Tony Awards Preview: The Book of Mormon, War Horse, and More

Broadway’s been unstoppable this year, buoyed by The Book of Mormon’s wild satire. To gear up for the 2011 Tony Awards, Marlow Stern breaks down the shows heating up Theater Row.

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On Sunday, the 65th-annual Tony Awards will honor the finest achievements on the Broadway stage during the past season. And what a season it was. From the puppetry magic of War Horse to Al Pacino’s riveting turn as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, there was no shortage of spectacle. Good seats were hard to come by: Ticket receipts went up to a record $1.1 billion, and attendance was up 5.4 percent from the previous year, according to Bloomberg. But no play managed to connect with audiences quite like The Book of Mormon, which received 14 Tony nominations—the most of any show.

From South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez, Mormon is a religious satire-musical that tells the story of two young, naïve Mormon missionaries who are sent to warlord-ravaged Uganda, and resort to desperate measures to convert the locals, who are preoccupied with AIDS and poverty. “I think the secret to the show is that it’s got contemporary humor and contemporary satire, but it’s packaged in a traditional musical comedy—a form everybody knows and loves,” Mormon co-director Casey Nicholaw told The Daily Beast.

The musical pokes fun at such taboo topics as genocide, AIDS, homosexuality, and religious hypocrisy, in the South Park guys’ trademark obscenity-laced style. And yet, despite the R-rated material on display, the show has managed to connect with theatergoers of all ages. “I was totally psyched to shock the hell out of New York theatergoers, and they’ve embraced it in a way that was almost disappointing, you know?” actress Nikki M. James, who’s been nominated for a Best Actress Tony for her role as the sympathetic Ugandan Nabalungi, told The Daily Beast. “I’m not complaining, but we expected protesters or a little bit of an uproar!” And Rory O’Malley, who earned a Tony nomination for his performance as the closeted Mormon Elder McKinley, has been wowed by some of their audience members. “Scott Rudin [the show’s producer] told the story of how someone who was related to one of the past Mormon presidents was out in the audience once,” said O’Malley in an interview with The Daily Beast. “We definitely have a lot of Mormons who come, and I’m not surprised by it, but it’s exciting. I get a lot of gay Mormons at the stage door every night, and it means a lot to them.”

It may not be your grandparents’ theater, but make no mistake about it: Broadway is back.

Marlow Stern is the assistant culture editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast and holds a master's from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial department of Blender magazine, and as an editor at both Amplifier Magazine and Manhattan Movie Magazine.

Additional reporting by Brandi Andres