” is nominated for 14 Tony Awards®, and Jennings-Roggensack expects it’ll “walk away” with ten awards. “There’s no way ‘The Book of Mormon’ isn’t going to win best musical,” she says. So I asked her why. “It’s a really well-crafted musical,” shares Jennings-Roggensack — describing it as “a musical on steroids.”
“Both directors did an amazing job,” shares Jennings-Roggensack. She’s also wowed by the show’s impressive dance numbers, describing the first two numbers in “The Book of Mormon” as “Disney-esque.” Still, the musical contains some seriously explicit material, so parents need to check age-restrictions and recommendations before attending.
The youngest of my three children — all shielded from “South Park” with the best of intentions — turns 18 on Wednesday. So we have lots of time to make up for in the explicit lyrics department, and I’ll share more thoughts in tomorrow’s post on my own journey “from Sondheim to South Park.”
So what does the popularity of “The Book of Mormon” signal for the wider world of musical theater? “There’s a lot of different territory for new musicals,” reflects Jennings-Roggensack. She’s seeing “a growing focus on new works” with “less emphasis on the re-creation of existing musicals.”
Jennings-Roggensack hails the “big multiracial cast” of “The Book of Mormon” — reminding theater goers that there’s more to the storyline than the lives of two young Mormon missionaries. Their travels take them to Uganda, and “there’s the whole issue of Uganda and Africans — and the delicateness of that whole topic.”
Lizabeth’s great fear is that the original cast will leave the show before we get to see it. Our one chance for a while will be the last week of June, when we’re there for college orientation. But even single tickets are hard to come by for shows before August, and I’m pretty sure James would frown on me staying in NYC that long.
Conversations with “The Book of Mormon” cast members during a Tony Awards®-related luncheon presented by MTV Networks lead Jennings-Roggensack to believe that they’re committed to staying with the show at least through the end of the year. She even suggested that Josh Gad (Elder Cunningham) — nominated for a best actor Tony Award® — seems open to joining the show on the road.
But how likely, really, is an Arizona stop for such a controversial show? Arizona is second only to Utah in number of Mormon citizens, obesrves Jennings-Roggensack. Still, she thinks “The Book of Mormon” could succeed here — assuming enough community outreach took place ahead of time.
When “Angels in America,” a controversial work set during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, was touring the country, it enjoyed a well-received run at ASU Gammage — after Jennings-Roggensack and her colleagues had 68 different conversations with community groups sensitive to some of its content.
The more folks know about “The Book of Mormon,” the less concerned they may be, suggests Jennings-Roggensack. Though she describes the musical as “wickedly funny” and “very irreverant,” she says that “in the end it’s all about faith, finding your faith and faith sustaining you.”
Note: While Lizabeth celebrates her 18th birthday on Wednesday, the character “Stan” from “South Park” will be celebrating his 10th birthday. Tune in to Comedy Central for the new “South Park” episode titled “You’re Getting Old,” which promises to “change everything” for Stan and the South Park gang.
Coming up: From Sondheim to South Park