Rory O’Malley turns his nifty little ‘Mormon’ trick into a Tony nomination
When Rory O’Malley called his mother in Ohio to tell her the happy news that he had been nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in The Book of Mormon, she suggested that he double check. “She said, ‘Are you sure? How do you know?’” O’Malley recalled. “I said, ‘It was on TV, Mom.’” Despite the momentary disbelief, O’Malley cites sharing the news with his supportive mom as the highlight of his Tony journey. “She certainly worked just as hard, if not harder, on my dreams by being who she is and raising me.”
O’Malley is proud of where he comes from and who he is. A Cleveland native with a firm Irish Catholic background, O’Malley knew he was gay from an early age and went on to co-found the gay rights organization Broadway Impact shortly after California’s Proposition 8 was passed in 2008. The non-profit, which he formed with two-time Tony nominee Gavin Creel, aims to educate about marriage equality with involvement from the Broadway community.
Given O’Malley’s proactive nature, it’s ironic that in the new musical The Book of Mormon, he plays Elder McKinley, a closeted gay man who fools himself into thinking that curing his homosexuality is as simple as turning off a light switch. He sings about it in one of the show’s most memorable songs, “Turn It Off,” a hilarious, tap-dance-filled number about blithely suppressing all unpleasant feelings. “I don’t know how many similarities there are between Elder McKinley and I. I certainly didn’t have the feeling to ‘turn it off’ in that way; at least not that long in my life,” O’Malley said. “You have to be yourself, be your own person, your own man. That’s a process. There are lots of Elder McKinleys out there. I hope they learn that too.”
VIDEO: Rory O’Malley on his spotlight number, “Turn It Off,” and the evolution of Elder McKinley
However, the part that has earned O’Malley raves and a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor for his first major Broadway role wasn’t originally in the show. O’Malley began as an ensemble Mormon character, and throughout the show’s three years of workshops, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) kept expanding his duties until he became Elder McKinley, the Mormon mission leader in Uganda who carries “Turn It Off.”
Despite beginning his Mormon journey as only an ensemble member, there was one bright spot—O’Malley didn’t have to audition. “They just called the whitest guys in town, and I’m one of them wherever I go,” O’Malley said. The growth of his part was gradual, but O’Malley remembers reworking the second-act number “I Am Africa” in workshops and seeing how his role was evolving. “Elder McKinley begins leading the boys to this choreographed dance of being African in Africa. That’s when I realized it was really special, that my character had this arc.”
Mormon creators Parker and Stone have a reputation for offending every religious group and ethnicity under the sun with their long-running cartoon series South Park. Being that O’Malley helms a socially-aware activism group, his involvement with the masters of envelope-pushing material had to be addressed. “I had friends who asked, ‘Are gays going to be upset?’ It never occurred to me that people would think [the show] could be offensive to gay people,” O’Malley said. “It never was to me and I’ve seen it through the entire process. When you’re working with people who are so smart and gifted at being funny, you don’t have to worry too much about that. They’re also just telling a great story.”
Yet for this “great story,” there was one person that O’Malley had to prepare prior to seeing it—his mother. “Well, my family—they go to church every Sunday. Definitely, I told my mom specific lyrics, specific things that I wanted her to be aware of,” O’Malley said. “I wanted to start the conversation with her before the show, which everyone else has when they’re leaving the show. I didn’t want her to be totally stunned. But she loved the show. She’s seen it five times since we’ve opened in the past two months. She’s driven from Cleveland a few times already, and she’s coming back in June. It’s a great feeling that she’s embraced it the way that she has.”
O’Malley’s mother, along with his boyfriend, will be accompanying him to the Tony Awards on June 12. She’ll be sitting with the mother of fellow Mormon star, and Best Actor nominee, Josh Gad—Gad and O’Malley were college roommates at Carnegie Mellon University. O’Malley said his mother is ecstatic for Gad’s nomination. “She came to our final workshop, which was her first introduction to the show. She said, “Josh is going to get a Tony!’” O’Malley said. “She didn’t say, “Oh, you were great, son!’”
Did you find Rory O’Malley hilarious in The Book of Mormon, Rushers? Are you impressed with how he’s able to juggle both his life’s passions? And what are the odds that he and college roommate Josh Gad would end up Tony nominees for the same Broadway show years later? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and tune into this week’s episode of Stage Rush TV for an adorable piece with O’Malley about his buddy Gad.