Tony! Tony! Tony!

Casey Nicholaw explains how a South Park sensibility can lead to theatre’s biggest prize

Andrew Rannells, as Elder Price, leads the cast of The Book of Mormon. Rannells received a Tony nomination for Best Leading Actor in a Musical.

Last year Casey Nicholaw took the biggest risk of his career when he signed on to choreograph and co-direct The Book of Mormon, the satirical Broadway creation of South Park masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Last month he was rewarded with two Tony nominations for Best Director and Best Choreographer. This month he returns to the 5th Avenue Theatre, where he started his professional career in 2001, to begin rehearsals for Aladdin, which opens July 7. 

The reason The Book of Mormon did so well in the awards is because it’s fresh. It uses contemporary humor and satire from the world of South Park, which my co-director Trey Parker and his writing partner Matt Stone invented, and put it in a traditional musical theatre package, which is the world their cowriter Bobby Lopez and I come from. It’s contemporary satire in a musical theatre package.

I wasn’t always comfortable with that package. When I first signed on to the production, I thought, “Oh my gosh, what am I getting myself into?” Then we did a workshop last summer and all those fears were alleviated. I remember thinking, “I believe in this, and I love this,” and I think that it’s done with such heart and emotion that you’d have be kind of narrow-minded to not see the message of the show and not get past the words. Trey and I are completely different people, but we have very similar sensibilities. We both knew that the shock value of the words had to be in context so it wasn’t like we were doing it just to piss people off. It came from something. It came from the lives of the characters. I’m so happy that the community saw that, too. 

My first Tony nomination was for Spamalot in 2005, and because it was my first, I went nuts. The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006 was my first with two nominations, so I went nuts for that too. But my nomination for The Book of Mormon was more of a relief than anything. 

I was excited, but just relieved that nobody was left behind, that all the actors from the production that were up for the award got nominated. That made me really happy. I would have hated to have the two leads split up, have one be nominated and the other not.

As a kid in California, I would watch the Tony Awards. Winning one was something you would just dream of. I never honestly thought that for me it would be for directing and choreographing shows. I always thought, “One day I’m going to be an actor and I’m going to get a Tony award as a Broadway musical star!” Who knew it would end up this way?

As told to Mark Baumgarten