We’ve seen James Vincent Meredith onstage dramas—“Clybourne Park,” “The March” and “The Crucible” at Steppenwolf, where he’s an ensemble member; “Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting,” at Lookingglass; “Julius Caesar” and others at Chicago Shakespeare. He’s appeared in just about every recent Chicago-centric TV show, including a recurring role as an alderman on Kelsey Grammer’s “Boss.” And he’s performed on Broadway in “Superior Donuts” and off-Broadway in “The Bluest Eye.”
But musical comedies? Not so much.
Until now, that is, as Meredith co-stars in the Chicago production of “The Book of Mormon,” the Tony and Grammy Award-winning smash hit by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (“South Park”) and Robert Lopez (“Avenue Q”).
The musical, which kicks off a lengthy run in Chicago on Tuesday, tells the story of two missionaries sent to an African village, where the population—dealing with poverty, AIDS and a genocidal overlord—has no use for religious rhetoric. Meredith portrays Mafala Hatimbi, who guides the missionaries through village life and is the father of the main female character, Nabulungi. The production is sold out into March, although Broadway in Chicago has plans to release 20 rush tickets daily at the box office.
We caught up with Meredith—who portrays Mafala Hatimbi, the villager who guides the missionaries through African life and is the father of the main female character, Nabulungi—to find out what it’s like to work on Chicago’s hottest new musical.
What was your audition process?
April of this year, I was called in to audition at the equity offices here in town. I had a scene and a few bars of a song. They called me back—maybe a week later at the most—and I did the same thing again with the director in the room and a few more people behind the table [laughs]. And then after that, I just kind of waited and waited and I actually I think I knew via my agent in May or June. But there were so many other things to get worked out that I didn’t really go public with it until the last few weeks. [Laughs]
What did you do when you found out you’d landed the role?
First, I was crazy with excitement and then I got crazy with fear because I haven’t done a musical on this big a stage in … uh … ever.
I think I’d only done one musical before and that was “The King and I” out at Drury Lane Oakbrook—maybe five, six years ago—and I didn’t really have to sing much [laughs], so that was a lot less stressful.
So once I got over the excitement and the following fear, I just got to work and started seeing a vocal coach and tried to learn about as much of the musical as I could before I went to New York for rehearsals.
There’s a lot of choreography, too—is it physically demanding?
I came in as a rookie, as a novice, a newbie. I didn’t really know all the demands that were required [laughs]. So I was pretty breathless for the first week, week and a half. I could barely get through any of the routines.
The musical director said, “Those of you guys who are kind of new to this: Get on the treadmill, say your lines; sing your songs while you’re running at the gym. You’re going to have to really work out for this one.”
And that helped but it’s still a work in progress. Even a lot of the more seasoned veterans—at the very end of these numbers, we’re all leaning over [laughs], trying to catch our breath.
It’s a lot of training and work that you have to do with your body—getting up earlier to get your voice ready for those 10 a.m. run-throughs at rehearsals. You have to think a lot differently than perhaps you’re used to thinking when you’re doing the other theater. Of course, there’s preparation involved for all types of theater but for this, it’s a little different for me. I had to learn a couple of new habits.
What’s your secret recurring nightmare about what could go wrong onstage?
Well, you know, my strength in singing has always been on the karaoke circuit [laughs] and definitely not in like, legit musicals. And dancing is always a challenge because the last time I was working with people like this—amazing performers, amazing triple threats—was doing “The King and I.” And so, with a lot of those dances that are synchronized, you want to make sure that you’re not the guy who’s putting his hand up late [laughs].
Your character’s bitter but also hilarious. What have you drawn on for inspiration in making this role your own?
Mafala has obviously dealt with a lot of tragedy, a lot of pain. There’s no mention of a wife, only of his daughter. I guess drew from a few friends who I know who’ve gone through a lot of that; who’ve somehow managed to find the funny in the worst things that they go through every day [laughs].
And so it is with this guy. I think that he draws so much love and strength from his daughter, Nabulungi. And so it’s really important for me to show that immense love—that immense care for her and yet immense over-protectiveness that one has when they’ve already lost someone and only have one person left—who perhaps even ties them to that person who they’ve lost.
What’s one of the craziest or most unexpected things that’s happened so far during rehearsals?
At one point, we had finished a run-through and there’s a guy who’s piping in with these notes here and there and I don’t really know who he is but I imagine he’s important because no one is cutting him off and he’s literally sitting right next to our director. And everyone’s taking his notes—and they’re pretty good notes.
So we get through the whole process and at the very end, I’m talking to one of the actors and I’m like, “Should I know this guy?” And they’re like, “Yeah, that’s Trey Parker!” [laughs]
I’m like, “No [bleep]!” I couldn’t believe that that was the guy who was giving us these notes—at the very beginning of rehearsals and through the process, we never really had an opportunity where we met Trey and Matt, and I had never honestly really seen them.
So I actually went up and met him afterwards and told him that and he kind of cracked up.
Any cast mates hate on you because you don’t have to stay in a hotel and they all do?
Actually, let me tell you, I’m kind of hating on them a little bit because there’s a lot of joy in being home—and not having to wear the same sweater five days a week like when I was in New York—but these guys, they come in and they’re staying in these great places in the best parts downtown. So I’m very jealous when these guys are like, “Yeah, I just woke up and rolled over here,” and I find out they literally live a block away from the theater. And I’m like, “How did you do that?”
Our prices here in Chicago for rental are a lot more competitive than the ones in New York, so they’re able to find really cool places. We’re going to have to do a tour of these apartments for our various cast parties with the show.
Julia Borcherts is a RedEye special contributor.
“The Book of Mormon”
Go: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through June 2 at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
Tickets: $45-$115; 800-775-2000; broadwayinchicago.com
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