GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Clark Johnsen of 'The Book of Mormon'
If Elder McKinley were the main character of The Book of Mormon instead of Elders Price and Cunningham, the hit musical's plot might resemble Clark Johnsen's life story. In his hilarious signature number, McKinley (Rory O'Malley) sings about the need to "Turn It Off"—"it" being the according-to-Mormonism "curable curse" of homosexuality.
"That is all I did," says Johnsen, who was raised Mormon, attended Brigham Young University, went on a mission and is now playing a Mormon missionary in the Tony-winning Best Musical. "I spent my entire adolescence and early adulthood trying to figure out a way to be truthful and have integrity but still marry a woman."
Like the missionary at the center of The Book of Mormon, who experiences a crisis of faith before his epiphany, Johnsen struggled with how his circumstances conflicted with church doctrine before emerging with a refreshed perspective. No longer a Mormon, Johnsen today can also sing "I Believe," albeit with different lyrics from Elder Price's. "I have come to believe that as human beings we have the power to choose what we believe about God and the meaning of life," Johnsen says. "We have the power to change what we believe if what we believe makes us feel miserable. In my book, since we do get to choose, we ought to spend our time cultivating a system of beliefs that makes us feel successful, happy, fulfilled and whole."
And just as Book of Mormon has a happy ending, so too does Johnson's story at this point. "I am happy knowing that I am connected to all my brothers and sisters on this earth through this shared experience we call life," says Johnsen, who was dating a woman as recently as 2004 but has been living with his boyfriend for more than three years.
Johnsen did not make any official break with the Mormon establishment, but he stopped attending church in 2007 and now considers himself an ex-Mormon. He had never pretended he wasn't gay but tried for years to reconcile his sexual orientation with Mormon dogma. "I was trying to live in two worlds at the same time, as authentically as possible in both worlds. I was having to pave my own path, trying to see if I could be an openly gay Mormon person," says Johnsen. "Mormonism is all about 'You came to Earth with a calling, a responsibility...' Within that lens, I was like, It's my calling to educate people on homosexuality. But I can't spend my life getting people to believe in something. It wasn't feeling good anymore. The underlying philosophy that you're 'broken' is really hard to live with day in and day out."
All the while Johnsen was dealing with his religion vs. sexuality issues, he was building himself a steady career in musical theater. Rarely unemployed since he moved to New York in mid-2002, Johnsen has numerous tour and regional credits in addition to three Broadway shows. And he's frequently been involved in hot properties, like Mamma Mia! and High School Musical. For the second year in a row, Johnsen has been in the season's most eagerly anticipated new musical. This year it was The Book of Mormon, last year The Addams Family. But while Mormon received rave reviews and nine Tonys, Addams Family was savaged by critics and didn't even get nominated for Best Musical. "To now be in a show that everyone loves so much, it's fun, but on a certain level you think it's not about that. I've just been on the other side of the coin," says Johnsen. "It is a very interesting juxtaposition going from complete revulsion to complete adoration."
Despite its negative reviews, The Addams Family was a commercial hit early on, and Johnsen says, "The fact that the audiences really liked it and we were selling out buoyed us." He adds, "I still consider it one of my most important and happiest and greatest theatrical experiences as a performer." Johnsen left Addams Family feeling positive because of "the togetherness of the cast" and also because it was his first time working on a new Broadway musical from the start. He had done the Addams Family readings and workshops leading up to its out-of-town tryout in Chicago in the fall of 2009. "Creating something brand-spanking-new was pretty cool," he says. "It was definitely on my bucket list." Nonetheless, between The Book of Mormon's astounding success and its relevance to his own life, it's hard to beat the experience he's currently having. "I've never had more fun being on stage every night, and I've never felt so connected to something I've been doing," he states. He even gets to portray Brigham Young when The Book of Mormon's missionaries tell the history of Mormonism to their prospective converts in the number "All-American Prophet."
Johnsen comes from a big Mormon family: seven siblings in all. They moved repeatedly while he was growing up, as his father changed jobs within Exxon (from which he just retired). Johnsen was born in Los Angeles and lived in Texas and Wyoming as a small child. He grew up mostly in Carlinville, Illinois, before his family moved back to Houston when he was 16. Johnsen was in a couple of local TV commercials in Houston but had no performance training other than school choir and piano and clarinet lessons. He took gymnastics but no dance or voice classes until college.
He enrolled in BYU pre-med but took several dance classes during freshman year. Noting his interest, his academic adviser suggested he major in performance since it would stand out among all the science majors who apply to medical school. Johnsen tried out for BYU's musical theater program and was rejected, but he suspected some prejudice was involved in the decision. Sure enough, when he requested a reconsideration, one faculty member told him, "I don't think you're doing yourself any favors being so open." That was a reference to his homosexuality, which Johnsen didn't hide from anyone since he came out as a teen. He was able to get the decision reversed and went on to major in musical theater.
That faculty member's behavior was, for Johnsen, a rare incident of hostility; he felt accepted by many of the Mormons who knew he was gay. But he did see a therapist—and the honor code office—frequently during his BYU years. He would be called into the honor code office regarding his sexuality, although admitting you're gay is not a violation. Having sex with anyone outside of marriage is a violation, and Johnsen says his defense in the office would always be that there was no evidence he had actually done anything wrong. As for therapy, homosexuality was treated as something to be overcome, and to that end he was advised to "get in touch with his masculine side"—e.g., fix cars or play sports. But he'd always been a good athlete and had grown up doing "boy things" with three brothers (the first four children in his family were all boys; he's the second oldest). "I can already play basketball, and I can already throw a football," he thought.
After his freshman year, Johnsen went on his Mormon mission. In another parallel to The Book of Mormon, he was sent somewhere very different from what he'd been expecting: Whereas Elder Price goes to Uganda instead of his beloved Orlando, Johnsen had been envisioning a European cultural capital like Paris or Vienna but was assigned to the Sinaloa state of Mexico. He was out to his mission leader and companions, and as with most of the people in his life, including his family, there may have been some initial discomfort but in general they were accepting.
"For me, 'turning it off' completely and just hiding it was never really an option," Johnsen says about being gay and Mormon. "I'm such an open person and I come from a very open family, I just felt so unhappy inside my body not being able to be honest. But because I did not want to hurt my parents or shake the waters too much, I was like: I'm gay, but I still believe in the church...I'm going to solve this. I'm going to find a way to get attracted enough to a woman to marry her—I was gung ho about it."
That was still his intent a few years after college when he began dating a Mormon woman he met in church here in New York. He told her from the start, "I identify as a gay man, but I'm very much committed to living the gospel and staying in the church." She accepted it, believing they could overcome it together ("It's very much in the Mormon character," Johnsen says, "to be like, 'I'm going to help him'"). But during the three or four months they dated, her feelings for him deepened while his attraction to her didn't ("because I'm gay!"). Ultimately, he decided he would not subject her to such a life, even if she was willing, and he didn't wish to continue abetting the idea that there is something wrong with him. "This woman, no matter how much I explain, will never really fully understand what she's getting into. Inside of her has been ingrained this concept that everyone is actually straight and homosexuality is just a mental handicap or malignancy that with enough prayer and diligence—if you're righteous enough—will go away. She thinks that one day I'm going to become straight."
Yet Johnsen didn't leave the church until a few years after that. By then, he was dating his current boyfriend, Constantine Germanacos, whom he met on Friendster in early 2006. Germanacos, also a performer, was in the cast of the On a Clear Day You Can See Forever revisal presented last summer by New York Stage and Film. (Meanwhile, Johnsen's former girlfriend has married and is now the mother of two.)
Johnsen's relationship with the woman took place around the time he was making his Broadway debut, in the not particularly Mormon-like La Cage Aux Folles. That was the 2004-05 production that won Tony Awards for Best Revival and Jerry Mitchell's choreography but got only middling reviews and closed right after the Tonys. As a swing, Johnsen covered all the Cagelle roles and three of the townspeople characters in the ensemble, and during the show's run he went on for at least half the Cagelles.
Before returning to Broadway five years later in The Addams Family, Johnson was in the Las Vegas company of Mamma Mia!, on the Mary Poppins and High School Musical tours and in the 2006 Kennedy Center production of Mame, starring Christine Baranski. He was also in Footloose at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Ill., Hot Mikado at Westchester Broadway Theatre outside NYC and West Side Story at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars. Earlier regional appearances include Children of Eden at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., Annie Get Your Gun at Gateway Playhouse on Long Island, and The Pirates of Penzance and The Scarlet Pimpernel at Sacramento Music Circus.
He's gone on in a number of principal roles as an understudy, including Wednesday's boyfriend Lucas in The Addams Family and the lead Troy in High School Musical. He also got to play Billy Lawlor in 42nd Street while covering that part during his year on the national tour in 2003. Before the U.S. tour, Johnsen had one of his first professional jobs in an American production of 42nd Street that ran in Moscow for about four months in 2002. The Moscow gig was supposed to last a year, but it was while Johnsen was performing there in 42nd Street that Chechen terrorists stormed another Moscow theater and more than 170 people were killed during a three-day hostage standoff. Once the 42nd Street theater started getting bomb threats, they shut down the production.
Johnsen did pick up some Russian while in Moscow and he also knows some Mandarin and French, as well as fluent Spanish that he learned for his mission in Mexico. When he returned to school after the mission, he remained pre-med and still was planning a career in medicine after he graduated and moved to NYC. "I loved science, and I really enjoyed all of my classwork," he says. "I was just really burned out on school by the time I finished college. Moving to New York was like, I'm going to take a year or two off before I go to medical school." But he was already thinking another career might be possible. He'd come to New York once during college and went to some auditions, even getting called back. "It planted in my head that maybe I could be successful in this," says Johnsen.
He'd done some regional work during his college years, playing Will in Oklahoma at southern Utah's Tuacahn Amphitheatre and performing in Paint Your Wagon at Wyoming's Jackson Hole Playhouse. He'd also taken a semester off during his junior year to perform on the Holland America cruise ship Maasdam. The first play Johnsen was ever in was a BYU production of The Secret Garden—appropriate, since that was the show that had sparked his interest in musical theater. "Somebody in my high school band class gave me the CD to The Secret Garden, and I just sat up nights listening to it, reading the libretto," recalls Johnsen. "Then I was like, 'I want to listen to more musicals,' and she gave me Miss Saigon. I wore it out. I listened to the Lloyd Webber repertoire and memorized it."
Still remembering himself as a boy entranced by those recordings, Johnsen is thrilled he's made it onto two original cast albums, Book of Mormon and The Addams Family. "To be part of this community that I spent my entire adolescence listening to is really fun," he says. He has a more recent memory of first noticing the then "untitled musical" being developed on the fourth floor of the New 42nd Street Studios when he was rehearsing Addams Family on the sixth floor. Eventually he heard that this work in progress was about Mormonism, and then was further intrigued to learn it was being written by the creators of South Park—a TV show he and his brothers love. His brother Clay was the one who urged him to audition for The Book of Mormon despite his misgivings about how the proudly vulgar South Park guys would depict Mormonism. "I'd left the church, but I'd come to such a happy, healthy place with my family," says Johnsen. "I didn't want this to be like an F-U to them." He himself hasn't had any issues with the show's content—"I was laughing my face off at the first read-through"—but his mother chose not to see the show when she was visiting recently, and Johnsen says he understands.
Photos of Clark, from top: his headshot; in costume as an Addams ancestor for The Addams Family; left, with four of his six siblings on the day he entered the Missionary Training Center in 1996; far right, as one of the tap-dancing Mormon missionaries in The Book of Mormon; bottom left, with the rest of the East High b-ball team in High School Musical; center, as Will in Oklahoma, 2001. [The Book of Mormon photo by Joan Marcus]