Hello. The Book of Mormon isn’t saying goodbye any time soon.
Julie Yolles Contributing Writer
What’s a nice Jewish boy doing in the army of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? Well, just ask his casting agent.
Jacob Ben-Shmuel is spending Chanukah in the D — at the Fisher Theatre — Dec. 4-9 as the standby for the co-lead character Elder Cunningham in the Tony Award-winning musical The Book of Mormon. Cunningham is the best friend wannabe to Elder Price, and their newfound friendship is challenged when they are sent on a two-year mission to Uganda. Other lovable Jewish actors who have taken on the coveted role include Josh Gad and Ben Platt.
“Truthfully, there have been a lot of Jewish Cunninghams over the years,” says Ben-Shmuel, a native Californian. “I think that, inherently, nice Jewish boys tend to look a little different from the nice Mormon boys, and the character needs to stand out and not fit in with the rest of the ensemble. Elder Cunningham will do anything to make the friendship work, which makes him really endearing.”
Ben-Shmuel, 23, who credits landing the scene-stealing role by being in “the right place at the right time,” graduated with a musical theater degree from the University of California, Irvine, in summer 2017 and started with The Book of Mormon tour a few months later. While this will be his first time in Detroit, Ben-Shmuel says that Fisher theatergoers may not even get a chance to see him perform.
“The difference between my role as the standby and an understudy is that an understudy typically plays another role in the show. The standby is the first line of the defense, and we don’t learn other roles. We are there every night, backstage, prepared to go on during an unforeseen sickness, injury or while an actor is out on vacation,” he says.
While in Detroit, Ben-Shmuel plans to get a menorah.
“You keep the traditions alive when you can, but it’s very hard on the road,” says Ben-Shmuel, who just celebrated his one-year anniversary on tour with The Book of Mormon in October.
When he visits his Israel-born father in southern California, Ben-Shmuel says that they go to temple together. And while he didn’t attend Hebrew school, he did have a bar mitzvah.
“My connection to my Jewish heritage is very strong. My mom isn’t Jewish, but she was very supportive, and my sister and I converted when we were young. We visited Israel with my grandparents when I was 14, and I really wish I knew the language better.”
The language he knows best comes from The Book of Mormon creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q).
“I loved South Park ever since I can remember. It still blows my mind that I’m in their show. The songs are unbelievably good. Elder Cunningham is the comedic relief in a show full of comedy,” Ben-Shmuel says. “To play this role is an absolute dream. Every time I go on, it’s not lost on me how lucky I am. The audience adores the show.”
Early on, when Ben-Shmuel joined The Book of Mormon, he recalled an aggressive heckler who yelled “blasphemers” during the show. He compared it to a recent incident that happened during intermission of the touring production of Fiddler on the Roof (which comes to the Wharton Center in East Lansing Dec. 4-9). The curtain had just come down at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore for intermission when a man repeatedly yelled “Heil, Hitler. Heil, Trump” before he was escorted out by the police.
“Some of The Book of Mormon cast members know some folks in Fiddler. On one hand, it’s obviously terrifying and it’s not something you think about being possible, even though we know it can happen. Unfortunately, we have these awful reminders. Luckily, no one was hurt, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s worrisome. I thank God that everyone was safe. I am proud that we can continue our craft and put the work up on stage when scary stuff like this happens. We need to continue to stand up, even in the face of evil,” Ben-Shmuel says.
“What I think people realize when they see The Book of Mormon is that the irreverence is for a purpose, and it really has a gigantic, honest heart at the center of it. It pokes fun at Mormonism but, really, in that vein, it pokes fun at religion in general and turns it around at the end. The heart of the show is that if you believe in someone, it makes your life better. That’s an unbelievably pure message.”
The Book of Mormon comes to the Fisher Theatre in Detroit Dec.4-9. (800) 982-2787; broadwayindetroit.com.
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