By Laura Latzko
The Book of Mormon is what one would expect with its deeper exploration of the Mormon religion, but it’s also much more than that.
Developed by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q writer Robert Lopez, the satirical show engages audiences on a deeper level by making them laugh out loud and think deeper about bigger moral issues at the same time.
The second national tour of The Book of Mormon will visit ASU Gammage through Sunday, May 28.
The Book of Mormon follows Elder Price, a model Mormon boy, and Elder Cunningham, a self-proclaimed “follower” and people-pleaser, on their mission in Uganda.
During their journey, they develop relationships with the people they are trying to convert, including local leader Mafala Hatimbi and his daughter Nabulungi, and face opposition from a local warlord.
The production makes audiences want to sing along with catchy, tongue-in-cheek tunes such as Hello, Two by Two, You and Me (But Mostly Me), I Believe, Turn It Off, Tomorrow Is a Latter Day and Hasa Diga Eebowai.
The production opened on Broadway in 2011 and won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the same year.
On the national tour, Gabe Gibbs plays Elder Price; Conner Peirson, Elder Cunningham; Sterling Jarvis, Mafala Hatimbi; Leanne Robinson, Nabulungi; PJ Adzima, Elder McKinley; Ron Bohmer, Joseph Smith and Mission President and Oge Agulue, General.
Jake Emmerling, an ensemble member originally from Pa., joined the show’s second national tour five years ago.
The actor understudies several roles in the show, including Mission President and Elder McKinley.’
During a recent telephone interview, Emmerling talked about being a member of the “Mormon Boys” ensemble on the national tour.
Question: Did the show change up between the first and second tour?
Answer: The production you see on Broadway is the exact same production you see on tour. The difference is the people. They bring different energies to the stage.
Question: What has kept you doing the show for the last five years?
Answer: I just love it. It’s one of those shows that it really clicks with me. I’ve never had a day where I wished I wasn’t here, or I was thinking about another job. I just love doing the show and coming to work. The great thing with The Book of Mormon is it’s an upbeat comedy, so by the end of work every day, even if I come in in a bad mood, I always leave with a smile on my face.
Question: What originally that attracted you to the show?
Answer: The show came out in 2011. That’s right when I graduated from college, and I remember catching some wind of this new show from the creators of South Park. I listened to a couple of songs, and I was like, “Okay.” I remember playing some of the songs to my family, and they were kind of lost…But I started researching it and understanding more about the show, and I just thought, “Oh My God. This is a great show, first off, and secondly this is a show I could see myself in….” At one point in one of the callbacks, before I got to audition for the actual creative team, they sent me a script. I actually got to read the entire script, and I was on the floor laughing…For me at the time, I had just graduated college, and I was a young actor. This is a very young show. It’s great because it gives a lot of great opportunities for young working actors.
Question: Has it been a different experience for you to play multiple characters in a show?
Answer: It is an identity crisis at times…It’s actually a lot of fun. The nice thing with the ensemble in this show is it’s so well used. Literally, we’ll be onstage, and we’ll go running offstage, and then we’ll have maybe a song, and during that song, we’ll change into new costumes and come back on as a different character. I think we’re in about 65 percent of the actual show.
Question: Tell me a little more about the characters you play in the show.
Answer: I am Brigham Young. I am one of Elder Price’s little brothers. I am also one of the Mission President’s assistants. Overall, I change back and forth between costumes 12 times in the show, and I play a total of nine characters in the entire show.
Question: What do you find to be the biggest challenge as an ensemble member in this show?
Answer: We have to really find the fine line of high entertainment musical theater, but at the same time, we have to be true Mormon boys. I remember our second day of rehearsal, [Casey Nicholaw] and [Trey Parker] were talking to us, and right away they said, “These are not caricatures. We’re not here to make fun of Mormons. We want you to be real people onstage. When you are playing these roles, you have actual aspirations and goals, and you are so excited to go on your mission, and you are so excited to go out there and make a difference in the world.” The more truthful we tell the story, the more funny it is, the more honest it is, the more emotional it is.
Question: I’ve heard that coming down from big production numbers, where characters are so heightened, can be difficult.
Answer: When they come out to clean up our show here and there, they always say, “Trust the material.” The material is so good, you could just stand onstage and recite the lines as they are, and you’ll still get a laugh.
Question: From the title, one might think it portrays Mormons negatively, but that doesn’t seem to be what it’s about.
Answer: We always get asked, “Do you think you are offending anyone?” What [Matt Stone] and Trey said is they used the Mormon religion as a doorway to explore religion in general. Obviously, the focus is the Mormon religion, but it’s also the bigger picture, this idea of religion and how it affects people. I think it has really beautiful moments, and it’s so well-crafted. The first time I saw it, I cried twice. You’re just watching it, and you’re laughing, and it pivots very quickly. You don’t realize how emotionally invested you are in these characters until something drastic happens.
Question: I know you’ve talked before about how the show is funny but has a bigger message.
Answer: Anytime someone comes up to me, and they’ve seen the show, the whole show, and they say, “I didn’t really like it,” I get it. That’s totally fine. If people leave the show halfway through, it doesn’t anger me or upset me, but they just missed the whole point. If one thing offended them, and they’re like, “I can’t sit through this,” they’re not seeing the whole message yet….As much as it can be uncomfortable, I think it definitely, by the end, has a very universal message.
Matt and Trey, they’re very funny, but the biggest thing I think is they understand comedy so well… They always tell a story, even in South Park, as crazy as it gets. They always tell a story that has some form of truth behind it because the truth sometimes is the most sensitive comedy.
Question: What do you feel like your strong suit is as an actor?
Answer: I think what I bring to the stage is a strong energy. This is going to sound weird, but I know how to blend into an ensemble really well. I don’t stick out vocally or dance-wise. I’m not the one that everyone’s always looking at, for the good or bad reason. I’m always good at helping the story to be told.
Question: With this show, is it important to be able to blend into an ensemble?
Answer: We as an ensemble and as individuals, we have to be able to step out and have little moments, and we have to know when to then step back…In this show, for sure, there’s so many moments where the ensemble gets to shine, gets to have their own spotlight, but at the same time, there are so many moments where we are acting as a unit.
Question: That must be difficult to be a unit, especially vocally.
Answer: It is some of the most incredible music I’ve gotten to sing but also some of the hardest music I’ve gotten to sing. It’s a work out.
Question: Why do you feel like this is some of the hardest music you have sung?
Answer: This goes back to Leonard Bernstein, when he wrote Westside Story. Whenever you want to make someone look younger, you can set their vocal part higher so they can sound younger. So, all the Mormon boys, we’re pretty high up there. Normally, I’m a baritone or a baritone-tenor, and the baritone line I’m on for this show, it’s kind of like a tenor line for most shows. It’s high up there, but it’s good practice.
Question: Do you see changes in yourself as a performer after having been with the show for five years?
Answer: I definitely feel I’m very comfortable with the show now, and there are moments where I forget I’m performing for 2,000 people or 3,000 people. It’s nice though because I feel like I’m in a comfort zone where I can actually explore and have fun while I’m telling the story.
Question: Was it different when you first started acting, when you were just out of college?
Answer: I’d done some other shows before, and they were professional shows…It really trained me well for everything in a professional setting. That being said, I got my union card from this show. I actually got the call to join the company five years ago on May 4. We didn’t start rehearsals until Nov. 2012. I had about five months to sit around and do nothing, and I couldn’t tell anybody, which was awful.
But it wasn’t real until I walked into rehearsal, and they had the scripts laid out for everybody. It was professionally bound, and there was The Book of Mormon label, and it had my name below it. They threw the whole show up within a week and a half…They were very good at using the time wisely and using us wisely. So as rushed as it felt, it also felt very comfortable…You are in a room where everybody, from the ensemble on up, wants the show to do good and wants the show to be good. It’s such an incredible environment to be around because at the end of the day, everybody is talented. Everybody can sing. Everybody can dance. You just get such awesome energy from everyone.
Question: Did you have to bring any new skills or learn anything new for this show?
Answer: I had to learn how to twirl a baton. This show itself, it’s a pretty classic, big musical in the sense of lots of costumes, lots of scenes. I think because it is such a homage to musical theater, it doesn’t go too crazy….But like I said, it’s definitely extended my vocal range…Just recently, I became the [Elder] McKinley and Mission President understudy.
Question: Do you have to learn those roles on the road?
Answer: When I picked these two up this year, we got to a new city. I had rehearsals and just learned them and practiced during the day. What’s crazier too is when we get new cast members. It depends on the city, but a lot of cities don’t have rehearsal spaces with a mirror and a big stage. There’s been a couple of members this past year that have learned the entire show in a hotel ballroom meeting room or office…They got one time to do a run-through with the entire cast on a Friday afternoon. And then the following Tuesday, they are in the show with an audience. It’s kind of a “sink or swim” moment, but that’s what makes us professionals.
Question: What else do you feel like I should know about the show?
Answer: I think for anyone who’s seeing the show for the first time, I think keep an open mind and keep an open heart and also just get ready to laugh. I think if you are seeing the show again, I encourage you to watch the ensemble because we give so many great reactions, and we have so much random stuff that’s going on that sometimes gets lost because there’s so much going on onstage.
The Book of Mormon National Tour
Through Sunday, May 28
7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Ave., Tempe
$50-$171.45, depending on day and time
As part of a pre-show lottery, 20 tickets will be available at $25 each. Patrons can put their names in for the lottery 2.5 hours before the show for a chance to receive two tickets at the lottery price. Winners must be present during the drawing, which takes place 2 hours before curtain.