If there is such a thing as a comic antihero, Elder Cunningham in the highly acclaimed and wildly irreverent
Cody Jamison Strand portrays the character who is the kind of person — very clingy, prototypically schlubby and frequently less than truthful — that would have folks of all religious denominations unified in their haste to un-friend him on Facebook.
And yet, Strand's character is able to harness those repellent qualities and humorously bring together Mormon missionaries and a small village in Northern Uganda — not only in their appreciation of each other, but for the universal role that storytelling and religion play as well.
The Tony-award winning musical is now on national tour at the Pantages Theatre through May 11. Below is an edited transcript of a conversation with Strand, 24, who also performed the role on Broadway.
You're from South Dakota and you wanted to be an actor. Broadway must have seemed like a far-off land. What did people make of your career ambitions?
I'm from a small town right next to Sioux Falls called Brandon and I think they all thought I was nuts. When I was looking for colleges to go to even, I think I got rejected from every single college I auditioned for except one — the University of South Dakota, where I ended up graduating with a degree in acting.
How did family and friends react when you started on Broadway last year in the role of Elder Cunningham?
Everyone pretty much freaked out about it.
The play obviously deals with some sensitive religious topics. Were you worried people would find it offensive?
I was absolutely worried about that. My dad is a pastor. When he saw the show for the first time, I was so nervous. We were playing in Des Moines, Iowa, on the national tour. He actually ended up loving it so that was really a relief.
How did you describe the play to him beforehand?
I told him the less you know about the play, the better. That's because the show is really about surprises. But I told him to stick around to the end because it has a very positive faith-based message. And by the end he was all for it.
What is that message?
If you change something or break the rules it doesn't matter as long as we all work together. It's preaching love at the end. As long as we work together we can make this work.
Were you raised religiously?
Oh, yes. Sunday school every week and all day, and dressed to the nines. We were part of the Assemblies of God.
You started out as a standby for the role on the first national tour. How did you find out you were getting the job full-time on Broadway?
I got a call from my agent and he said "Are you sitting down? You probably should be. You're going to Broadway." And then I threw up in the toilet. I don't ever remember feeling so excited and sick at the same time.
Josh made this role so iconic. The main thing I was worried about in taking over the part was I wanted to stay away from doing a poor man's Josh Gad. I didn't want to do a bad impression of him so I tried to do a U-turn. I tried to make it as much my own as possible.
How did you do that?
Everyone always talks about my laugh that I have on stage. Well, that's me. Because whenever someone sees me off stage, they go 'Oh, that laugh is real.' That's all me.
What appealed to you about the part?
First of all, it's comic gold. There isn't anything else out there like it especially for short, round funny guys. It's kind of groundbreaking in that way. They took the idea of the second-hand sidekick character and turned it on its head. I was really excited about it.
What's the most challenging number or scene for you?
When I took over the most challenging thing was suddenly doing eight performances a week. Even in college, I'd never ever done that. Eight performances a week is hard in general, but with this role where you're running around jumping and shouting the whole time it takes something to get used to.
Physically or mentally?
Mostly physically. The mental thing eventually took care of itself. I don't ever remember being more nervous. I don't even think I can remember my first show because it was all a blur. It's so easy to get lost in the moment with the performers in New York and here, that mental game was a piece of cake. But physically, it's hard especially for a chunky guy like me. You have two huge dance numbers. They're fun, but they're very complicated.
Did you have any background in dancing?
I have taken one ballet class in my life. I took a semester at South Dakota. I got an A.