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].