Coby Getzug first caught L.A. theatergoers’ eyes as a teenager in West Coast Ensemble’s 2009 staging of Big The Musical, after which he quickly went on to understudy on Broadway, tour the country as Moritz in Spring Awakening, and star on some of our finest local stages all the while pursuing his high school and university education. Now, the 2015 UCLA grad is making his Equity National Tour debut as Elder Cunningham in the Broadway musical smash The Book Of Mormon, about to make its closest-to-L.A. stop at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts. Here are Coby’s fascinating, informative answers to questions posed by a proud fellow-Bruin.
Coby, when did you first start performing?
I started around the time I was five, doing children’s theater productions and community theater around the LA area.
It was while you were studying at the L.A. County High School For The Arts that you got cast in Big The Musical.
That’s right. I auditioned for Big the Musical during my junior year of high school. It was my first professional theater experience, and the director Richard Israel and the cast made it an unforgettable one. It was an awesome lesson in creating theatrical magic in a deceptively small space.
How life-changing was this experience?
Getting cast in Brighton Beach Memoirs changed my life in many ways. I had to transfer to a high school in NYC to complete my senior year studies, all while balancing rehearsals during parts of the day. I moved to a new city where I barely knew anyone, and my parents switched off spending time with me in New York and my two younger siblings at home.
What was it like being in Brighton Beach Memoirs?
The show was an absolute joy to be in, but unfortunately, we only ran for about a month, and I never got to make my debut. Despite a few downsides, however, being a part of this production was invaluable in that I got to experience what it’s like working on Broadway at a young age.
You understudied the lead role of Eugene. What was that like for you?
As an understudy, I was able to watch the show come together from both in front of and behind the scenes, without the pressure of having to make my debut right away. Working with the likes of David Cromer, Laurie Metcalf, Jessica Hecht and the rest of the cast was an absolute privilege, and taught me just as much about the craft as my classes at school did.
You’ve managed to combine a professional career with both your high school and university studies, but I understand that you postponed college for a bit while starring as Moritz in the Second National Tour of Spring Awakening. How was it touring the country fresh out of high school?
When I found out that I got cast in the Spring Awakening tour, I had just gotten back to L.A. from visiting potential colleges, so needless to say, it came as an utter surprise.
It must have been amazing for you to tour the country at such a young age!
Touring with that show was an unbelievably unique experience. I like to describe it as “college on wheels.” The oldest of the “kids” in that cast was twenty-five, so we were truly a family unit and were fortunate enough to share that powerful story across the country every night. Of course, looking back I can’t believe that I was so young and was able to keep a level head while doing one-nighters and visiting almost forty states in a period of nine months, but at the time, the craziness of it never phased me.
What do you remember most about that first Spring Awakening?
The most profound aspect of that experience that still sticks with me is the effect that our show had on young people around the country, particularly in places where things like homosexuality, abortion, and sexual abuse aren’t widely discussed out in the open. I still carry around with me a letter I received from a girl who told me that after seeing the show, she decided to put aside thoughts of suicide and focus on finding joy and happiness in her life. That to me is the most rewarding thing any artist can ask for.
You’re one of the many extraordinarily talented UCLA grads brightening our local and national theater scene. I understand that you picked UCLA because it offered you a B.A. rather than a B.F.A. Can you explain?
I am so proud to be a Bruin and to have so many of my classmates thriving in the theater community! When I was applying to schools, I knew that I loved theater and wanted to pursue it as a career, but I also knew that I wanted to explore other potentially untapped interests while in school. Ultimately, a B.A. program seemed to be the right choice for me, and UCLA emerged as my clear choice for college. There are so many different kinds of college theater programs, and it was stressed to me over and over again to find a program that felt like the correct fit for my interests. UCLA was just that: a top-ranked theatrical training program at a top-ranked research university. I know nothing about sports, but the school spirit I felt at UCLA football games was unparalleled. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of studying if you are an artist! I don’t think you can hope to be a good actor if you don’t have the knowledge and background to know the context of what you are talking about in your work.
You’ve been one very busy performer, in both straight plays and musicals all the while pursuing your university studies. How tough (and how rewarding) has that been?
Honestly, it was tough. Being a student is a full time job, so in a sense, I felt like I was living two different lives. But ultimately, it became about prioritizing what was important to me. I knew that getting my education and graduating college was important to both my family and me, so I made it a priority. There were many projects that I would have loved to be involved in but had to forgo because they conflicted with school in too large of a way. The shows that I ended up being able to do were all extremely rewarding in their own unique ways, and the fact that I got to be a part of them while continuing my education made them even better. All of them added to my education in diverse and vital ways.
You received a coveted Ovation Award Nomination as Best Lead Actor for reprising Moritz in La Mirada. How different was it for you to play the same role a second time?
I was extremely honored and humbled to be nominated for an Ovation Award along with many of my talented cast members and director. Moritz will always be a part that I identify with, mostly because many of my formative life experiences so far have happened while playing him.
Did having already played Moritz on tour give you an edge over the other cast members?
I wouldn’t say that playing the role on tour gave me an edge over the other cast members. In some ways, it was more of a handicap because I came in with preconceived notions about the show and the character, while most of my cast members were approaching the material for the first time. It was really interesting to revisit that role in a new way, under the genius direction of Brian Kite. Spring Awakening is a show that is universally relatable, and having the opportunity to explore the joys of that piece with a new cast and in a new setting provided a great lesson in staying adaptable and avoiding falling into patterns or habits. There is always more discovery to be done.
Now, just nine months after your UCLA graduation, you’re touring the country with a musical so big, it’s got two national tours going on simultaneously, as the Elder Cunningham standby. For those who don’t know what a standby is, can you explain? Is this the same as being an understudy, and if not, how are they different?
The difference in these terms was confusing to me as well, so I’m happy to explain! Basically, a standby is someone who is hired specifically to cover one principal part. They do not perform in the show unless they are going on for that specific part. Typically, roles that are extremely large will have one or even two standbys that cover it, take for instance Elphaba in Wicked. An understudy is typically someone who covers a principal role, but also covers other roles and performs in the show in an ensemble track every night. In our show, we have an ensemble Mormon boy who also understudies Elder Cunningham.
So far, I’ve gotten to go on 25 times in my year of being with the show!
That’s more than a full run’s worth of most regional productions! Still, since there were gaps between those performances, how do you keep from being itchy?
I’ve found that the key to not getting itchy between performances is finding other creative outlets to explore. I try to sing through the show a few times a week, and run lines at least once a week. Other times, I’ll read, watch movies, draw. Anything to keep the creative juices flowing!
Book Of Mormon’s success on Broadway and on tour has been phenomenal to say the least. Why do you think the show has become so popular?
I think that people are really drawn to our show because of its brilliant combination of religious satire and uplifting hope. Despite some critics who argue that “Mormon” is offensive and profane (most of whom haven’t even seen the show), the show preaches tolerance, acceptance and positivity. It leaves you questioning your faith in a productive and positive way, giving audiences an opportunity to laugh at themselves and reexamine the things that bring hope and joy to their lives. Not to mention, the show is arguably the funniest and most original musical in years. I pinch myself every day that I get to be a small part of it.
What’s your favorite part of playing Elder Cunningham?
I love that at his core, Elder Cunningham is a really earnest, really naïve and really creative guy. He wants to make everyone around him happy, and will do what it takes to help his friends. Specifically, my favorite part of the show is “Baptize Me.” Among the show’s brilliant songs, this song stands out to me in its hysterical and creative simplicity. I love that as Elder Cunningham, I get to play off of the energy of the audience, and have the freedom to explore different choices depending on the feel of the crowd.
I can’t help but wonder, have there been any LDS theatergoers at the stage door, and if so, and how has their reaction been?
All of my experiences with LDS theatergoers have largely been positive. Typically, they enjoy the performances while not fully agreeing with the portrayal of the Bible stories. They are always extremely kind and respectful. We often have LDS missionaries who wait outside our theaters to pass out Books of Mormon after the show and talk to audience members. Our craziest audiences to date were in Salt Lake City, when we brought the show there for the first time last August. Every performance felt like a rock concert.
How long are you planning on staying with Book Of Mormon? Any idea of what’s up after that?
Our town closes May 1, while the other tour will continue on (hopefully for many more years). Not sure what will come next, but my experience with the show has been life changing, and I can’t wait to see what the future brings.
What are you most looking forward to about being back so close to home?
Being close to my family and friends! I’m also looking forward to bringing my castmates to my favorite local places. I love playing tour guide!
Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down and answer all my questions, Coby! It’s always a thrill to see a fellow Bruin make good!
Coby’s The Book Of Mormon bio:
Coby is thrilled to be part of BOM! Broadway: Brighton Beach Memoirs. National Tour: Spring Awakening. Regional: The Black Suits, The Lieutenant of Inishmore (Center Theatre Group); Our Town. UCLA graduate. Endless thanks to my family and BBR.
Click here to purchase tickets.
Coby’s headshot by Vanie Poyey.