Grey Henson wasn't sure where his clean-cut look would fit in the world of musical theater until "The Book of Mormon" came along. A young Mormon on a mission as told by the creators of "South Park" and "Avenue Q" -- that he could do.
The rising junior at Carnegie Mellon University auditioned for the national touring company of "The Book of Mormon," which won nine Tony Awards, including best musical. As a non-Equity actor, he was a long shot, but his school ties came through and he earned a callback for the role he wanted: Elder McKinley, the character played on Broadway by Tony-nominated CMU grad Rory O'Malley. Audition followed audition, and during Christmas break of his senior year, Mr. Henson was cast as the closeted mission leader who sings the repression anthem "Turn It Off" and doubles as the angel Moroni.
At 21, he was about to be a big player in a huge musical hit.
"I assumed my career would be a little difficult, because, you know how actors have types? I don't fit a specific type," he said. "I'm a little different -- super tall [6 feet 3 inches]. I seem sensitive. I have a youthful face that looks like I'm 12, but then I could be 30 with the height. So I wouldn't say I had a lot of confidence. But this role, I did have confidence with this."
The Georgia native was on the phone during a recent tour stop in Detroit, about 200 performances into "Mormon's" mostly sold-out tour, when he talked about falling in love with Pittsburgh and "Carnegie," as he calls his alma mater, during a pre-college summer program, and how the school was the catalyst for his big break. He keeps in touch and looks forward to visiting during the show's two-week visit to the Benedum Center. In anticipation of the School of Drama's March 15 Senior Showcase (a program that will be performed for casting agents on both coasts), he tweeted: "Happy showcase CMU 2013!! @ekoch123 @TrevorMcQueen @RodneyEJacksonJ give everyone my love! Have fun fun fun."
His own showcase experience a year earlier was quite different, because he had a job waiting. There were benefits, though, including having a "big brother" in each city. "I was paired with Rory, of course," Mr. Henson said.
"We went out to dinner a few times, and he's a complete sweetheart; an amazing person, so talented," he said of Mr. O'Malley. "His words of advice that I carry with me are, 'You have to be nice to everyone. There's no reason not to be, and it makes things easier on everyone.' It's something I think I would have carried through anyway, but to hear it from him was really special."
From the Golden Rule to Golden Plates to golden templates -- the latter, the keys to Broadway success according to writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone and composer Robert Lopez: hummable songs with a brilliantly subversive and extravagantly vulgar script about faith, loyalty and friendship.
Not much has changed from the Broadway show to the road show, Mr. Henson said.
"Matt and Trey, the 'South Park' guys, are completely hands on for the tour. What's been so special -- and this is my first experience, but my castmates have told me this is really unusual -- is they've really allowed us to make these roles our own. So in that sense, you might see some slight changes."
Another change is that he is now a relative tour veteran compared to the two leads coming to Pittsburgh. Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner, who opened the tour in September 2012, left last month to prepare for the show's London opening. Elders Price and Cunningham are now played by Welsh actor Mark Evans and newcomer Christopher John O'Neill. The ensemble includes Mike Schwitter, a Pittsburgh CLO vet, and Jeffrey David Sears, a CMU alumnus.
The most difficult part of the experience for Mr. Henson has been performing the same role over and over, eight times a week. Some actors do it for years, he noted, but added it's one of those things you can't learn in school.
To be clear, that's not a complaint.
"Every time 'Turn It Off' starts, it's such a traditional musical number, I feel like I'm in '42nd Street.' It transports me to when I was 4 years old in dance class and I would see myself on stage in front of 3,000 people. It's a pretty magical experience."
Let's also be clear that this isn't a story made for 4-year-olds, or for some adult sensibilities, for that matter.
Although Mr. Henson peppers his conversations with "goshes" -- he explains that his Mormon character is not allowed to say "God," and it's stuck offstage -- "The Book of Mormon" isn't a wholesome musical. It's bound to offend; how much depends on a theatergoer's tolerance for crude, explicit language and religious views. The outrage and enjoyment can change from city to city, Mr. Henson said, noting that the show often played like a rock concert during its three-month Los Angeles run.
The buddy story of innocent missionaries sent to Uganda, unprepared for the violence and degradation they find there, hurls obscenities at God and deals with famine, AIDS, female circumcision and much that is unprintable here.
It's the Ugandan characters who perpetrate most of the obscenities.
"I kind of wish I did get to [say something off-color], to see how the audience would react," Mr. Henson mused. "For some of the cities we've stopped at, honestly, the gay stuff has been a little shocking for them. Going through the Midwest as opposed to being in liberal Manhattan, well, you know ... If there's something I can say to those people who are worried about what they are going to see, I'd say, stay until the end of the show. At the end of the day it's about friendship and love. It's about believing in something; it's a really spiritual show. For people to walk out, I'm really frustrated because it's just so well-written and so well done, and we're sweating our butts off there."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.