When director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw finally joined the creative team for The Book of Mormon, the show had been in development for nearly seven years.
South Park co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, along with composer Robert Lopez, had written pretty much all they needed for a wonderful and outrageous satirical musical about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with infectious musical numbers, but when Nicholaw came in, the whole thing was tightened and whipped into shape.
“I was able to come in with new eyes,” Nicholaw says. “I was able to add the dance element to it, which is what I think helped really bring it to life. I told them all the things I thought were right and wrong about the structure, and songs, and character arcs. They knew a lot of those things themselves, but they needed somebody else to say it.”
Nicholaw helped the writers to work through the necessary character development, re-ordered songs, and turned one of the show’s sweetest and simplest number, Turn it Off into a big production number, complete with tap-dancing Mormon missionaries.
And it’s this combination of Nicholaw’s big, bold classic Broadway sensibility with the bawdy and provocative style of Parker and Stone’s satire that’s been key to the show’s success.
The musical sees a group of young, chirpy and brightly energetic Mormon missionaries travel to a small, war-torn Ugandan village. They have to confront the realities of AIDS and severe poverty, but the Ugandans they meet have a rather different way of dealing with adversity.
“The structure of it is traditional musical theatre,” Nicholaw says, “and yet you’re doing contemporary humour and satire on top of that, and I think that allows lots of people, including people who don’t usually go to musicals, to embrace it.”
And audiences certainly have embraced the show. The Broadway production, which opened in 2011, regularly smashes box office records, while the London production broke the record for the highest single day sales in West End history. Both productions have been completely sold out since they opened.
Although the Mormon Church would go on to buy advertising space in the musical’s programs, the show initially stirred some controversy. Unsurprisingly, given its creators, it features some rather lewd material with plenty of coarse language.
But Nicholaw says he has to treat the material with the same integrity as any piece of musical theatre, rather than going for shock value.
“You have to listen to the story. If you push something too far, it suddenly doesn’t serve the story anymore. If it takes you out of the story, then it’s too much. I don’t think we ever went too far.
“I’m sure there’s always a mix of people who are maybe not in their comfort zone at the show. But my mum really loved the show, but I can say she loved Aladdin [which Nicholaw also directed] more, probably for the reason that they weren’t swearing in it.”
The Australian production, which starts previews this week, is achieving similarly strong box office results. Nicholaw, who is in Melbourne to oversee the final stages of rehearsals, says that the Australian cast brings something fresh to the material while maintaining all that made the show a hit in the first place.
“I think the spirit is definitely the same, because that’s what the show is built on, but there’s definitely different eccentricities and different acting choices that end up happening with new actors. That’s what’s fun about doing new productions.”
Since The Book of Mormon, Nicholaw has directed hits Aladdin and Something Rotten! on Broadway, as well as the brand new West End production of Dreamgirls.
In April this year, Nicholaw will direct a four-week “developmental lab” of a stage musical adaptation of Tina Fey’s hit 2004 film Mean Girls. Fey is adapting the film with her composer husband Jeff Richmond, and Legally Blonde lyricist Nell Benjamin.
But unlike much of what Nicholaw has directed, it’s difficult to imagine a film as intimate as Mean Girls has many opportunities for massive musical numbers.
“It’s funny, because you’re set in the school, you have licence to go a lot of places with it. And the team I’m working with, Tina, Jeff, Nell, are really good and really smart people and I love where we’re going with it. It doesn’t feel like we’re trying to blow it out.
“Tina’s writing is always so fast-paced with lots of quick-cuts and stuff, which fits very well with what I like to do. I think we’ve come up with some really good things and production numbers that don’t feel like we’re trying to bloat something up to be a musical, and I think it works really well.”
Nicholaw says the show will probably look completely different by the end of the four-week development, but given his strike rate with The Book of Mormon, and in the years since, Mean Girls may well be Broadway’s next big hit.
Featured image: The Book of Mormon Broadway cast. Photo by Joan Marcus