Christopher John O'Neill was in some of the musicals in high school, mainly because it was a good way to meet girls.
Now he's starring in the national tour of Broadway's hottest show.
O'Neill plays Elder Cunningham in "Book of Mormon," winner of nine Tony Awards in 2011 (including Best Musical) as well as the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. It opens Tuesday for a three-week run at Playhouse Square's Palace Theatre in Cleveland.
Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill, right) talks to some of the Ugandan natives as part of a missionary duties in the musical “The Book of Mormon.”
Photo by Joan Marcus
O'Neill has been living for the last decade in New York, where he was pursuing comedy, not theater. He was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as part of the comedy team The Chris and Paul Show when he was seen by the casting directors for "Mormon" and invited to audition.
"I thought it was fake. No way," O'Neill said.
At best, he thought he would get to brag to his friends about getting to audition for a Broadway show and he'd get to see "The Book of Mormon" for free, which is still a tough ticket in New York.
WHAT: "The Book of Mormon"
WHEN: Tuesday through July 7 . Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1519 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $25 to $130.
'Mormon' offers ticket lottery
The best seats for "The Book of Mormon," which remains one of Broadway's hottest tickets more than two years after opening, are $130 when the national tour arrives in Cleveland next week.
However, with a little luck, audiences can get a bargain-priced ticket for the musical's three-week run.
Continuing a tradition that started with the Broadway production, a ticket lottery will be offered for the PlayhouseSquare dates. Sixteen tickets priced at $20 will be available for each performance.
Entries will be accepted at the box office beginning two and a half hours prior to each performance; each person will print their name and the number of tickets (one or two) they wish to purchase on a card that is provided. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random for the $20 tickets. Only one entry is allowed per person. Cards are checked for duplication prior to drawing. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show valid ID to purchase tickets. Limit one entry per person and two tickets per winner. Tickets are subject to availability.
The lottery has attracted as many as 800 entries for some performances in New York.
"That first time watching, I was blown away by how tight it was," O'Neill said. "This show takes off at 110 miles per hour and doesn't stop until you walk out of the theater. Every single number is such a show stopper."
"The Book of Mormon," written by "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone along with Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q"), tells the story of two young Mormons, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who are sent to Uganda for their missionary service. There they find a population more concerned with famine, AIDS and other issues besides religion.
The show is filled with crude humor, some of it even more profane than the jokes they get away with on "South Park," and at least one song ("Hasa Diga Eebowai") with a title that can't be translated here. But O'Neill said audiences shouldn't prejudge the show from a few scatological lyrics.
"It's a pro-faith show," he said. "That's what people are surprised by at the end."
At least in New York and Chicago, those in the audience specifically bought tickets for "The Book of Mormon." On the national tour, many of the performances are part of a subscription series, so at least some of those folks might not know what they are in for in advance.
"Mostly, it's been very good," he said. "They come in with an open mind. They know it's the 'South Park' guys. And once you get through 'Hasa Diga Eebowai,' you're fine. ... We'll have super elderly couples in the front row, and when we do that song I hope they don't get up and smack me in the face. But when it's over they're the first ones up standing and applauding."
Josh Gad played O'Neill's role in the original Broadway cast and received a Tony Award nomination, but O'Neill said he wasn't expected to mimic Gad's work on stage.
"Everybody that does this part has their own spin on it," he said. "When you see the guys in the other companies, you see how different you can do the show. Ben, who is in the Chicago cast, is a skinny dude. There are definitely different way to play it."