For his assembled audience of students and faculty members of the Second City Training Center, Hovde started off with a question: “So, how do we become you?”
It got a laugh that quieted quickly; the crowd of 20-something comedians-in-training wanted to know. Rouleau and Platt, after all, are the leads in the hottest musical comedy to come around in a while, in Chicago or any place else. They were roughly the same age as the students. And while you might not guess that the career aspirations of an improv artist or sketch writer would overlap those of a musical-theater song-and-dance man, they can, and do.
Rouleau answered Hovde by first describing the moment he found out he had been cast in the Chicago “Book of Mormon” — which opened late last year at the Bank of America Theatre and is likely playing through Sept. 8 before touring elsewhere. He was on his cellphone on a crowded Staten Island bus.
“And the first thing you want to do is scream and cry,” he said. “So I tried to do that subtly; it didn't really work.”
Rouleau has acted in a few musicals and the national tour of “Legally Blonde” since graduating from New York University. He landed the job as the standby for Andrew Rannells as Price in the Broadway production of “Mormon,” then assumed the show's leading role, but said it had been his dream to lead his own company.
Platt, for his part, had been a child actor and active in performing arts in high school in Los Angeles. His plans to study at Columbia University in New York were sidetracked by landing the part of Benji in the 2012 show-choir movie “Pitch Perfect,” in which he played an oddball character a bit like Cunningham. That, he said, brought him to the attentions of “Book of Mormon.”
The 2012 Training Center, according to Second City, had a total enrollment of 4,906 students in the main improv program and 1,483 in the advanced Conservatory. Many of those students use their comedy skills in creative industries like advertising, but a number also aspire to end up onstage and in show business. The hourlong talk-back in Piper's Alley mostly revolved around characters, comedy and topics such as auditions and how to survive them.
“Oh, they're awful, they're terrible,” Rouleau said, commiserating about auditions. An audible groan of agreement rose from the students. For Price tryouts, they had him sing a few songs, he said, “and the vocals are already really high. They had me do “You and Me (But Mostly Me).” And then they said, ‘Let's take it up one key.' Just to surprise me. Horrible.”
Platt attributed his success in landing the Cunningham role to his willingness to make a choice. The role was originated on Broadway, famously, by Josh Gad, who played the character of the Mormon missionary sidekick as an overweight, overbearing type. At auditions, Platt said, “I was looking around and I'm the only guy who's not stocky, not 26 years old.”
His Cunningham was more in his Benji mode, which is more vulnerable and socially awkward. “I like to play with volume changes,” he said, “because I've noticed people who are awkward that way sometimes have a hard time modulating the sound of their voice,” he said. “I had to take a leap of faith with how I wanted to play it. After all, I told myself, they brought me in here because they liked something about me. It's scary though.”
Students took a turn to ask questions. One wanted to know about walkouts — “The Book of Mormon” is famously profane, sharply irreverent about religion and occasionally borderline racist. Audience members have made their objections known by standing up and walking out during the performance — as they do at times at Second City shows.
How do Rouleau and Platt handle it?
“It's almost like a small victory,” Rouleau said. “You see them start to stream out during “Turn It Off,” and you're like, ‘Homophobe. Just go.'”
Sometimes people walk out during the sexually explicit African Pageant scene, which is toward the end, he said, “And that's funny to me; my thought is, ‘You've seen two hours of this, and now you're going to leave?”
Rouleau and Platt also talked for a few moments backstage before the session. Because they work every night of the week except Monday, when the Second City mainstage was dark, they admitted that neither of them had seen a Second City show. Platt said he's done some training with the similar Upright Citizens Brigade in New York.
Unlike in Second City, performers in “Book of Mormon” aren't writing their own onstage material. The main comedy directive in “Mormon,” in fact, is to play it straight and let Trey Stone and Matt Parker's writing do the work. “They tell us, play from the character, don't play for the laugh,” Platt said.
“But we have to stay one step ahead of the audience,” Rouleau said. “We talk a lot about timing. ... At this point I've done the show with a couple different Elder Cunninghams, and the laughs come at different times. The hard part is you can't really figure that out without being in front of an audience. Rehearsal is frustrating, it's just … silence.”
Similarly, both they and improv artists have to be able to read an audience, Platt said. “We do this thing, it's in the coffee shop scene, where I insult him, he insults me back. And that gets a laugh. Then maybe I'll add a silent giving him the finger. But I have to sense that the audience wants another joke.”firstname.lastname@example.org