The Broadway smash hit musical comedy, the Book of Mormon, written by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez, celebrated its 1000th performance in Australia last Friday September 27th at the Crown Theatre, in Burswood. Winner of nine Tony awards including Best Musical, the Grammy for best Musical Theatre album, four Olivier awards including Best New Musical, and the 2017 Helpmann award for Best Musical, the show set a record for the highest-grossing on-sale of any musical theatre production in Sydney’s history at the end of the first day of public sales, and is the highest-grossing musical in the Princess Theatre’s 159 year history in Melbourne.
The Book of Mormon follows the story of two Mormon missionaries, the ‘golden boy’ Elder Price and the not quite as ‘golden’ (think more ‘lives in his mother’s basement’) Elder Cunningham, and their journey across the world to spread their religion, while facing culture shocks, vicious gang leaders, closeted gays, and a little bit of song and dance along the way. This show is hilarious and insightful, crass and uplifting, and described by the New York times as “the best musical of this century”. It’s one not to miss.
Julia Schwab sat down with Blake Bowden (Elder Price) and Nyk Bielak (Elder Cunningham) backstage at Crown Theatre, where the show is running until November 17th.
J: So, this week is the Australian company’s 1000th performance, and Blake, you actually started with the Melbourne company when it debuted?
B: Yeah, we started rehearsing in December 2016, so I’ve been with the Australian company since the beginning, and Nyk joined us very soon after that.
J: Do you have a ballpark guess of how many runs of the show you’ve done?
B: Oh, god, no I don’t. Not a thousand, but at least half of that, so it’s got to be around 500. And Nyk would have far more.
N: Yeah, I’ve been with the show for six years now, so I lost count.
B: You’d probably be over a thousand, actually.
N: Probably. And we’ve just had our one year anniversary of doing the show together.
B: Two weeks ago. One year since we took over.
J: Wow. How do you keep up your energy for every performance and make it fresh?
N: I mean, this show is like a rollercoaster, so you just sort of –
B: Strap in.
N: Strap in and go.
B: But it does take a lot, and we do rest a lot during the day. There are the practical things, like sleeping in, eating right, all of that. You have to really keep on top of it. It really is like a professional athlete, what music theatre people do on a nightly basis. But like Nyk said, the show does really lift us as well, so some days you can really be feeling quite under energised but as soon as you get out there–
N: You sort of don’t have a choice. Especially since that audience is right there with you.
B: And people always comment on it and they say that the energy of the show doesn’t feel tired, even though we’ve been doing it for three and a half years. They always say it feels really fresh and brand new.
J: And it’s such a fast-paced show, and the sets are always coming on and off and there are so many quick changes.
B: Yeah and it does keep moving, and Nyk and I try keep it moving all the time as well.
B: That’s the best way to try and tell this story in particular – to not stop.
N: It’s pretty quick, but our brains move pretty fast. It’s also just a lot of fun to do, and the jokes kill every night.
B: It’s pretty uplifting.
N: It’s a pretty damn cool job.
J: So, the show, it’s this big comedy musical, and you’re all playing these big caricatures, but it also has this really lovely message at the end. You guys have these massive character arcs as well that are really truthful and not just funny all the time. What’s that like getting to work with?
B: I always say this is such a dream role, and I’m sure it’s the same with Nyk, because you do get to play the most incredible comedy, but also such drama between [the two characters]. Their journey is amazing throughout the show, so as an actor, it’s such a privilege to play that. But I also think that’s the heart of the show and why it’s been so successful.
N: There’s no way it would have been as successful as it has been if the whole thing was just fart jokes. It’s just a killer story at the same time. And people don’t really expect that. They come in, expecting that it’s going to be loud and crass, and it is, a hundred percent, but the flip side to that is that it has this really incredible story about friendship, which is so universal. And the things that we deal with and tackle are super universal. It’s a real testament to the longevity if this show.
B: And the quality of the writing as well. And going back to the first question, of how you keep your energy up, it’s also because that story is so interesting to tell and so great, and we get to do so much within it, that also keeps us interested. If we were just doing fart jokes the whole night, or it was just slapstick the whole time, it would get tired and old eventually, but because we get to do slapstick and also play such incredible drama and have such great arcs, it doesn’t.
N: It’s such the perfect acting job because you just get to do everything, and really hit people when they don’t expect it with certain things.
J: Like you were saying, your characters’ friendship is the core of the musical, and you guys mentioned that you just had your one year anniversary of doing the show together. What’s it been like getting to work together and playing off each other as well?
N: It’s been great. I’m such a big fan of his.
B: And vice versa.
N: Blake is incredibly talented. You know, he’s just screaming up there, so it makes the job so much easier.
B: Totally, when you respect the person you’re working with. And also when you learn from them. Nyk is such a comic genius and often I’ll run things by him, like ‘what do you think of this moment? And if I do it like this do you think it’s better?’ and that level of respect is really nice. We’re also mates outside of work. We’ve been really lucky – we’ve known each other for nearly three years now, we’re rooming together at the moment and we hang out outside of the show. And that definitely helps. I think everyone who’s played these roles knows that you have to have respect for and a pretty decent liking of the other person.
N: Because if you don’t then it’s going to be hard.
J: It’s going to be a long night.
N: You’re going to have a shitty show.
B: I mean sometimes as well, though, it’s interesting. Matt and Trey (the show’s creators) came out when we were in Melbourne and they said sometimes the danger is that these two actors end up liking each other too much. There is that beginning of the show where Price is not really a big fan of Cunningham, and it’s sometimes hard to not to play that. I have to constantly check in with myself, like, yes, I think what he’s doing is great work, but I, the character, don’t like it.
N: And it’s fun for me because I just get to push his buttons.
J: So, Nyk, you’ve performed the show in New York on Broadway, how has it been coming to Australia and how is the Australian theatre community different from the American theatre community?
N: I’m Canadian, and I actually feel it’s a lot like Canada here. I really love Australia. For whatever reason it feels a lot like home. But as far as the theatre community goes – I love this community and it’s definitely a lot smaller and everyone knows one another, but that’s such a beautiful thing, and everyone is really rooting for one another. It’s such a pleasant place to work, and I feel like I’ve really made some lifelong friends here. And the audiences go bananas for this show, and like I’ve said there are some universal truths that are touched on, so I don’t know if they react in particularly different ways.
B: The one thing that I think of nightly that we changed from the States is just a little simple thing. The line in the show is “How about I get transferred to Orlando?”, but we changed it to ‘Florida’, just because in Melbourne we weren’t getting the reaction that we wanted, because obviously people don’t connect that Orlando is in Florida. And little things like that have changed but everything else is universal.
J: So, there might not be much difference, but what’s it been like performing in Perth as oppose to the Eastern states?
B: More space.
N: The show doesn’t really change in what we do, it doesn’t matter where we are, but at the same time every night is sort of different, depending on the relationship that we have with the crowd each night.
B: The space changes it as well. This space – it’s probably the biggest theatre we’ve played in, and so I’ve found over the past couple of weeks that some of the subtler things that I do in the show don’t get as good of a response as they do in a smaller theatre, so I’ve cut some of those choices out, and I’ve made the big physical choices more prominent, because if you do that it’s going to read better.
J: That’s really interesting. So, just to finish up, I have two more questions, firstly: what your favourite part of the show to do?
N: I have a couple of parts that are my favourite jokes that I get to do, because I slay those. But obviously Man Up is amazing, because I get to be just a complete Rockstar with Britney Spears backup dancers, and that is pretty cool. I love doing that.
B: And I always say that first moment for me – that iconic first doorbell. I just stand there and smile, I don’t have to do very much, it’s such a great moment and the audience loves it and there’s such a build up to that. If I had to choose one, that would be my favourite moment.
J: And what is your favourite part about the show in general?
B: I’d have to say getting to work with Nyk. Like, getting to have a relationship with another actor who you really respect and admire, and getting to work this closely. And also getting to know this show and these characters so well, so inside out, and you can make the tiniest adjustments on a nightly basis, or whenever we check back in and rehearse a scene to make some adjustments. That feels really nice. And it’s kind of unprecedented, because things don’t usually run this long, particularly in Australia. I may never get this opportunity again, to work so closely with someone and so intricately on this piece and on this character, so I think over the past three years that’s become my favourite thing about this whole process.
N: Yeah, and mine’s probably just the fame and fortune.
B: You should Google him.
N: I’m just kidding. Same answer.
N: Ditto. What Blake said.
J: Well, thank you so much for doing this. Chookas for the show tonight!
B: Thank you!
The Book of Mormon runs at the Crown Theatre, Perth, until the 17th of November. Tickets available online at bookofmormonmusical.com.au, and by phone and in person through Ticketmaster. Contains explicit language.
Interview by Julia Schwab