Written and composed by comedy legends Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, Frozen), The Book of Mormon is hardly what you’ve come to expect from a Broadway production. But the show broke box office records, and went on to win 9 Tony Awards (including Best Musical) and a Grammy.
The razor-sharp, whip-smart show tells the story of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, two young missionaries sent to a remote village in Uganda, where a Joseph Kony-like warlord rules with an iron fist. The hopeful but inexperienced believers try to share their titular sacred text (which Cunningham, hilariously, has never even read) with locals, but religion pales in comparison to disease, famine, poverty and war among their major concerns.
As the schlubby, clingy, compulsive liar Elder Cunningham, the Tony-nominated Josh Gad stole nearly every scene in the 2011 Broadway production. Now South Dakota native Cody Jamison Strand is starring in the national touring production, which comes to Atlanta in January.
We recently spoke with Cody Jamison Strand on The Book of Mormon, working with Parks and Stone, filling Gad’s shoes, and how his father (a preacher) responded to the religious satire.
What was it like growing up as a theater-lover in small town South Dakota?
It was always a little funny. South Dakota isn’t necessarily a hotbed for the arts in general, but there was always something there to do. My high school did three plays a year, so I was always busy!
How did you end up on Broadway?
It’s a crazy story. I moved from South Dakota when I was 23, moving into my tiny NYC apartment on July 23, 2012. I met with an agent that had his eye on me that week. By November, I got the standby job with Book of Mormon. I don’t know what happened in that audition room, because I was scared out of my mind. But they must’ve liked it, because I’m still here!
What was the feeling like when you first heard you’d been cast as Elder Cunningham?
I remember it was the day power came back on in NYC from Hurricane Sandy. My agent called me and told me to sit down. He said, “You’re going on tour with Book of Mormon!” I couldn’t contain myself: I screamed, I cried, I laughed. It’s the chance of a lifetime!
You’re taking on a role originated by Josh Gad. How did you put your own spin on Elder Cunningham?
I have huge respect for Josh Gad. I’d seen him do the show when it first came out, and he was astoundingly funny. I’d never seen someone be so effortlessly funny and captivating. When I got the chance to do it, I knew I couldn’t repeat what he’d done, so I strove to make it my own. I think by putting more of myself into the role, trying to be as genuine as possible while still letting out my inner child, I’ve put my own stamp on the part. I’m a weird dude! So it works.
I’m a huge fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. I’ve always wished for a stage production of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Can you talk about the fun of working with a character that has their unique sense of humor?
First of all, a stage version of the South Park movie would be hilarious. Those songs are killer! And yes, they absolutely have a unique grasp on things. What they say through comedy is truly remarkable. If I had to put Elder Cunningham through a South Park lens, he’s like Butters, but Cartman is both the devil and angel on his shoulders. Meeting Trey and Matt was one of the coolest parts of this entire experience. They’re so cool, smart, and down to earth. When they direct the show, it’s such a surreal experience. Like, here are comedy legends helping me perform the material that they wrote. It’s crazy!
Why do you think The Book of Mormon has been such an explosive hit?
It’s an explosive hit because its message is so clearly needed in our world today. Yes, it has amazing songs, exciting dance breaks, and hilarious jokes. But at its heart, it also has a message of love and acceptance that we so deeply need. Tomorrow is a Latter Day!
Your father is a pastor. How did he respond to the show?
He loves it! He’s seen it 15 times, and I just bought him another ticket to see it over Christmas. It was funny, because I told my mother I was auditioning for Mormon back in 2012. When she looked it up and heard the music, she said, “We just won’t tell your father about this.” Which is hilarious, because the next phone call I had with my mother was, “Mom, I got the part.”
The Book of Mormon is obviously a comedy, but there’s a lot of heart, warmth and insight into religion as well. What messages do you hope audiences take away from the show?
Like I said, the show has so much to say about the world’s current state of affairs. The biggest message of the show is that it doesn’t matter if you change some things or break the rules so long as we all work together to make this our paradise planet. Because it’s the only one we’ve got! If people leave the theatre with hope in their hearts, then I’ve done my job.