Broadway director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw dropped out of college to pursue his dreams. He started as an ensemble member in shows and gradually extended his reach, growing to become the Tony Award-winning director of “The Book of Mormon,” which returns to Minneapolis this week for an extended run.
We spoke with him about his life, his work and the blockbuster show that has allowed him to buy a pad in Manhattan’s pricey real-estate market.
Q: How early did you know that theater was your destiny?
A: I’m from San Diego. My parents weren’t involved in theater, but my mother encouraged my interest in it. She bought me the cassette tape to “A Chorus Line” and she took me and a friend out of school one day, and drove us up to L.A. for a matinee. Afterward, we ate in the cafeteria. I was in junior high school. She saw the direction I was going in. And it was one of the gifts she gave me.
Q: Then you went off to college, but didn’t stay.
A: I went to UCLA for a year and a quarter. There were too many students at UCLA interested in what I was interested in, and they couldn’t accommodate all of us. I wasn’t allowed to take voice or dance, only theater and acting. So I saved my money and, at 19, moved to New York. I had 50 bucks, nowhere to live, but I made friends and crashed on people’s couches.
Q: You were tenacious.
A: I was. In ’92, I got my first Broadway show as a performer — “Crazy for You.” I was in the ensemble. In fact, I was in eight Broadway shows as a dancer. Seven of them were original shows. That’s how I learned to create something from the ground up.
Q: How did you make the transition from ensemble member to choreographer to director?
A: I was always bossy as a kid. I made my friends do shows that I wrote and would take them on tour from house to house. [He chuckled.] As an adult performer, I would watch other performers and say how I would do it. I finally realized that I didn’t want to be the person who talked about everything backstage. I had to do something. So, I saved some money, rented a studio space and invited everyone and their mama to come see my choreography.
Q: What did you choreograph?
A: Three numbers: one tap that took place at a picnic, a balletic storytelling number and a quirky piece. I got my first tap choreography job from that. It was “The Prince and the Pauper,” which originated at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in Seattle and went to the Ordway.
Q: That professional choreography job led to “Spamalot.”
A: Yes, and that’s where I got to work with Mike Nichols, who is such a master. I watched him and worked with him.
Q: Why didn’t you just go into directing and choreographing directly?
A: You say, when you’re in your early 20s, “I’m gonna win a Tony as a performer.” Then after eight shows as an ensemble member, you say to yourself, realistically, “That’s never gonna happen.” I was in the ensemble trap on Broadway. So you do something to break out of that. I never would’ve dreamed that I would be where I am now. It’s not the route I’d thought I’d take, but I like it. I like being the papa taking care of people more than [being] the baby.
Q: At what point did you become involved in “Mormon”?
A: I joined the team pretty late — just three weeks before we did a six-week workshop. Then we had four months off, then started rehearsals for the Broadway production. When you come to a show that late, you bring fresh eyes.
Q: And fresh excitement.
A: You see the comedy of taking completely opposite groups — Mormons and Ugandans — and putting them together. My favorite moment in the entire show is not when some raucous thing happens. It’s the moment in Act 2 when the Ugandans come out dressed in their white outfits to get baptized. The two groups coming together is something you never thought would happen. But it does, and it’s touching.
Q: When I see the show, especially some of the choreography, I can’t help but think of the Osmonds.
A: Donny and Marie. That’s the stuff I grew up on. I wanted the feel and vocabulary of a variety show. I wanted it to feel wholesome, even if it’s very tongue-in-cheek.
Q: Will you get a chance to come see it in Minneapolis?
A: First of all, I love the Twin Cities. I was in the ensemble for “Victor/Victoria” there. “The Prince and the Pauper,” my first professional job as a choreographer, played at the Ordway. But I won’t get a chance to come out. The companies — we have two tours in the U.S., one on Broadway and one in London — are all in fantastic shape. You worry about actors getting big and starting to love themselves in the comedy too much. But when I check in from time to time, the show’s as good as ever.
Q: How has this show affected your life?
A: Oh, my gosh. I got a Tony award for it. I bought an apartment in New York. I can help people out. I was a little kid with all of the posters of every Broadway show I’d ever seen. To be doing what I love, and to get recognition for it, there’s nothing better.