Scottish-born actor Stephen Ashfield is delighting London audiences as Elder McKinley in The Book of Mormon, giving a career-defining performance every bit as sweetly outrageous and full-throttle as the material itself. The 33-year-old actor, who came to Mormon after star turns as Emmett in Legally Blonde and Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys, spoke to Broadway.com about exchanging classical singing for musical theater and how he’s made peace with not nabbing the role of Elder Price, played by American stage fave Gavin Creel.
You opened in The Book of Mormon last March, and the show is still the hottest ticket in town. That must be very satisfying.
Sometimes the show starts and you think, “I don’t know if this audience is going to get it.” But the genius of [co-creators] Trey [Parker] and Matt [Stone] is that they have this rule from television that there has to be a huge laugh every 10 seconds, and they pretty much stick to that throughout the whole show. It’s so infectious for us as performers to hear that reaction; you can’t get any better than that.
You’ve been in this position before with Jersey Boys, in terms of opening a Tony-winning Broadway smash on the West End.
Yes, although it didn’t quite sink in then, maybe because that was the first big Broadway show I’d done in London. Jersey Boys was popular, of course, and it is running, but The Book of Mormon is all-consuming; it feels like a phenomenon.
You’re from Glasgow. Are there Scottish Mormons?
There certainly are; I’m related to some! I have very distant relations through my father who are Mormons, and I met some of them at a family funeral just as I was starting to audition for the show. The husband said he would like to come see it, whereas his wife said she thought she would give it a miss—musicals weren’t really for her.
How did you get cast?
It had made such a splash on Broadway, I think every young guy in the West End was desperate to be involved. So as soon as I found out it was coming, I thought, “I have to try and be a part of this.” I kept my ears to the ground as far as auditions were concerned, and because I had been involved with [producer] Sonia Friedman before on Legally Blonde, I had a little bit of an inroad.
Were you always auditioning to play Elder McKinley?
In fact, the first eight or nine auditions I had were for Elder Price [Gavin Creel’s role]! But when I finally met [co-director] Casey [Nicholaw], he said, “I’d like to see what you could do with Elder McKinley.” I wasn’t sure at first if that was what I wanted to do.
Because I had been typecast before in roles that were a little bit camp. But going back and reading through the script, I thought, “Actually, although he’s a lesser character, this is something I can really get my teeth into.” Now, I absolutely love playing this part!
Does Gavin know you were eyeing up his role?
I often drop in a remark to Gavin like “Are you up for it tonight?” [Laughs.] Actually, I’m now so protective of Elder McKinley that I wouldn’t want anyone else to do this role.
Elder McKinley certainly leads the most delicious of numbers, “Turn It Off,” featuring one of the most virtuosic quick changes in musical history.
Isn’t it? And of course I can’t let anyone know how it happens because it’s such a great moment—and one that can be quite frantic on stage. People say, “How do you do that?” and I tell them to think of it as just a quick sprinkling of McKinley fairy dust over everyone [laughs].
How would you describe a character who can be, shall we say, a bit full-on?
Elder McKinley is a really nice guy who has some issues. They’re issues he thinks he has conquered, but every so often they just rear their head and he has to confront them. And so does everyone else!
The original Tony-nominated McKinley, Rory O’Malley, was at your London opening night. What was that like?
Rory was so lovely and sweet. He said it was the first time he had ever seen the show, so I felt a huge responsibility to go out there and deliver. It was great because I felt his presence in the audience, and it was lovely to be able to perform for that. There was a picture of us on Twitter which I captioned: “Getting notes from the master!”
Were you apprehensive at how the Brits and Americans would mix when it was announced that Gavin and Jared Gertner [as Elder Cunningham] would head the West End company?
Not at all, and Gavin and Jared themselves said they found their version of the show with us in London. They hadn’t been on the [U.S. national] tour for very long, so coming here was a chance for them to rehearse together and for our company to really bond. What it felt like was a homegrown production that just happened to have Gavin and Jared at the helm, so that we could all benefit from their insight and knowledge.
It’s fascinating to hear your Glaswegian voice, given how good you are time and again with American accents.
Thank you! It’s funny: I’ve been complimented many times on my American accent, but it’s not something I think about. I remember [director] Des McAnuff on Jersey Boys saying to me that Scottish people were good at dialects. I think he’d just been working with [Scottish actress] Kelly Macdonald [on the film Cousin Bette], and he thought she had a very musical ear for picking things up.
Speaking of “musical ears,” it’s interesting that you began your training in Scotland in the worlds of classical music and opera.
I did. In college we’d be doing oratorio and concert work holding the book, and I always felt as if I wanted to get more involved in the characters than is usually possible with an oratorio. Studying musical theater seemed like the natural progression, so I thought, I’m going to give this a shot. I moved down to London to study in 2001 and actually picked things up pretty quickly.
No pining, then, for the world of grand opera?
I think my classical music and opera days are behind me, though every New Years, I do make a resolution to go back and have some classical lessons. I like to get out my opera books and pretend that I’m on stage at Covent Garden [laughs].
Not much chance of that given the ongoing success of The Book of Mormon.
And I’ve just signed for another year, to February 2015! I certainly wouldn’t sign my life away to a show I wasn’t enjoying, but every day we come in here and have such a fantastic time. That’s what it’s about for me.