If you’ve seen The Book of Mormon in the last decade, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Cody Jamison Strand in the lead role as Elder Cunningham.
The actor was cast as the chaotically comic Mormon missionary way back in the fall of 2012 when Strand was fresh out of the theater program at the University of South Dakota. Since then, he’s played the role on Broadway, on London’s West End, and on two North American tours. He began his second run in the Broadway production in 2018 — and he’s been there ever since.
He celebrates his 10th year in The Book of Mormon this month. “People always ask me, ‘What’s your dream role?’ I’m already doing it,” says Strand. “I’m fully aware that it does not get better than this.”
For a dream job, it sure got off to a rocky start.
Strand was a month into rehearsals with the second national tour, which was about to sit down in Chicago, when he was rerouted to be the standby for the first national tour, which was performing in San Francisco. At that point, he still hadn’t performed the role of Elder Cunningham in front of an audience — but that changed a lot sooner than he expected it to.
“I got to San Francisco on a Monday, I rehearsed on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday I had to go on!” the actor remembers with a laugh. “I hadn’t even rehearsed with that cast yet. It was a wild first show!”
There were, of course, the usual first-time hiccups and mishaps, like the one that occurred in a scene in which Elder Cunningham has to roll from one twin bed to another.
“I tried to roll and I ended up getting stuck on my back like a turtle between the two beds,” Strand remembers with a laugh. “I was horrified. But it ended up being funny, thank goodness!” In that first show, Strand appeared opposite Gavin Creel (who subsequently won a Tony for Hello, Dolly!). “When I came off stage, Gavin said, ‘Get this man a towel!’” Strand says. “I guess I was sweating that much!”
By the time Strand first walked onstage in San Francisco, The Book of Mormon, written by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker and Avenue Q and Frozen co-composer/co-lyricist Robert Lopez, had already become a massive hit and won nine Tony Awards including Best Musical. The story of two Mormon missionaries trying to bring the word of Joseph Smith to a small village in Uganda, the musical has been one of Broadway’s top attractions since it opened, making audiences roar with laughter.
Like South Park and Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon is gleefully profane, which was a bit of a hurdle for Strand’s family: His father is a pastor. “When first I called my mom to tell her I got the job, she said, ‘OK, we’ll ease your father into this,’” Strand recalls.
“But now my dad has seen it over 40 times,” he adds. “He loves that when you get to the end of the show, it has a really beautiful message of unity and love and how we’re all in this together. It’s this message of: We may believe different things, but as long as we’re working together to make this planet good, then we’re on the right track. Although he does wish we said the F-word a little less!”
Even after a decade, Strand says it’s easy to keep his job fresh and fun. “I like to describe Elder Cunningham as chaotically good,” he says. “He’s the wrench in the Mormon engine. There’s so much range to be had. You can say one line a million different ways and it’s still going to be funny. It’s so fun to do, and I love that I’m making people laugh.”
He also relishes the talent he’s gotten to collaborate with along the way, from Creel to Matt Doyle (Company), Denée Benton (The Gilded Age), and Tony-winning original Mormon cast member Nikki M. James. “This show has taken me all over the world, and the people who it’s brought into my life have been incredible,” he says.
Looking ahead, Strand doesn’t see himself going anywhere anytime soon. “It’s very strange to know that I have done this part more than any person on the planet Earth,” he says. “It’s a very weird win for me. But it’s not a role I feel like I want to walk away from. I will stay with the show for as long as they’ll have me.”
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