About the Author:
After delighting family audiences with the happy-go-lucky musical adaptation of the holiday film Elf earlier this season, director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw switched gears to deliver Broadway’s foul-mouthed, decidedly adult runaway hit The Book of Mormon. Nicholaw, who co-directed the musical alongside composer and South Park creator Trey Parker, recently scored a pair of Tony nominations for his work on the project. Below Nicholaw, a Tony nominee for directing and choreographing The Drowsy Chaperone and choreographing Spamalot (and is a veteran performer from shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Seussical), recounts being recruited for the project, overcoming his initial hesitations and making the show’s dance moves “perfectly Mormon.”
I was directing Robin and the 7 Hoods in San Diego last summer and got a call out of the blue saying The Book of Mormon was looking for a new co-director and chorographer and was asked if I could drive up to Los Angeles to meet with Matt Stone, Trey Parker and producer Anne Garefino. I don’t watch a lot of TV and hadn’t watched a ton of South Park, but I loved the episodes I had seen and thought the movie was fantastic. We all totally hit it off. I was hired, and the next week co-composer Robert Lopez flew out and we started working. It all happened so quickly. Robin and the 7 Hoods opened on a Saturday night and then we began a six-week Mormon workshop that Monday morning.
I had seen a previous workshop of The Book of Mormon a couple years before at the Vineyard Theatre. I laughed my butt off when I saw it, but I did have a few hesitations about it—I felt a lot of it was shock material without the heart or enough arcs for the characters. I didn’t feel the story was totally integrated yet, so we would have to work to make that happen. When I voiced this to Matt, Trey and Bobby, they all agreed and said they felt the same way. Everything really started to click when Andrew Rannells came on board. His sense of comedy became such a good foil for Josh Gad. The journey of their characters, Elders Price and Cunningham, became much clearer.
Working alongside Trey as a co-director was fantastic. I’ll admit I had trepidations about being a “co-director” at first, but once we got together we knew it would work, especially because we were both doing two jobs: he as the director and writer, and me as director and choreographer. It was actually a lot of fun to have another director to check in with—and also to blame each other for things.
The first time I heard the score, I couldn’t wait to get to work on the choreography. It was fun to expand the musical numbers and make them have more of a build and story. “Two By Two” was the first number I choreographed, and it just came to me instantly. The steps were like the kinds of things I’d do in the dressing room when I was a performer, just to crack people up. Trey saw it and said, “Oh, God. That’s so perfectly Mormon.” I gathered a lot of it from my college years of dreaming to be in the Kids of the Kingdom. I was never hired. I didn’t even get hired at Knott’s Berry Farm, and I was crushed.
This ensemble is such a strong force in this show. They are fantastic. They are game for anything and are the most positive group of people ever. I came in new to a project that a lot of people had been working on for a long time, and they completely embraced me. I made them dance much more than they ever thought they were going to, but they were up for it and they worked their butts off!
The smartest thing our producers did was pay for a six-week workshop before we opened, because there was no out-of-town tryout. We basically put the show up in four weeks and had two weeks of presentations for different focus groups. It was a really great way for us to learn about the show. By the end of those six weeks, we really felt like we had something special, so getting to the rehearsal process didn’t feel nearly as nerve-wracking as it could have been in other instances.
This kind of success and acclaim is what you dream about and always hope a show will achieve. The most rewarding part of the whole experience is going to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, looking up and down the rows and seeing people laughing. The audience is jumping on their feet at the beginning of the ensemble bows before one principal actor even comes out. Often at shows, people are thinking “Should I stand? I guess I should stand,” but here there is absolutely no hesitation. During this time of the year, you get so caught up in the press and people talking about awards, it’s so nice just to go to theater, stand in the back, and be around the energy of the cast and the audience.