On opening night of the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” leading man Andrew Rannells paced the wings of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York City. Eager for the curtain to go up, he thought back on a moment with the late Louise Filbert, a grande dame of Omaha-Council Bluffs theater, in 1992 when he was 13.
“I remembered standing backstage at the Firehouse Dinner Theatre on opening night of ‘On Golden Pond,'” Rannells recalled. “Louise said, ‘There'll be a moment, just as quick as this, that's closing night. So enjoy the run.'”
Rannells repeated Filbert's advice to himself, then stepped into Broadway history, originating the role of Elder Price in what's likely to be a best-musical contender when Tony nominations are announced Tuesday.
Rannells, an Omaha native, is sure to enjoy the run.
Glowing reviews, including a gusher from the New York Times that referred to boyishly handsome Rannells as “a human Ken doll,” have triggered a stampede to the box office. The show got a leading 12 Drama Desk Award nominations Friday, including one for Rannells. Those awards include both Broadway and off-Broadway shows.
“The Book of Mormon” caused a stir long before it opened. “South Park” creators Trey Park and Matt Stone, who wrote the show with Robert Lopez of “Avenue Q,” have long been known for skewering organized religion.
Scientology, the Catholic clergy sex scandal, the prophet Muhammad and, yes, Mormons have been the topics of “South Park” episodes.
Parker and Stone also have a musical track record of sorts in their outrageous movies “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” and “Team America: World Police.”
But “The Book of Mormon,” while at times profane and irreverent, surprised theatergoers with a balancing sweetness in what it has to say about religion's place in society.
“People believe in it so strongly, their lives are demonstrably changed for the good by it,” Stone told the Times in a February interview.
The show tells the story of two mismatched missionaries, one a slovenly misfit (Josh Gads) and the other a perky perfectionist (Rannells), who are sent to a remote Ugandan village. Their confidence and idealism run up against a populace ravaged by crushing poverty, hunger and an AIDS epidemic.
The musical is being hailed as one of the funniest ever.
“I loved the show from the second I read it,” Rannells, 32, said by phone recently from his apartment in the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan, just west of the theater district. “The creative team is so talented.”
But, he admitted, this is not a family show.
“There's language, and it's still that ‘South Park' brand of humor. But there's a lot of heart to this story. People thought it would be two and a half hours of Mormon bashing, but it's actually a very pro-faith story. It's very funny as well.”
Long before being cast, Rannells had read “Under the Banner of Heaven,” Jon Krakauer's book about Mormon history.
“I became wildly fascinated,” he said. “I read more about Mormon history, both the mythological and the factual history of Joseph Smith.”
In spring 2010, his agent told him about “Book of Mormon” auditions. He read first for the casting director, then for Park and Stone, and finally with co-star Josh Gad, who had already been cast.
“The whole audition process took about three weeks,” he said. “There were tons of people up for this role. I was leaving my gym when I got a call and my agent said, ‘You got it.' It was a very fun moment, to be in Times Square and be told you're gonna be the lead on Broadway in a brand new show.”
Last summer, after casting, he and his mother visited the Mormon Trail Center in Omaha to soak up a little more history.
Rannells, raised Catholic, is the son of Charlotte and the late Ronald Rannells. His mother and his four siblings all still live in Omaha. The family home was on 32nd Avenue, just south of Center Street, and the nearby Emmy Gifford Children's Theater beckoned Andrew early.
While attending Our Lady of Lourdes grade school and Creighton Prep, he appeared on half a dozen local stages.
“He liked to perform for the family from the age of 3,” Charlotte said. “He made puppets at the (Omaha Community) Playhouse, he took classes at the Emmy Gifford. He'd dance along with the Solid Gold Dancers on TV. He was always a happy-go-lucky child.”
Omaha director M. Michele Phillips remembers him as a conscientious performer who knew how to cover when things went wrong onstage, something she said can't be taught.
“He wanted to hang with people who were more serious about theater,” she said. “You could cast him older.”
Phillips also did voice work with Rannells for animated television series such as “Street Sharks” and “Archie's Weird Mysteries.”
“Of any human being on the planet I know, there's no surprise he's gotten where he is,” Phillips said. “He has an amazing work ethic, and he works until he achieves his goal. He was destined to get there.”
Rose Theater artistic director James Larson said the professional voice work gave Rannells confidence.
“He realized, ‘Wow, I'm as good as anybody.' He was very disciplined, and he lived and breathed theater.”
To Council Bluffs dentist Bill Gress, who appeared in “110 in the Shade” with Rannells at the Dundee Dinner Theatre, he was the life of the show.
“I was the old dog, and he was the frisky kid,” Gress said. “He could do anything — very, very talented. Just a real nice guy, super great and lots of fun.”
Rannells went straight to New York City in 1997 after high school, studying theater at Marymount Manhattan College for two years before auditions pulled him away.
For about three years, from 2001-04, he worked with 4Kids Entertainment, a New York City animation production company, where his Omaha voice-over work served him well. He also directed a couple of video games, “Kirby” and “Sonic the Hedgehog.”
“But I decided I wanted back into musical theater stuff,” he said. “Luckily, I was pretty quickly cast in ‘Hairspray.'`”
Link Larkin, in 2004, was his first Broadway role — Tracy Turnblatt's love interest in “Hairspray.” That was followed by Bob Gaudio in “Jersey Boys,” a show he also toured with. Both are strong supporting roles.
“But this is my first original Broadway role,” he said. To be the first to play the lead in a new Broadway smash is the stuff of actors' fantasies.
“It's no exaggeration to say it's a dream come true. And I love playing Elder Price. He's a poster boy Mormon missionary. There's a confidence, a big ego about this character, but he takes a bit of a fall, questions his faith. I enjoy playing both sides of that.”
Rannells said he sees parallels in the character's journey and his own. He expected to take Broadway by storm 14 years ago.
“It was not as easy as I thought it would be. It doesn't happen overnight. Neither does converting people in Uganda. I could relate to the character in that sense.”
Though he's worked with “tons” of vocal and acting coaches, and he'll never forget the mentoring of the late actress Pam Carter in Omaha, Rannells says he's most grateful for the unwavering support of his family.
“Having my mother and sister Natalie there on opening night (March 24) was really moving to me,” he said. “I'm so happy they got to experience that. There was a moment I lost them at the cast party, and I looked around.
“Mom was standing next to Ron Howard and talking to Paul Rudd, and Natalie was chatting up Bill Hader (from ‘Saturday Night Live'). It was a little surreal, Mom hanging out with Paul Rudd. That was a good night for the Rannells family.”
Charlotte said the glamour is fun, but she's most proud of the person her son has become.
“He's a good and kind and thoughtful man, above all else,” she said. “It doesn't matter what else you do in your life if you're not a good person.
“Theater is a world his father and I knew nothing about, but we said whatever makes you happy. Too many people live their lives not doing what they really want to do. Andrew knew what he wanted in life, and he just went after it. And he didn't step on anybody to get there.”
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