Profanity and blasphemy aside, one of the major players in “The Book of Mormon” says the creators of the raunchy “South Park” and “Avenue Q” have crafted a charming show that parodies not only organized religion, but Broadway musicals, as well.
The laugh-riot that swept the 2011 Tony Awards is making its first national tour, landing in the Civic Center in Des Moines for 14 performances from Jan. 24 to Feb. 3, 2013.
“This show is so frigging brilliant. I’m so proud to be part of this show,” says Mike McGowan, 42, a Sioux Falls, S.D., native and graduate of Drake University in Des Moines.
He plays several roles in the hit musical, including Prophet Joseph Smith, who published the Book of Mormon in 1830 and established what is now The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The actor says Smith is treated like a rock star in the script.
“He’s idolized, because he usually appears as a tool that the missionaries use,” McGowan says, adding that “All-American Prophet” is his favorite song in a show full of peppy, bouncy numbers that harken to everything from “The Sound of Music” and “Up with People” to “Wicked” and “The King and I.”
With a cast of 31, it’s the story of two Mormon missionaries who are sent to Africa, where they try to introduce their lord to villagers oppressed by their warlord. All sorts of hilarity ensues, wrapped around much deeper issues, but also filled with images of horror and pop culture through the likes of Hitler, hobbits, Yoda and dancing cups of coffee.
- “The Book of Mormon“
- Civic Center, 221 Walnut St., Des Moines
- Jan. 24 to Feb. 3; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
- Tickets: $35 to $130 at the Civic Center Box Office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-(800) 745-3000 or CivicCenter.org
- Warning: Contains explicit language
- Show website: Bookofmormonbroadway.com
“Part of the charm of the show is that it’s like a Rogers and Hammerstein musical,” says McGowan, son of a Navy musician dad and news anchor mother.
A self-proclaimed theater nerd, he was bitten by the theatrical bug at an early age in Sioux Falls, and moved to New York City 14 years ago, where his impressive resume includes roles in “The Producers” and “Ragtime” on Broadway and a stint as ringmaster for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. A dramatic tenor, he also sang Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” with Cedar Rapids native Tim Shew in New York.
“The Book of Mormon” musical is “very old-fashioned in its structure,” McGowan says by phone from a tour stop in Seattle. “Bobby Lopez, the composer, has even said the model is ‘The Music Man,’ which is a very Iowa story — the idea that the stranger comes to town to sell a fake idea, but in end, the idea is real and it works. It changes people’s lives, it buoys their spirits. That’s what happens in ‘The Music Man.’
“That also works because Mormons are such an affable people — so friendly and generous and kind,” he says.
“This musical could be a musical about any religion. It could be about Muslims, it could be about Catholics. But what makes it so quintessentially American and perfect for musical theater is because Mormons have that happy, shiny sensibility,” he says. “It’s a brilliant combination of things that way.”
It is, however, rife with profanity and does poke fun at the Mormon way of life, which could easily draw a backlash of wrath and protests. Instead, the Mormon church has taken the high road in its response to the show.
“Officially, the church is very classy,” McGowan says. “They don’t comment on the show. Actually, in every city we’ve been in, they’ve put out three pages of ads in our playbill, saying, ‘You’ve seen the play, now read the book.’ I think that’s just a smart move, because the more attention they bring to it, the more attention we get — not that we need any. The show’s wildly successful.”
McGowan describes himself as a very spiritual person who was raised Catholic, has left the church, but loves theological dialogues. Most of the Mormons he’s spoken with after performances actually are ex-Mormons. “They appreciate the show on a totally different level,” he says.
“It really boils down to this notion at end of show — I don’t think I’m giving away too much by saying it — that when we talk about religion, number one, it’s really important to have a sense of humor. Number two, it doesn’t matter if stories are made up, if they’re myths. What matters is that they point to something bigger. And number three, instead of waiting for heaven, let’s make this paradise. Let’s make the world a better place and quit focusing on what’s going to happen to us after we die,” he says.
“Those are really the most important things about the show. And it lifts you up when think about it that way. You can be shocked. Life is shocking, and hopefully you’ll have a sense of humor about it. What’s so brilliant about the show is that these awful, shocking things happen, and you can be terribly offended, but ultimately, these people come to an understanding that’s so, so open-hearted and generous and sweet. I hope audiences leave with that sensibility and are lifted,” he says.
If you haven’t seen the show, he cautions against digging too deeply into the plot points and music beforehand.
“One of the things that’s exciting about this show is to come without too much foreknowledge,” he says.
It’s more fun to just let the music and the story flow over you — to discover all the fun that has made believers out of audiences and critics alike.
“You’ve never seen a musical like this. There are things you’ve never heard in a musical,” McGowan says.
“The show has such a positive outlook. It perfectly balances whatever might shock you.”