The megahit musical The Book of Mormon had a long journey to Broadway, but through years of workshops, one element remained constant: Josh Gad was onboard to play the well-meaning but socially awkward missionary Elder Cunningham. Now Mormon has earned 14 Tony nominations, including a Best Actor nod for Gad’s hilarious and touching performance. Broadway.com caught up with Gad, a veteran of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and TV’s The Daily Show, to talk Tony season, working with Parker and Stone and his new life as a Mormon man.
Congratulations on the show’s incredible 14 Tony nominations!
And I got all of them, which is pretty remarkable! [Laughs.]
All the critical acclaim, celebrity visitors, sold-out crowds…the energy in the Eugene O’Neill Theatre must be insane.
It’s a pinch-yourself atmosphere every day. I’m blown away by the attention this show continues to garner, and I’m so thrilled that audiences are responding the way they are. There isn’t a single A-list star in this show, it’s not based on any previous material, yet every single night people are willing to throw down hundreds of dollars to secure a seat in the theater. It’s shocking. People who wouldn’t necessarily want to go see a Broadway show are clamoring to get a ticket.
Do you think there’s any divine intervention involved with all this success?
No comment [laughs]. I think Trey and Matt have done their fair share to piss off God over the years and the show sort of has a pro-faith message, so this is their way of saying, “Well, we’ll give you this one.”
How does it feel to have been with the show since its first workshop?
Nobody had any idea what the hell this was going to be at the time. I remember the first page said, “A screenplay Trey Parker and Matt Stone.” It was one act and really incomplete, and it didn’t have more than five songs. It was an experiment to see if real people could get away with the things that animated characters could. There’s a very controversial song about 25 minutes into the show that gets things off with a bang and I remember thinking, “What is going to happen when people hear this?” I was nervous. I did six workshops of this and without fail it’s had the same response all the way to Broadway. People are going nuts for it.
Did your stint as a Daily Show correspondent help prepare you to work with Trey and Matt?
It certainly helped in a sense that when I do [Daily Show interviews] I have to leave all worries and concerns at the door. But nothing can really prepare you for the force of nature that is Trey Parker, Matt Stone and [co-author] Bobby Lopez.
What was it like working with them?
It’s a master class in comedy. They know exactly what is funny probably better than 99.9% of the population. They are so gifted and amazing storytellers. That’s the part I think people are mainly blown away by. People had the expectation the show was going to be immensely funny, but I don’t think they knew how much heart it was going to have. I’m leaving the theater seeing people wiping away tears—not even tears of “Oh, that was so funny,” but tears of joy.
Did you study the actual Book of Mormon to prepare for this role?
I read a couple of books [about Mormons] and tried reading the Book of Mormon, but the joy for me is that my character doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, unlike [co-star Andrew Rannells] whose character is the perfect Mormon specimen. I don’t think my character has even read the Book of Mormon.
Elder Cunningham lands himself in hot water for his compulsive lying. Have you ever gotten in trouble for stretching the truth?
I used to make things up all the time. I feel like I might have been a sociopath as a child. It was just to fit in. One story I can tell you: My best friend Seth’s parents were having a baby and I wanted to be the one who told our teacher so I could get that, “Look at me, I’ve got the inside scoop” attention. So I said, “Seth’s mom just had a baby,” and the teacher asked if they had named it yet. I said. “Yeah, Seth Jr.” which obviously makes absolutely no sense. Now that I think about it, I was 18 at the time [laughs].
Elder Cunningham also has a deep affection for all things sci-fi. Is that a love you share?
I’m a huge Star Wars and Lord of the Rings fan. I don’t think I’m as big a fanatic as he is, but I love that you can become so obsessed with the mythology, it becomes the fabric of a new religion.
Your college roommate Rory O’Malley co-stars as Elder McKinley. Did you guys ever think you’d end up nominated for Tony Awards together?
We never imagined this day. Our teachers convinced us pretty early on that we wouldn’t even get regional awards [laughs]. The fact of the matter is they put both of us through hell. I was never even actually in the musical theater department. They wouldn’t let me in, so it’s doubly rewarding because it’s like, “Told you so, Carnegie Mellon U.”
This is the second time you two have shared a Broadway stage, thanks to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Will you only do shows together now?
We’re waiting for that third opportunity to arise. We’re a little bummed La Cage aux Folles recently closed, because that would have been perfect for us. So we’ll just have to do something else. Maybe we’ll do the 20th revival of The Odd Couple.
Spelling Bee’s William Barfee is also a lovable loser. Do you see similarities between him and Elder Cunningham?
Barfee was certainly different in that he’s a lot more confident than Cunningham. Cunningham is ten times more socially inept than Barfee, if that’s even possible, and I think Barfee would have trouble hanging out with Cunningham because it would make him look bad. I love the lovable losers because these characters are immensely rich. There’s a lot of me in them, being a little cocky as a kid and not necessarily fitting in.
Now you have a five-month-old daughter of your own. How are you balancing Mormon life and being a new dad?
I’ll tell you exactly how: I have a perfect wife. Now that the show is open, it’s been a wakeup call because Daddy’s [taken] on a lot more responsibility. [My wife] has been so amazing in picking up all the slack as we were getting the show ready. It’s been a crazy year.
Do you have any plans to visit Cunningham’s hometown of Salt Lake City?
I’ve never been, but I’d love to. Eventually I'll get out there. Maybe they’ll build an Elder Cunningham statue someday. I’ve heard Mormons say this could be their Fiddler on the Roof. That would be awesome. I’d love to see Book of Mormon being performed in Salt Lake City years and years from now.
See Josh Gad in The Book of Mormon at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.