If the day ever comes that we leave New York City, one thing I already know I’ll regret is that I didn’t take enough advantage of everything the city has to offer. Like shows on Broadway. Yes, the ticket prices can be absurd and, no, I’ve never been a big fan of musicals, but it’s an experience that’s unique to the city. Countless communities have theaters — no place else has Broadway.
On Saturday night we made a rare trip into the heart of it all, leaving our Broadway address in upper Manhattan — yes, it’s the same street; you could walk on it all the way down Manhattan if you want — to 49th Street and the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. We had tickets to The Book of Mormon, though I fought to keep Louise from ever actually seeing the price of the show on those tickets.
The Book of Mormon is the Tony Award-winning production from Robert Lopez and South Park co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Lopez was also the composer and creator of Avenue Q, another filthy and — sorry to sound like one of those reviewers who only writes things so they’ll be plugged on billboards and in commercials — uproariously funny musical that I would recommend to one and all. Wait, add an exclamation point to that sentence so I really sound like an awed reviewer.
I’ve seen Avenue Q — an R-rated Sesame Street — twice, the second time with my parents, aunt and uncle and two cousins. At one point in the show — as two puppets engaged in passionate sex onstage a few feet from us — my aunt turned and said to me, “Shawn, what have you taken us to!” The show is certainly shocking, especially for us small town Midwesterners, but my whole family loved it. I’d certainly like to see it a third time.
The Book of Mormon shares similarities with Avenue Q — I have no doubt my aunt would turn and ask what I’d taken her to if they were in attendance. The show skewers organized religion but by the end it’s about the power of faith. In between there are jokes about AIDS, infant rape, bestiality, war, and female circumcision. Among other things.
I liked Avenue Q a bit more, but The Book of Mormon fulfilled the high expectations I had going in. It’s outrageous but somehow still poignant. A pleasant surprise? One of the stars is a young guy from Brandon, S.D. A small-town Midwesterner making it big.
Cody Strand graduated from the University of South Dakota in 2012. He earned the role of Elder Cunningham — one of the two main characters — and made his debut in late-May. Jill Callison wrote a really nice feature on Strand for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. I can’t say Strand steals the show, because all the performers are outstanding, but I definitely enjoyed his role the most. Part of it is due to the way the character’s written — he’s a happy but bumbling missionary who hasn’t actually taken the time to read the Book of Mormon. But Strand’s energy doesn’t let up for two and a half hours.
As I did with Avenue Q, I occasionally missed out on some lines or lyrics because I was simply staring at the sets or thinking about just how much talent goes into any one production, much less an award-winning show like Book of Mormon. My first impressions are always overly simplistic, like something a 10-year-old would offer: How do they remember all those lines? How do they do this night after night, month after month, year after year, always performing with the enthusiasm of their first night but with the expertise of their 1,000th? When there are a dozen or more people onstage, I like to look at the actors who are off to the side, those who are in the scene but not involved in the action or speaking. They always stay in character, never falling victim to a Fallonesque SNL laughing jag. They make all the necessary facial expressions that are called upon, even though hundreds of eyes are on the other performers 15 feet away.
A Broadway show always feels like an event, like going to a playoff game. We stood in a line that stretched down the block in Midtown. Certainly the prices play a part — this isn’t a $13 movie ticket. But it’s also the live performances, watching the best in the business onstage in front of an audience with no takes and no scripts. Even in a Broadway theater it remains an intimate experience, even though we were in the back rows.
Yes, I’ll someday regret not going to more shows, but I don’t know when we’ll return to Broadway. I’d see Book of Mormon again. I want to see a regular play at some point. A new production or a fresh take on an old tale, starring a famous person getting back to his roots by returning to the theater. There doesn’t even have to be puppet sex or circumcision jokes. But if there is? I’ll probably see it twice.