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."