Why is The Book of Mormon one of the bravest productions around?
Andy Huntington Jones knows his way around the Broadway stage. From Bullets Over Broadway to Cinderella, this Broadway veteran’s latest venture is the multi layered Elder McKinley in the national tour of The Book of Mormon. The Trey Parker & Matt Stone smash hit has always had its share of attention. But in today’s polarizing political and social climate, it’s a much needed and fresh perspective says Huntington Jones.
As The Book of Mormon rolled into The City of Brotherly Love, I caught up with Jones to talk about inhabiting Elder McKinley, why this role is important in today’s world, and his own very special relation to the LGBT community
For those that have not seen The Book of Mormon, how would you describe the show?
Andy Huntingdon Jones: The Book of Mormon from a plot perspective is about these two young Mormon missionaries who are fairly mismatched in their personalities who go to serve their mission in Uganda. It does not go according to plan. Along the way they lose their faith, and they learn a lot about friendship and the limits of faith, but they also learn about this innate human need to believe in something.
Right now, the show is the kind of performance a lot of people should be seeing more than anything. Do you think that is a fair assessment?
AHJ: I think so, yeah. It has been incredible touring around the country with the show to see how different cities and audiences all relate to the show in a visceral way, and all in different ways. To me, it has been surprising to take the show into the Bible Belt and see that even though there is some resistance in the beginning from a fairly religious audience, I think that the story and the heart with which the story is told is incredibly important. And it is really cathartic.
I think it is medicine to laugh like this; and to laugh about such a contentious issue is therapeutic. You can feel these audiences leaning forward and releasing their tension. It is interesting, in the more liberal cities people have seen the show before and it’s okay to poke fun at religion. That is a more boisterous response. In the South, there is tentativeness in responding to and laughing to a musical about religion. People are still receptive. And the show is funny, whether you want it to be or not.
Your character Elder McKinley goes through a bit of a transformation during the show, and he is almost the “Greek chorus” of the show. Were you able to bring in any aspects of your own life into his personal journey as you inhabited the role?
AHJ: I can relate to Elder McKinley in that he has to call upon the inmate human quality of denial to get through his very existence. Elder McKinley is a closeted gay Mormon and the only way to do that successfully is to push those feelings aside. Whether or not you are gay or not, the audience reacts to this character so much because he is so sweet and so innocent and so positive in how forcefully he is denying who he is. I think that something that has been so much fun as an actor is that Elder McKinley does not realize how unhealthy this is. He thinks he is nailing it.
It has been really fun to go on this journey every night. And by the end of the show he comes to accept himself because the audience loves him from the beginning. The audience wants him to love himself.
To see this kid struggling so deeply is both very funny and very sad. I think that is one of the reasons that the show is so important. The suicide rate for youth, especially in Utah is unbelievably high. [That’s] because the church says that it’s not okay to be gay. I think that it is really really important that people see and love Elder McKinley and love when he accepts himself. There have been a lot of young people who will talk to me at the stage door and say that this show has saved them in some capacity. There are gay Mormons who see and love the show. I think it gives them some hope that it’s going to be okay.
Many people are able to have experiences like this from shows like The Book Of Mormon. They are able to possibly see themselves in one of the characters and then in turn, possibly change the trajectory of their own lives. Is that sometimes a powerful responsibility of sorts for you?
AHJ: The power of theatre, and the power to be a part of a show where people are entertained for two hours and then go and think about their lives for the next month, the power of being involved in something like this is not lost on me. Especially for a performer who does the show eight times a week.
I have been doing the show for a year and a half now. The challenge is always to keep it fresh, to find meaning in the repetition. To be part of a show like The Book Of Mormon that is meaningful to so many people, even the response in the Bible Belt happens to be an aversion to some of our points of view, that is eliciting some form of thought.
It is incredible to be part of a theatrical experience like this because theater forces you to empathize with other people. With Mormons and the Ugandans, they are so different in so many ways. But ultimately they’re quite similar in terms of their wants and needs and human drive. I think that to take this show about different people coming together to all of these different people around the country, it is a quintessentially theatrical experience.
One thing that is so exciting about the show, which is easy to forget now, as it has been out for almost a decade, is the bravery with which Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote the show. It basically says “this is what we wanna talk about. If you think that this is funny and you wanna go on this journey with us, great. If this is not a hit, this is what we wanna say.” To see the audiences respond so overwhelmingly to this for the past eight years, there is really something about the bravery with which they wrote the show. That has made it as great as it is.
Speaking of roles you have gotten to portray, you have had some tremendous roles of your own, with Elder McKinley simply being the latest. If you could speak the dream role of your own into existence, what do you think it would be?
AHJ: I have been reading a lot out on the road, and I don’t know what a dream role would look like. It does not exist yet. I am a huge fan of Sunday In The Park With George, I would love to work on some Sondheim.
I think that something that is so exciting with The Book Of Mormon is that the language is so shocking, a lot of it is so shocking. There are really no other musicals like this. It was written by the creators of South Park. Like just about every episode of South Park, you are shocked somewhere in the beginning, some of it is ridiculous, but in the end there is a message that surprises you with how straight to the point it can be. So although I would like to work on Sondheim, it has been incredible to work with these writers and see how pedestrian they can make some of the text seem. And at the end making a huge impact.
Also, speaking of gay Mormons, in the last few days I have been reading and watching productions of Angels In America. After working on Elder McKinley who is a very young gay closeted Mormon, I would like to work on the character of Joe in Angels in America, who is a somewhat young gay closeted Mormon.
What gives you pride as a performer and as a person?
AHJ: I am straight. But I actually have two gay moms. I think that there is something about having my parents find their way at a time when gay couples were just starting to have children, and just starting to raise families. I think that is one of the reasons that I am a performer, and one of the reasons that they have been so supportive of me.
They found their own path, and found joy and love in the way that resonates with them. I think that obviously, I am who I am today, because of their influence. But I guess I am proud to be a part of this larger LGBTQ ally community. The amount of love that is here and the amount of life that we get to share, and the amount of support that we can give each other is incredible. I am incredibly proud to be a part of the small part of the gay community, of the theatrical community, and I think that it is no coincidence that those communities are so connected.