Man Up: A Conversation with AJ Holmes from ‘The Book of Mormon’

The Book of Mormon is here! The Tony Award-winning musical comedy juggernaut by the producers of South Park (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and the composer of Avenue Q (Robert Lopez) is now running at the Paramount until January 10. If you haven’t yet seen this delightfully profane exploration of religion, cultural imperialism and the absurdity of the inspirational musical, consider your comedy theatre nerd license hereby suspended. No less a satirical imminence than Jon Stewart declared Book of Mormon “so good it makes me angry.”  

AJ Holmes plays the slobby, needy, sci-fi-obsessed Elder Cunningham role originated by Josh Gad. I talked to him about the show, his role and his “rock star moment.”

How’d you get looped in to maybe one of the best musicals of all time (and definitely the funniest)?

I share that opinion. Three years ago in New York, I got an audition for this role and I was very confused because the role is not historically played by someone as lanky and skinny as me. I thought I didn’t have a shot but my agents told me to go anyways. They called me back and I was even more confused. Suddenly I was in front of Matt and Trey and Casey Nicholaw and 20 other people. The most stressful audition of my life, but I made ‘em laugh. That was pretty cool.

Three days later I was driving to Chicago to join the tour. Since then I’ve been in all four productions.

Book of Mormon is as funny as the best episode of South Park but it also feels built to last. It feels like it could be great for a long time.

Absolutely. They worked on this thing for five or six years before it ever came to Broadway. They had every intention of really getting it right. And you can tell that they studied their musical theatre history—there are nods to Rodgers and Hammerstein all over the place, from Sound of Music to Fiddler on the Roof, all sorts of things.

I still marvel every night at how well the show is formatted, how quickly it moves from one thing to the next. And it has a great message that I really believe in.

As an actor you have a slightly more bohemian lifestyle than your character. How do you get into the mindset of a prim and proper Mormon missionary?

Well, the Mormon I play [Elder Cunningham] isn’t so prim and proper. I definitely think I have a lot in common with my character.

Billy [Harrigan Tighe], who plays Elder Price, you walk into his hotel room and all of his candles are out, everything looks like it has a place where it belongs, the clothes are organized and neat and tidy. Then you walk into my room and it’s chaos. So I think we fit our characters in that way.

[Elder] Cunningham is such a goofball. He just wants a friend; that’s his primary motivation. That’s really easy to relate to, especially looking back to my high school years—I was into such totally socially acceptable things as musical theatre. For [Cunningham] it’s Star Wars and Star Trek, and I can see how that would feel very similar. Top on my agenda was to find a friend who also likes these things.

What’s your favorite song in the show?

I get to do “Man Up” at the end of Act One. That’s definitely my favorite song because it’s the Act One finale, it pulls all the stops out and it’s the closest to a rock star moment I’ll ever get.