In the modern world of theater, unusual opportunities and a lucky bit of good timing can lead to amazing adventures.
For young stage actor Cody Jamison Strand, a long-shot audition led to a leading role in what The New York Times calls “the best musical of this century,” the nine-time Tony Award-winning musical “The Book of Mormon.”
Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the long-running, animated comedy series “South Park,” the lively and endearing Broadway production gives a comical treatment to Mormonism through song, dance and a bit of shock.
The touring production of “The Book of Mormon” will land in the Lowcountry next week for a six-night run at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center.
Strand, a South Dakota native who only recently moved to New York to pursue acting, “fell in love with ‘The Book of Mormon’ ” during his first weeks as a rookie in the Big Apple.
In the lead roles, the original cast featured actors Andrew Rannells as Elder Price and Josh Gad as Elder Cunningham. Within a few months of his arrival in the big city, Strand would land a part as a stand-by actor in the role of Elder Cunningham in the production. By May 2013, Strand was solidly in the main cast of the touring group as Elder Cunningham.
“I saw the original cast perform the show during my first trip to New York City,” Strand tells Charleston Scene, speaking earlier this week from Tampa, Fla., where the company recently enjoyed a two-week run. “A good friend told me, ‘You’ve got to see this show; there’s a role in it that’s perfect for you.’ And I saw Josh Gad do the role of Elder Cunningham, and it was so mesmerizing.
“It was amazing to see how funny and how original the show was,” he adds. “It had so much to say about some really important things. I loved it right off the bat. It’s an amazing feat of writing.”
In 2010, when many “South Park” fans heard that show creators Stone and Parker were working on a Broadway musical with Robert Lopez, the Tony Award winning co-writer of “Avenue Q,” they weren’t terribly surprised.
Stone and Parker had delved into strange and unexpected musicals before via the big screen with 1999’s animated “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” which parodied several cinematic musicals in an amusingly vulgar manner.
While some stuffy theater-goers and Broadway fans scoffed at the idea of “the ‘South Park’ guys” doing a serious stage production, others were intrigued and excited to see what they would come up with.
As opposed to the parody approach of “Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” Stone, Parker and Lopez embraced the musical comedy format, announcing that they were to reveal a full-size production aimed at the topic of the Mormon religion by way of two young members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who experience new adventures during a mission trip to Africa.
“There’s a catharsis in being able to really laugh at some of the goofier ideas of religion without necessarily laughing at the people practicing them,” Stone stated in a recent press release. “We never like to make a ‘point,’ per se. We want to give you room to feel what the show is saying to you. We don’t want to tell anybody what the point is, or what the politics are. It’s up to you to figure out what it meant.”
“The Book of Mormon” first opened on Broadway on Feb. 24, 2011. Four years later, it’s still drawing huge crowds. The production was nominated for 16 Tony Awards in 2011, winning nine, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book and Best Featured Actress (Nikki James).
The initial idea for “The Book of Mormon” came from Lopez. He met Parker and Stone in 2003 after a performance of “Avenue Q,” and the three immediately hit it off and started brainstorming for a new musical with a satirical religious theme.
“When I said Joseph Smith, they were like, ‘We’ve wanted to do that, too!’ ” Lopez states in the same release. “They had it in their heads to do some kind of Joseph Smith musical, but never did. I said, ‘If you guys want to do that, that’s fine, because I’d really love to see what you do, more than what I would do.’ ”
Parker says they all had specific musical theater influences that played into the writing of the show and the songs.
“There’s a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein references in the show, because that’s what it feels like to me,” Parker says via the release. “When you’re doing this sort of happy‐go‐lucky, optimistic Mormon, it just plays right into it. There’s just nothing more perfect in the universe to me than a good musical. A bad musical makes you want to kill yourself. A good musical is, to me, so much more moving and powerful than a great movie or a great book, or anything.”
Through two acts, the story follows two young, naive, anxious Mormon missionaries — Elder Price and Elder Cunningham (the character admits he’s never actually read the entire actual Book of Mormon) — as they navigate their mission to a remote village in northern Uganda, where a warlord is threatening villagers.
The young Mormons attempt to share the scriptures of the Book of Mormon, but they have mixed luck with the villagers.
The bouncy and melodic “Hello” is one of the most memorable songs of “The Book of Mormon.” It makes its impact during the musical’s opening scene.
‘”Hello” was literally the first thing we wrote,” Parker says. “As soon as we figured out the show was going to be about missionaries, we realized that it would be a great introduction to just ring a massive amount of doorbells and somehow work them into a musical number. This symphony of doorbells and white boys with good haircuts and white shirts and black ties — saying ‘Hello’ and offering you a free book — seemed very much an opening number to us. It is totally Disney in sensibility, and totally Mormon in attack.”
“There’s this idea that Mormons are these very naive, hopeful, smiling, trusting people from the Midwest,” Lopez adds. “In ‘Hello’ and ‘Two by Two,’ we used the energy and optimism, and the relentlessly hopeful and sunny feeling. It’s a great way to start because we go to the opposite in a few scenes.”
Despite the extreme culture clashes and differing spiritual ideas involved, the optimism at the core of the story trumps any crudeness or vulgarity. It might surprise those who have a negative impression of “South Park” that “The Book of Mormon” isn’t actually mean-spirited.
“It really has been overwhelmingly positive,” Brand says of the typical audience response to the touring production over the last year and a half. “We get the occasional walk-out during certain songs — especially at the very beginning of the show, but that really rarely happens anymore because the show’s been around for a while.”
“Honestly, if you’re really not a ‘South Park’ fan, you’ll probably still really enjoy it,” he adds. “While it’s written by the ‘South Park’ guys, it’s not as biting as the TV show is. It’s all seen through the lens of these two Mormon boys who couldn’t be sweeter. You have these terrible things happening in the world, but the story is told with a smile.”
For Cody Strand, one big bonus that came with landing a leading role with “The Book of Mormon” was the opportunity for travel: from New York to London to all corners of North America. Strand is set to perform with “The Book of Mormon” until at least next January, and he’s delighted to visit the Carolinas for his first time next week.
“My favorite thing about traveling with the show is getting to see the country, you know? Within the touring part, it’s exciting to play new cities to audiences who are finally getting to see the show — audiences who are really, really excited to see it,” he says. “With my experience so far, the audiences have been outstanding.”
Strand’s initial fascination with acting began with plays in elementary school (“Because sports didn’t work out,” he chuckles). He attended the University of South Dakota in the mid-2010s, and he earned a degree in theater before heading to New York.
“I’m pretty green still, believe it or not,” Strand says. “This is really my first serious professional gig. I was making burritos when, by some act of God or something, I got my job with ‘Book of Mormon’ in November 2012, and went from there. I know that I didn’t have to grind for years like so many actors before getting a role like this, and I’ve noticed some jealousy among a few colleagues,” he says. “Like (in a sarcastic tone), ‘Oh, I’m so happy for you!’ But most actors I know are very supportive and helpful.”
Offstage, the musical score of “The Book of Mormon” became a huge hit in 2011 and 2012. Released on Ghostlight Records, “The Book of Mormon: Original Broadway Cast Recording” featured the entire original cast performing all of the songs from the production. The collection became the fastest-selling Broadway cast album in iTunes history, an unusual feat for a Broadway cast album.
For Strand and co-star David Larsen (playing Elder Price), learning the lyrics, melodies and dance moves for the touring production of “The Book or Mormon” was a fun and daunting challenge.
“Some of it really does come naturally,” Strand says. “When my parents first saw the show, they were like, ‘Yeah, a lot of this is just you being you on stage.’ But I don’t know whose idea it was to give the fat guy a huge dance number in the show. To do something like that ... the physical challenges were the toughest thing for me when I started the show. But I’m on my way ... maybe I’ll go for the ballet next.”
Traveling the U.S. with the full cast of “The Book of Mormon,” Strand says he genuinely appreciates the artistry and craft that Stone, Parker and Lopez put into the musical, and he also recognizes the cultural impact of the production.
“I’ve been a part of the show for two years, and it’s still exciting to go to work on it every day,” he says. “It’s fun and encouraging because people really rally behind the show. It’s fun to step back a bit and watch certain things sink in with the audience during performances. Watching the audience react during the more shocking and magical moments is really fun.”