The Book of Mormon, which opens on Broadway on Thursday night, is the blisteringly funny, outrageously blasphemous new musical by South Park creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to its young breakout star Rory O’Malley, currently stealing the show in the hottest ticket on Broadway.
Rory O’Malley, 29, a nice Irish boy from West Cleveland, still looks like the innocent altar boy he once was. And he knows how to play up his clean-cut looks for laughs in The Book of Mormon, the blisteringly funny new musical that opens on Broadway on Thursday night.
A show about a pair of mismatched Mormon boys who are sent on an almost certain death mission to Uganda, The Book of Mormon has been six years in the making, and critics are already hailing it as the hottest ticket on Broadway (you may want to book yours now because you may have to wait months to catch it otherwise).
Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame, this disarmingly funny coming-of-age story simultaneously mocks and celebrates the Mormon faith (but mostly it relentlessly mocks it) in a show that you may often find yourself looking at in disbelief when you see what’s happening onstage.
O’Malley plays Elder McKinley, a young Mormon missionary struggling with his attraction to men in a show that sees him effortlessly stealing every scene in which he appears. It’s a career making performance from O’Malley, but the fact is that he’s already a beloved figure in the Broadway community for his civil rights activism (a fact that this relentlessly modest and personable actor plays down).
Each night at the Eugene O’Neill theatre O’Malley and the 27 member cast give The Book of Mormon 110% (trust me, you’ve never seen such an all-singing all dancing crowd pleaser like it) because they know they have a huge hit on their hands and they’re putting their heart and souls into making it work.
But how did the young man who grew up on the on the West Side of Cleveland (and who knows the difference between the West Side Irish American Club and the East Side Irish American Club) get started on his career?
“I started out in second grade when my aunt Peggy Ann Gibbons (his mother’s sister, whom he mentions in the Playbill of his Broadway show) was a teacher at my school, Our Lady of Angels. She was directing the Christmas play and it was a bit of nepotism. I got the role of Saint Joseph. After that I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he told the Irish Voice.
At the age of eight O’Malley sat his mother down at the dinner table and told her, in his most grown up voice, that he had found his calling.
“At the time we were living in a duplex next to a car lot where I used to help sell Christmas trees -- my mom raised me on her own. So I sat her down and said, ‘Don’t laugh at me Mom, but I know what I’m going to do for the rest of my life – I’m going to be an actor.’
“She enrolled me in classes at the local children’s theater and I was there for 10 years doing every play I possibly could.”
O’Malley attended St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland (he was taught by Jesuits), and after that he attended the famous Carnegie Mellon University actors program before moving to Los Angeles.
On the West Coast he was part of the originating ensemble behind the musical version of the iconic TV show Happy Days. He also worked with the Troubadour Theater Company turning Shakespeare plays into pop musicals (providing him with the best training in comic acting he could have asked for).
In 2006, when O’Malley was moving to New York, his cousin told him he’d seen a story that said the creators of South Park were writing a musical about Mormons.
“He said, ‘Rory you have to do this!’ I said, ‘Thanks, but they don’t just hand out parts when you get through the Lincoln Tunnel.’ I said I’d do my best.”
Soon after his arrival in Manhattan O’Malley got cast in the Broadway hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. His work got him noticed.
When it finished he got a call from his agent saying the guys from South Park wanted to know if he’d come in for a workshop of their new musical. In their minds they’d already cast him. There was no audition and no reading, he just started when they did.
“They needed a white guy so they called me,” says O’Malley. “I’m the whitest man in America, if not the world. I’m translucent really.
“I got a sunburn when I went to Ireland (he’s stayed several times on Achill Island, and his ancestors hail from Co. Mayo) and even the Irish were making fun of me.”
It was as if the stars aligned to ensure he got the role. As written it was a small part to begin with, but his outsized talent and personality he ensured the role grew and grew.
As an out actor he founded the hugely influential and successful gay rights organization Broadway Impact, which arose from opposition to the Mormon Church’s decision to help fund the anti-gay Proposition 8 effort in California. So there are multiple ironies involved in seeing O’Malley play a relentlessly polite, repressed gay Mormon man onstage in The Book of Mormon.
“It’s been a 10 year journey for me. I came out at 19 because it started to be just something where I felt I had to in order to sleep better. I was just tired of pretending. Also I was at musical theater school which made it easier,” he laughs.
“I noticed that other people had come out and hadn’t immediately burned in hell, so I explored it. I told my mother first, who raised me on her own, and she was as supportive as a good Irish Catholic mother could be.”
Any child who is given a “cross to bear” and sees how the intolerant the world can be is often scared for their child, O’Malley says.
“It took me 19 years to say it out loud -- I felt my mom could take 19 months to digest the information. We’re at a great place now. Once you’re okay with mom you’re okay of the world, in my eyes.”
Because he was raised in the Catholic tradition he has much understanding of how someone raised in a particular faith might take a different view to their own hierarchy, Mormons included.
“I think of my church as the place where my mother goes and where my family goes, it’s the building with the people I know and love who feed the homeless once a week,” O’Malley says.
“That’s my church. I try not to focus on the horrible things that are coming from a city far away from me in Utah or Rome or wherever there are negative things. Broadway Impact struggles to change the hearts and minds of people, not churches.”
The reason he feels confident about the prospects for The Book of Mormon now is that the show genuinely is daring and courageous.
“We knew before one audience member came that we were so lucky to be a part of something that was this scary and different from anything else we’ve ever worked on. Now we’re going into opening night,” O’Malley says.
“There’s a scary thing when you put new material in front of people, but the audience is literally howling and shaking us to our core when we’re on the stage.”
In his heart, though, O’Malley is quite certain the message of the show -- no matter how funny or blasphemous it is on the surface -- has something genuinely worthwhile to say.
“I definitely had conversations with God about being gay because it’s a hard thing when you’re aware of that Irish Catholic tradition. I love my family; I love where I came from, and I didn’t want something to be true that pulls the rug out from under your faith,” he says.
“That’s why I love the show so much. It’s about having faith given to you and then having the rug pulled out from under you. I had to piece together my faith on my own again; it wasn’t just handed to me. I think this story is beautiful in that way because in the end it’s a pro-faith show and it’s about hope.”
The Book of Mormon opens on Thursday, March 24 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street. For tickets call 212-239-6200.