"My favorite kind of comedy is so wrong that it's right," actor Jared Gertner said.
So it's fitting that he's starring in the blessedly twisted megahit musical "The Book of Mormon," which after scoring nine Tony Awards and a reputation for almost impossible-to-snag tickets has embarked on a national tour opening Sept. 5 at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles.
Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of TV's satirical "South Park" along with Robert Lopez of the naughty puppet musical "Avenue Q,' "The Book of Mormon" is a blasphemous-yet-endearing bromance story of two mismatched Mormon missionaries trying to convert villagers in war-torn Uganda. The show manages to skewer all things sacred while still coming off as oddly reverent.
Gertner plays, in his own words, "the screw-up Mormon," a slovenly, insecure, "Star Trek"-obsessed schlub named Elder Cunningham, who is paired with a church golden boy, Elder Price (Gavin Creel), on their mandatory, two-year mission. They are sent to Africa, where they encounter villagers ravaged by AIDS along with a genocidal warlord with an unprintable name and a penchant for circumcising every female within reach. It's in this unlikely scenario that the nerdy Cunningham finds his mojo, converting the villagers by reinventing the Mormon story with pop culture references to "Star Wars," "The Hobbit" and, of course, "Star Trek."
One of the musical's most hilarious (and scandalous) moments comes when a tribesman denounces the religion and declares that he's off to copulate with an infant to cure his AIDS. "People back then had even worse AIDS," Cunningham replies, then goes on to improvise a hilariously profane story about Mormon founder Joseph Smith to suggest sex with amphibians actually cures the disease. When the formerly meek Cunnigham later sings, "like Jesus, I'm 'growing a pair,' " one wants to celebrate along with him.
Despite some initial concerns by the show's backers in New York, Mormon viewers have reportedly enjoyed the show. Gertner says even he was startled when he began perusing the script as an understudy for the role of Cunningham before the show's opening on Broadway last year. "I remember reading it and thinking, 'They can't say this!' " the 32-year-old actor said in a telephone interview from Denver, where the musical was playing to sold-out houses recently.
In fact, the cast and crew were given security briefings before the Broadway opening, in case angry patrons lashed out against the production. "We were warned to be careful as far as receiving mail and packages to the theater, because I think they expected the show to be more controversial," Gertner said. "But the fact is, we've been very pleasantly surprised, because people have really embraced us. And I think the show is so funny, has so much heart and so much to say."
The tone of the production is key to offsetting jokes about such things as maggot-infested genitals and pedophilia: "The best way to approach material like this is to keep it as honest as completely possible and not focus on what you're saying as blasphemous, or even on making people laugh," Gertner said, sounding as earnest as one of the doorbell-ringing missionaries in the musical. "Ultimately the show is not a platform for offending people; it's a story about two young kids who are unprepared for the horror they're about to see in the world, and how they deal with it defines who they are and who they want to be."
"My character is Mormon, but the religion doesn't really interest him," added Gertner, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in New Jersey. "He just wants to fit in, to have friends, to be part of things. He hasn't even read the Book of Mormon, though he was supposed to, and he doesn't really know how to be a missionary. And then he gets paired with this perfect Ken doll of a Mormon, who's ready to go out and change the world. So when they go to Africa and see all the devastation, they don't really know how to handle it, and Price, who's the 'perfect' one, kind of crumbles under the pressure. But Cunningham, to even his own surprise, rises to the challenge and is able to connect with and inspire people."
Cunningham — with his mop of unkempt hair and his gut practically bursting out of his clothing — is the fish-out-of-water among the other bright-eyed and bushy-tailed missionaries, who look immaculate in their black trousers, nametags and pressed shirts. Gertner notes that all of the actors who have portrayed Cunningham happen to be Jewish — including the Tony-nominated Josh Gad, who starred in the Broadway production before Gertner took over in June, and Gertner's own understudy, Jon Bass.
"Maybe if you're looking for people who are very different from an all-American, uptight, very white, very blond person, then physically you're going to look for a difference; maybe you're going to find a Jewish person," Gertner said. "And if there's any Jewish humor in the show, it's just humor that comes from us, because we actually all are Jewish."
Gertner's childhood home was "very Jewish," he said. His father served as president of their synagogue; the Gertners kept kosher for Passover, and young Jared attended Hebrew school as well as Hebrew high school. Then there was Gertner's Broadway-themed bar mitzvah: "We made the table centerpieces out of Playbills, so my elderly aunts and uncles sat at the 'Fiddler on the Roof' table, and my young female cousins, at 'Sophisticated Ladies,' " he recalled. His own centerpiece featured "Falsettos," a Broadway show he had unsuccessfully auditioned for not long before his bar mitzvah.
As a self-professed theater nerd, Gertner said he didn't fit in among his childhood peers; in this way he identifies with his outsider character of Cunningham.
"I've always been chubby, and I was one of, like, 10 Jews out of 450 students in my class, so I definitely remember feeling out of step," he added. Then he discovered his talent for making people laugh, "which helped me get through a lot of things, like gym class, which was always a disaster." Gertner found his niche onstage and while in his 20s went on to star in New York productions, including "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "Ordinary Days."
His first job on "The Book of Mormon" was as an understudy for Josh Gad, although he was initially hesitant about accepting the gig. "I've never covered before because I like being onstage," he explained. But Gertner had friends who had participated in early workshops of the show — they said he just had to be part of it — so the actor went in to audition for the musical's creators with only the goal of making Parker and Stone laugh. He succeeded and got the call that he was hired the very next day.
To prepare, he began researching the Mormon religion in earnest: "The only things I had previously known about Mormonism came from episodes of 'South Park,' " he said, sheepishly.
But he insists the show doesn't disrespect any religion.
"The stories of every faith can sound a bit goofy if you've never heard of them before," he said. "If you took someone who's [unfamiliar] with Judaism, and you said, 'There's this burning bush and a parting of the [Red Sea],' they're going to say, 'Hold on, you're crazy.' The point is, you're brought up in a tradition and you learn its stories and you take what you can from them to become a better person."
The show is actually "very pro-faith," he added — if unapologetically outrageous. "It's so funny to take in the audience's reaction, because they're simultaneously delighted and horrified," he said. "You can hear people shriek and gasp and laugh because it's affecting them in such a visceral way. But there's so much joy behind it."
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