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Casey Nicholaw transforms 'The Book of Mormon'

The director-choreographer brings Broadway know-how to the musical from the creators of 'South Park.'

June 05, 2011|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times
  • Casey Nicholaw is busy now with the Aladdin musical.
Casey Nicholaw is busy now with the Aladdin musical. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — —

If there's an unsung hero to "The Book of Mormon" — the musical comedy, not the religious text — it's Casey Nicholaw.

A Broadway smash hit that has also been nominated for 14 Tony Awards, "Mormon" was written by the more well-known "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker in collaboration with Robert Lopez of the puppet musical "Avenue Q."

But Nicholaw, the director and choreographer whose credits include the hit musicals "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Elf" and "Monty Python's Spamalot," was the person who shaped a funny but sometimes motley collection of songs about Mormon missionaries in Africa into a potent stage concoction that has become Broadway's toughest ticket. "He's purely an entertainer," Parker said of Nicholaw, with whom he shares the directing credit. "What was great is he thinks so much for stage. To him it was all about the energy: 'Bring the audience higher energy and then lower it down.'"

Now 49, Nicholaw spent much of the past three decades as a yeoman Broadway performer, with supporting roles in "The Scarlet Pimpernel," "Seussical" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie." But over the past few years he made a transition to choreographing and directing and quickly became a sought-after talent. "Mormon" producer Scott Rudin put Nicholaw on a short list when Stone and Parker — top TV talents with limited theatrical experience — realized they needed a practiced hand to mount the show for Broadway.

"Mormon" has since become such a breakthrough that it's likely to define Nicholaw's career for some time. Now directing the stage adaptation of Disney's animated movie "Aladdin," Nicholaw promised "fun for the whole family."

Then he paused and added with a chuckle, "Very different than my last show!"

Indeed, "Mormon" brings a level of comic outrageousness familiar to any fan of "South Park" but seldom if ever seen on Broadway.

The basic story concerns two young Mormon missionaries, the handsome, upright Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and the shaggy, dorky Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), who are dispatched to a Ugandan backwater ravaged by poverty, AIDS and tribal warfare. The villagers cope with their wobegone fates by indulging a brand of irony often lost on their Western visitors.

It's not your typical Broadway book — and then some. Not that many hit musicals have a character singing about maggots in his private parts. But "Mormon" does. It also has a local populace terrorized by a profane warlord whose name cannot be printed in a family newspaper as well as a big production number (one of many) that depicts the horrors of cholera with highly imaginative theatricality.

Some critics — a minority, admittedly — are not amused. Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal dubbed the show "slick and smutty" and complained that the score is amateurish.

But most viewers have perceived the sweetness at the show's core, no matter how scatological its trappings might be. Single tickets on online marketplaces go for $400 and up. And the just-released cast album became the fastest-selling Broadway album ever on iTunes.

The writers take ultimate credit for that, of course. But it was Nicholaw — a warm, robust man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a personable air — who shaped the emotional journey that Price and Cunningham take.

Nicholaw had spent his career thinking about what made musicals work — or not. A native of San Diego and a onetime theater major at UCLA, he quit the program when he realized it took him away from his beloved voice and dance lessons. "I thought, 'What's the point?" he said, nursing a diet soda at a restaurant next door to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York, where "Mormon" is playing. He dropped out and, at 19 and completely broke, moved to New York, where he slowly cobbled together a career onstage.

During his first meeting with Parker and Stone in Los Angeles (he had driven up from San Diego, where he was working on another show), he told the pair that the beginning and end worked fine, but the middle needed more character development. "The first thing they said was, 'Yeah, we know, we know,'" he recalled.

Nicholaw became a steady guide in a world that did not operate according to the rules of "South Park." Parker explained that he and Stone never had to worry in the past about simple but essential tasks, such as character entrances and exits. "'We'll just animate them over there — who cares?'" he said with a laugh. Nicholaw also reordered songs for better flow and urged expansion of numbers where he thought it necessary.

One first-act number, "Turn It Off," was originally supposed to be a simple and short song in which the missionaries explain how temptations can be avoided through a process of denial.

"It was one that Casey really loved, so he'd keep saying, 'Add more to this,'" Parker recalled. When he learned that it was originally envisioned to include tap dancing, Parker added, Nicholaw "turned it into this big Broadway showstopper."

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