From the very beginning of Master Chat, it has been my mission to interview a cast member from The Book of Mormon. I LOVED the show: the fearlessness of the performers, the brilliant writing, not to mention a score that I would be more than happy to have stuck in my head for the rest of my life. So, when Kevin Duda said he would do this interview I felt the kind of excitement only someone who successfully converted a whole Ugandan village would feel. Kevin has been playing a missionary in BOM since it’s reading back in 2008. Prior to that, he made his Broadway debut in Les Liaisons Dangereuses with Laura Linney… and performed in many other tours and regional productions. Enjoy this interview with one fearless, funny, and fantastic performer and if you read it “…now we’ll also throw in a set of steak knives!”
MC: When did you catch the theater bug?
KD: I started theater for church. The music director at our church wanted to do operettas/operas and the first one he picked was Amahl and the Night Visitors. It’s not a grand opera so it was much easier to do an American version. So, we did that and I played Amahl; I was immediately cast as the starring role, which ruined me for life. Now I think of myself as the star in everything…NO I’M KIDDING!! [Kevin Laughs]
Were there any performers who inspired you to pursue a life in the theater?
We had this girl in my hometown, Greenfield, Massachusetts, named Mirla Criste (she was in the original cast of Miss Saigon) and her mother was a very well known voice teacher in our town. The minute I got involved with theater, my mom shuffled me off to her mother for voice lessons. Because of that, I got to meet Mirla and take a couple classes with her and I was just really inspired by the energy she had about getting her career going. I thought that was fantastic.
What training did the Hartt School provide you with to help set you up for a successful career?
I sort of lucked out at Hartt because they took me on even though I was very green. As it used to be okay to be, but now it seems that everyone is already a star and a celebrity going into college. But they took me on, and I really wanted to be a dancer. Not a ballet dancer but I kind of have that classic Chorus Line story of having three older sisters and I used to go to their dance classes and sit in the back of the room and watch their class. I was always so jealous that they were allowed to do that; I was a gymnast but I never was able to take dance classes. So, when I got to Hartt, they allowed you to choose an emphasis: acting, voice or dance and I choose dance. I have to say that those extra couple dance classes really helped me when I came to New York because now that Newsies is around, you have to be a male dancer. But back then, the pool of male dancers wasn’t very big so I was very happy to get all that dance training.
Also at Hartt I had the best voice teacher! All of the voice teachers at Hartt are adjunct; they come in from New York City one or two days a week.
How long were you auditioning in NYC before you booked your first job?
After college I went home to live with my parents for the summer before I would make the big move to New York. In the first couple weeks I was home I got a call from a cruise ship audition I had done two years earlier and they were looking for someone desperately. I went and did a cruise ship right after college for about six or seven months. And then when I got to the city, I was only there for about a month before I got my first show, a European tour of The Best of Andrew Lloyd Webber. It was a really great credit for me to get right away and I was young so I was able to just up and leave and go to Europe and see all that I could see and not have to worry about an apartment or bills or family back home.
That’s very interesting! What kind of life do you live on a cruise ship as a performer?
It’s definitely not for everyone and it’s definitely not for me. It’s almost like being away at summer camp but making money to do it. It’s a weird experience, it really is. There are only a certain number of people who are able to do it. I had a cabin to myself, which was good, and I didn’t work very much. I kind of just enjoyed the ports of call (which were actually only two). It got a little boring I have to say. It was just not for me but I did enjoy having the experience.
What was it like to make your Broadway debut in Les Liaisons Dangereuses?
It was a HUGE surprise! It was one of those stories you hear but don’t think that anyone really experiences it, where you go in one day for an audition that you don’t think you’re right for at all. It was interesting because I went in on a Friday morning at 11:30 and walked in the room and did what I prepared, worked with the director for about another ten minutes and walked out. I remember it was a long weekend with a Monday holiday, and then Tuesday I heard that I got it. It was the easiest job I ever booked, I think.
How do you not burst out laughing every night performing in The Book of Mormon?
It’s almost as if someone told you to say a knock-knock joke over and over again, eventually it wouldn’t be funny anymore. A lot of the material in the show, although I can still appreciate how funny it is, I’ve just heard it so much. I’ve been doing the show since February of 2008 so that’s a long time. When I ever get the urge to laugh its because someone does something different on stage; watching another actor make a fresh choice. But I’m still thrilled that audiences just LOVE the show and all the information in the show is fresh every single night, and the cast is so good at that.
What was the rehearsal process/creation process of BOM like? Did you know you were involved with something very special?
Absolutely! The very first conversation I had about the piece. I got a call to do the reading and they said you would have to sign a confidentiality agreement. That was all fine, I didn’t know what the project was and no one said a word about it. You’re kind of wondering what it was but I didn’t get really excited. But then my phone rang and it was Bobby Lopez (who wrote Avenue Q) and he said, “I just want to take a minute and kind of explain to you what the show is and how crude and crass it’s going to be and make sure you’re okay with that because we don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable.”
The minute that happened I said, “Nothing offends me, I’m totally fine. I can’t imagine that would offend me.”
Then I started to think, oh great! If it’s rude, offensive, or cutting edge material it will be talked about a lot.
Then I got into the first rehearsal and I heard “Hasa Diga” (which at the time was called something different) and my jaw just dropped! I was really offended for the first ten minutes and then I was like, I have to get over this and be a part of this show. The whole process was just so intriguing and really fun and different from any other show I’d been a part of.
Did you still feel nervous about being a part of such a controversial show? What gives you the fearlessness, now, to perform the material every night?
I think everyone’s nerves were settled after the first week of previews. You know that there’s always that scene of the high school actor peeking out from backstage and seeing all the people fill the audience? That’s kind of what the cast was like off stage while they were doing “Hasa Diga” for the first couple previews. We’d peek out and watch the audience’s reaction. The minute the people appreciated the truth of the circumstance and how it was really funny and hit the nail on the head, our nerves kind of settled down.
I don’t think I’ve really felt nervous about the reaction until that part but I always say that the minute the material stops being offensive to me is the minute I know I need to leave the show. Even though I hear it eight times a week, I still realize its ability to shock people. The minute that ends I know I need to move on.
What is your favorite part of the show?
The part that always gets me is what we call “The Breakup Scene.” At the end of act one when Price yells at Cunningham and says, “I’m not your best friend, I just got stuck with you.”
Every single time I watch it I get a little teary eyed because I think the writing is so good and that real moment for those two characters helps people come back for act two and cheer on for these two boys who are on their own journey and have their own goals. The first moment they put that scene in the show was the moment I knew that the show was a real piece of theater and not just a bunch of fart jokes and crass humor.
What advice do you have for aspiring Broadway performers?
My first piece of advice is, get involved right where you are now. The biggest complaint I hear from people is that, “I have to move to New York, Chicago, or LA” when really there’s theater happening everywhere. The best way to get ready for New York, Chicago, or LA is for you to get all the information you need right at your Community Theater, or high school, or Drama Club.
Also, I think when you move to New York, do costumes or run spotlights because there’s not a lot of acting opportunities for actors. Knowing what goes into running a show will build your inevitable appreciation for being onstage. ♦
Photo Credit: Walter McBride/Retna Ltd, Sara Krulwich/The New York Times