Art & Celebrity: Featuring Will Cotton, Francesco Vezzoli, & Richard Phillips

The version of California in pop singer Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” music video looks a lot like the board game Candy Land. As in the Milton Bradley original, Perry navigates a sugary path strewn with obstacles: a bridge made from a single Twizzler (she prudently removes her stilettos to cross it), candy canes that metamorphose into snakes, an army of gummy bears that take orders from Snoop Dogg. Eventually, Perry arrives at a capital city of sorts—Los Angeles, if it were constructed from upturned Mister Softee cones—and vanquishes Snoop and his treacly thugs using a bra that shoots whipped cream, like a flamethrower, from her aerosol-hardened nipples. “California girls,” she sings, “So hot we’ll melt your Popsicle.”

“Candyfornia” was created by Will Cotton, a painter whose studio sits on a block of New York’s Chinatown lined with wholesale kitchen supply stores, and who proposed collaborating with Perry after she emailed him about purchasing a painting. A slight man in his 40s with sandy blond hair, Cotton has made a career of translating confection into art. After the early 1990s, when he focused most of his energies on paintings of advertising icons like the Nestlé Quik Bunny, Twinkie the Kid, and the Pillsbury Doughboy, Cotton switched to landscapes rendered in profusions of pastel sweets. Odalisque nudes were introduced as subjects. The paintings’ nexus of desire—melting Breyers or the models’ own creamy skin—is sweetly muddled.

For “California Gurls,” Cotton constructed, using real candy, a small-scale version of the board game Perry would wander through on greenscreen. He also painted a large portrait of Perry lying on a cloud of pink cotton candy, a pouf of air-spun sugar covering her exposed derrière. Perry decided to use the image as the cover art for her second studio album, Teenage Dream. “She’s just someone who fits stylistically into this world,” Cotton says of his sugarscapes when I visit his studio one evening in January. “I started playing this game, asking myself who would be here if there were people in this place. Katy Perry would be here, that’s who.” Like One of the Boys, Perry’s debut full-length album, Teenage Dream went platinum, and in the process introduced Cotton to an entirely new audience.

With her Hollywood-approved curves, Perry does fit easily into Cotton’s body of work, even if she is the first household name with whom he’s partnered. “It’s a kind of iconography,” he says. “Even if we don’t use the term ‘Venus,’ to me it’s as archetypal an image as that.” But if Perry is a latter-day Fragonard goddess, she’s also, with nearly five-and-a-half million followers on Twitter, a celebrity version of the Trix cereal bunny—as much brand as bombshell. “Literally,” says Cotton, adjusting himself in his chair so that one leg is tucked under him, “She spent an entire hour applying fake eyelashes!” image Untitled a drawing of Katy Perry by Will Cotton, 2010, oil on paper, 22 x 24” Courtesy of the artist and Mary Boone Gallery

Will Cotton is hardly the only contemporary fine artist interested in working with celebrities—or the idea of celebrity. George Condo recently collaborated with rapper Kanye West to produce five paintings for the latter’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album cover. (While clearly an expression of Condo’s virtuoso grotesquerie, the art, we know from a January New Yorker profile of Condo, was also explicitly designed to be banned.) Lisa Yuskavage’s eerie-erotic nudes are a favorite of Bette Porter, a character played by Jennifer Beals on Showtime’s The L Word; Kehinde Wiley pictured Biggie Smalls and Michael Jackson in naturalistic, Old Master oils; Elizabeth Peyton contrived a career out of her jewel-like portraits of famous musician friends. “I’ve noticed an interest in developing a genuine dialogue with those things that are supposed to be considered off-limits,” says Cotton of consumer-celebrity mass culture. “There’s been a sentiment for a long time that since we are fine artists, we have to not dirty ourselves by dipping into that world in any way. I’m really interested in that.”

Andy Warhol would seem to be the inevitable point of comparison for anyone interested in making art about celebrities, but rather than align themselves in a genealogy sprouting from the paterfamilias of pop, artists like Cotton—with his allusions to goddess worship and 18th-century European portraiture—are reaching back through the annals of art history to pose the question: How has the idea of celebrity changed since the days of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley (since Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley), if it’s changed at all?

“The idea was to create a pagan church,” says 40-year-old multimedia artist Francesco Vezzoli over the phone earlier this year. It’s nearing midnight in Milan, the northern Italian city where the artist, who was born in nearby Brescia, currently lives and works. Despite the hour, Vezzoli, who’s been referred to variously in publications as a “rapscallion,” a “provocateur,” and a “whore,” betrays no signs of sleepiness in his voice. In just a few weeks, his first New York solo show, “Sacrilegio,” will open at the Gagosian Gallery’s West 21st Street location. Vezzoli plans to transform the eminent art space into a Renaissance chapel and install large-scale reinterpretations of 15th and 16th-century Madonna-and-Child paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli. (That Larry Gagosian is modern-day New York’s answer to Lorenzo de’ Medici is surely not lost on Vezzoli.) Where the original works feature the beatific Virgin, however, Vezzoli’s laser prints have swapped out Mary for Linda Evangelista, Stephanie Seymour, and Claudia Schiffer. Large, lozenge-shaped tears rendered in Vezzoli’s signature needlework fall from the supermodels’ eyes.

“I’ve been celebrity obsessed for so long that I’m now bored of it,” says Vezzoli. “But it’s still a comfort zone for me. I’d like to be the professor of the topic, the Olafur Eliasson of sequins.” To date, Vezzoli has created (among other works): a trailer for a non-existent remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula starring Helen Mirren, Courtney Love, and himself; a one-night-only restaging of Pirandello’s Right You Are (If You Think You Are) starring Cate Blanchett; and, most famously, an ad campaign for a fictitious perfume called Greed directed by Roman Polanski and starring Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams. “It’s fascinating to see the world getting fascinated with the embodiment of their dreams or their fantasies. I’m not a fan. I’m not a desperate Lady Gaga person,” says Vezzoli, who has collaborated with Mother Monster in the past. “I’m obsessed with the obsession that people have for her.” image Silvana Mangano as Mary Magdalene by Francesco Vezzoli, 1999-2009, laserprint on canvas, metal needles, 15 1/2 x 11 1/2” Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery Photo by Robert McKeever

Vezzoli has a sense of humor, but he deploys it as a bait-and-switch tactic meant to draw attention to the void at the center of his works, the absence of the products—the movie, the perfume—themselves. Greed won’t ever be available for purchase at Neiman Marcus beauty counters (it’s for us to wonder what bouquet a Portman/Williams catfight produces), and in this way, Vezzoli perverts the timeworn relationship between celebrities and brands by making it reflexive: the stars of his works are only endorsing themselves. His artworks traffic in “unfulfilled dreams,” unattainable not because consumers won’t get to spritz themselves with Greed, but because celebrity—as the title of his Gagosian show suggests—is entirely a function of worship. Celebrities don’t exist, only people (real people) and the concept of celebrity. “These websites,” Vezzoli says, referring to online gossip rags, “they are flourishing like mushrooms! Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me there’s still a universe to dream and fantasize. The Greeks did that with their gods, and we will do the same.”

If the pop art of Warhol’s day sought to make an anti-elitist gesture by absorbing mass culture and replicating its modes of production, its vertiginous sameness, Vezzoli and Cotton are making a simultaneous, opposite gesture, deifying their subjects just as they’re calling out celebrities’ status—intentionally or not—as products of mass media. Pop stars aren’t cans of Campbell’s soup to be endlessly plucked from a silkscreen stencil: they’re Venuses and Madonnas, secular gods brought to life through the flicks of an oil brush or painstaking needlework.

“Most pop art was conceived as a reflection of what was going on in culture, the celebrities that were out there. It was a passive and reflexive mode,” says Richard Phillips, a 48-year-old artist whose studio occupies one light-filled rectangle of an immense, Fritz Lang-like complex on Manhattan’s west side. “These paintings,” he says, sweeping an arm around the room, “are not focused on idolatry or fandom. They’re deliberate, powerful images meant to communicate a projection.” Phillips is gesturing at a group of 10 portraits—renderings of Dakota Fanning, Justin Timberlake, Kristen Stewart, Miley Cyrus, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Swift, Zac Efron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chace Crawford, and Taylor Momsen—which he created for “Most Wanted,” a show that opened in late January at White Cube on London’s Hoxton Square. (A certain demographic will recognize Phillips’ art from Lily van der Woodsen’s personal collection on CW’s Gossip Girl.) With five outsize faces on each of two opposing walls, the effect—a pantheon of pop icons, nearly all of them under 30—is not unlike the uncanny shiver of recognition one experiences at Madame Tussauds. But where wax figures aspire to facsimile, Justin Timberlake’s goatee looks like it’s made from Play-Doh spaghetti. Phillips insists this is the point.

Based on a series of 13 portraits Andy Warhol screened for the 1962 World’s Fair, the luminescent faces of “Most Wanted” are matched to the top-10 grossing luxury brands. The background of Taylor Momsen’s portrait is comprised of Chanel’s crossed C’s; Robert Pattinson plugs Louis Vuitton. “In a way, the relationship between them all is an impossibility, because you could never get this group to be in a magazine layout together,” says Phillips. The stars’ silhouettes are outlined by electrified nimbuses, a reference to late-’70s Interview magazine, during Warhol’s reign as editor, but also to “secular deification,” says Phillips. “They are the young gods of today.” Far from encouraging fanboy adulation, however, Phillips hopes to interrogate that moment of spontaneous red-carpet recognition—to question the probity of Timberlake’s facial hair.

Just as Cotton and Vezzoli pepper their work with art-historical references, Phillips invokes Hans Holbein, a Northern Renaissance painter, to explain the tension he hopes to create with “Most Wanted.” Holbein’s studies of Europe’s 16th-century elites tended to exhibit his patrons’ names in gilded lettering—not unlike Phillips’ brand logos—and he managed to suffuse the faces of his subjects, via a method of tonal compression that’s still used today, with a fleshy realism so warm and back-lit as to be genuinely unnerving. Phillips used the same technique to achieve the adolescent glow of Swift’s cheek, and then added points of divergence. “Painterly codes and methods are very much alive in these paintings,” he says. “Taylor Swift’s lips are stuck on, but the flesh tone seems so believable.”

Phillips is trying to reconfigure the autopilot relationship we have with celebrity. Painting, a medium which is expressly “not media,” forces a reconsideration of one’s actual, physically determined association with fame. “Being in the presence of a large portrait can kind of resolve that,” he says. “This body of work resists the rush of media and allows for contemplation of what our relationships are to this phenomenon, this capacity for us to fall all over ourselves, to worship these individuals.” They also make us consider our complicity in the semi-frozen, semi-lifelike 20-somethings’ fame—the extent to which they are projections of our own collective desires—as well as the complicity of the art world. “They do speak about the art market and the relationships between art institutions,” says Phillips, “their need for celebrities to bolster their waning interest from the public.”

Advertising and cartoon imagery, like the Jetsons and the Flintstones—two families of historical extremes—invaded the mind of artist Kenny Scharf from an early age. Scharf, along with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, was an important figure in the 1980s East Village scene, and during that decade he painted several rubbery, surrealistic album covers for the B-52s. “I was a groupie and I still am a groupie,” he tells me when I call him at his studio in Los Angeles.

When asked what’s changed about the art world since the days of Haring’s Pop Shop, a gallery gift shop of sorts that shuttered in 2005, Scharf says that there are no longer easily discernible, monolithic trends replacing each other in wave-like succession. “There’s too much information for there to be one way of looking at things,” he says.

Back in the ’80s, Scharf became interested in working with a big-name, lowbrow corporation, Kmart or Wal-Mart. He was excited by the idea of distributing his artworks on a larger scale, of designing objects—plastic toys, for example—that would sell in America’s temples of consumption. The trick would be to get funding, but no one, it seemed, was game. “I think I was just a little too ahead of my time,” he says judiciously. The art world hadn’t yet caught up to consumer culture, trundling through decades in a sequence of relatively cut-and-dry movements. “In the ’80s, when I wanted to do all this stuff, I felt that Warhol had legitimized this kind of idea where art could be commercial and noncommercial, and we thought, that was 20 years ago, so now we can do it. But there was a stigma still very much attached to artists being in a ‘commercial world’ back then. It was like, ‘You’re selling out.’ No, we were reaching out. A lot of the art world didn’t get it.”

What has changed since Warhol? Not the nature of celebrity. Cotton, Vezzoli, and Phillips demonstrate that idol worship hasn’t undergone any serious modifications since people first started projecting their best and worst qualities outside themselves thousands of years ago. What’s changed is the art world and the artists, who’ve eviscerated the ironic distance between themselves and pop culture—our secular/saintly vessel—opting instead to participate actively in its production. “I see now—40 years after Warhol, and 20 years after Pop Shop—now it’s okay,” Scharf says. “Finally, people understand that it’s part of the dialogue. It’s part of what art is.”

Top: Red, Blonde and Blue a portrait of Lindsay Lohan by Richard Phillips, 2010, oil on linen, 77 3/4 x 60 3/4”

Indie Darling Greta Gerwig Stops by 30 Rock on Her Way to Mainstream Success

Greta Gerwig is standing barefoot in her apartment wearing a black Vena Cava dress, while a makeup artist applies foundation to her legs in preparation for her second appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Looking up from her ankles, the 27-year-old actor asks the room, “Guess what I’m going to say tonight?” But before anyone can respond, she answers, “I get to say, It’s great to be back! I’ve always wanted to say that!”

Tonight will mark the first time she’ll return to the same talk show, an obvious source of pride for Gerwig. Thirty minutes later, with one of her two roommates and her beauty team in tow, she walks out of her apartment and onto a cramped street in Chinatown, where an idling Town Car waits at the curb. “Hi again! It’s great to see you,” she says to the driver, who, the night before, chauffeured Gerwig and some friends to a party for No Strings Attached, a raunchy, of-the-moment romantic comedy starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. Gerwig, who plays Portman’s best friend in the film, is off to Rockefeller Center to promote it. The driver, a grandfatherly Asian man, enjoys the reunion as much as she does, and he’s visibly flattered by the recognition. As the car pulls away, she can barely contain her excitement: “We’re going to 30 Rock!”

Just a few hours earlier, Gerwig’s impending television appearance was a cause for anxiety. The dress she had planned to wear on camera was stuck in the back of a FedEx truck somewhere on the snow-ravaged streets of Manhattan. Despite frantic efforts to locate it, along with a half-assed promise from an anonymous FedEx employee that it would arrive in time, she had no choice but to sit in her apartment and wait.

Fancy outfit dilemmas are new to the California native, who, a few years ago, was writing, directing, and starring in movies with budgets similar to those of most Hollywood wrap parties. Back then, Gerwig, along with a group of friends and collaborators that included filmmakers Joe Swanberg and Mark and Jay Duplass, cornered the market—if you can call it that—on highly personal and largely improvised films about 20-something being and nothingness. They were seen as pioneers of an affordable digital movement, catnip for festivals and journalists, who dubbed it “Mumblecore.” In tiny movies like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends, Gerwig played hyper-verbose, intensely desirable, and romantically beleaguered young women lost in the bigger picture. Her performances in these films are so naturalistic as to border on non-acting.

Without this under-the-radar background, it’s unlikely Gerwig would have been cast in last year’s Greenberg, Noah Baumbach’s comedy of dysfunction, in which she appeared opposite Ben Stiller as Florence Marr, an adrift, endearingly sloppy personal assistant who falls for Stiller’s pathological curmudgeon. Gerwig’s performance earned her accolades, culminating in a 2011 Independent Spirit Award nomination for best female lead. Despite Greenberg’s similarities to Gerwig’s earlier DIY projects, it was, by her standards, her entrée into the mainstream.

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The majority of people who swarmed cinemas to watch No Strings Attached (the film topped the American box office on its opening weekend) were probably unfamiliar with Gerwig, a slightly dorky girl with soft features, a gummy smile, and tousled hair—worlds apart from the trim and tanned Hollywood princesses who populate most big-budget fare. But those steeped in Gerwig’s still-nascent oeuvre were left questioning how someone who had poured herself so fully into wonderfully quirky cinematic experiments could now be a part of the very machine those films seemed to reject. “Framing those movies by saying that they were the antithesis of something builds a negative narrative of what they were,” says Gerwig, who recently wrapped Damsels in Distress, the fourth offering from New York auteur and arthouse favorite, Whit Stillman. “Mumblecore wasn’t about giving the middle finger to anyone. It was really joyful, but it wasn’t very rock ‘n’ roll.”

Gerwig’s apartment, a spacious three-bedroom walk-up in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, could only be occupied by movie fanatics. (Sure enough, Gerwig shares her home with two other filmmakers: Ariel Schulman, co-director of last year’s documentary sensation Catfish, and Sam Lisenco, a producer with Red Bucket Films.) Vintage, framed movie posters and old photos adorn her walls. The remaining wall space is obscured by their VHS and DVD collection, precarious towers stacked next to one another. It feels almost voyeuristic to watch her getting powdered into camera-ready perfection while surrounded by the curated detritus of her everyday existence. One of Gerwig’s cats, Paw Newman—she has another named Diane Kitten—leaps into her lap. Petting him, she breaks into a fit of laughter. “I must look like Dr. Evil right now!” she says from her perch in the makeup chair, adding, “This is a really poor representation of my life. I bring a little bit of non-glossiness to glossy movies, and it’s cool that I get to do that, but normally I look like a scrubby teacher’s assistant.”

Gerwig, who once aspired to become a playwright, also has the approachability of a TA, an infectious kindness that obscures her serious triple-threat potential. Natalie Portman agrees. “Greta is incredibly smart and curious about everything. She not only acts the shit out of a scene, but she could also write or direct it better than anyone in the room,” Portman says. “She’s also so graceful and egoless, and she infects any room she’s in with good times. Greta is a rare combination of the coolest and kindest person I know.” For her part, Gerwig speaks with a fondness for everything and everyone, even the guy who held her umbrella to protect her makeup from the glare of the sun during a humid summer shoot. “What a lovely young man,” she says as her makeup artist lightens her eyebrows. “His name is Valentin and he’s a fencer at Harvard. The guy holding my umbrella? Harvard.”

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That summer shoot was Arthur, a remake of the classic Dudley Moore comedy about a dedicated drunk with the wealth of a prince and the wit of, well, Russell Brand. Gerwig peforms opposite the British prankster as Naomi, a tour guide who might just be Arthur’s salvation. Gerwig and first-time director Jason Winer had trouble defining Naomi’s character, so she expressed her opinions the old-fashioned way: an epistolary “diatribe” addressed to Winer. “I wrote that if Naomi were a song, she’d be Nina Simone’s "Ain’t Got No, I Got Life." She’s completely fearless, and she’s one of those characters who appears in a lot of movies from the ’80s. She’s that kind of freewheeling, unreliable city girl on-the-go, and wherever she’s going, it’s always more interesting than where you’re going. She usually has crazy hair, and maybe she’s on roller skates.”

Gerwig, who grew up in Sacramento with dreams of a New York life—a goal she realized when she enrolled at Barnard College, where she majored in English literature with a concentration in theater and philosophy—infused Naomi with the joy and spontaneity of her personal promised land. Her character embodies the spirit of a Manhattan that Arthur, in his wealthy bubble, has never known, and it’s the same one with which Gerwig herself associates. “The best things in the city are free,” she says. “And when you’re not wealthy—which is often the case for young people—it can be exciting when you’re forced to choose between spending the money you have on food or on a subway token.” According to Brand, Gerwig and her character share many of the same eccentricities. “Like Naomi, I think people aren’t quite sure what to make of Greta—she’s such a peculiar and unique commodity,” he says. “When she was a little girl, she used to mow the front lawn in her nightie and tell concerned neighbors that she was forced to do chores by her parents, like a modern-day Cinderella. Indie-rella.”

On her way to the Fallon taping, Indie-rella sits in the backseat of her Town Car—a New Yorker’s horse and carriage—dressed in that black Vena Cava dress, a gift to her from the label’s co-founder, Sophie Buhai. (Buhai is also Schulman’s girlfriend.) The outfit Gerwig was planning to wear is still trapped in that rogue FedEx truck. Outside Rockefeller Center, she signs her name for a few autograph sharks who seem unsure of who she is, only that she looks famous. Once inside studio 6B, where Late Night is taped, Gerwig is ushered into the Bird Room, a small cubicle that, with its dandy Victorian décor, could double for Oscar Wilde’s boudoir. As a producer runs through the show’s proceedings, there’s a knock at the door. “Yaaaaay!” shouts a manic Jimmy Fallon in his unmistakable squeal. He wraps Gerwig in a tight embrace, telling her how happy he is to see her and reassuring her that their segment will be great. The exchange leaves her at ease, and, while snacking on Doritos and waiting for her cue, she watches David Duchovny play to the Late Night crowd, shooting a birthday cake into a basketball net. Soon, she will be on that same stage, but just before she goes on, someone asks her to add her name to Fallon’s guestbook, which Gerwig does happily. “Jimmy!” she writes. “You’re the first talk show I ever did twice! (It’s great to be back.)”

Photography by Marley Kate. Styling by Kemal + Karla. Hair by Seiji @ The Wall Group. Makeup by Daniel Martin using Mac Cosmetics @ The Wall Group. Photo assistant: Kyle Cook. Stylist’s assistants: Rachel Berryman, Daisy Campos, and Alexandra Voyatzakis. Location: Go Studios. Top picture: Coat by Burberry Prorsum. Second picture: Jacket by D&G. T-shirt by Guess. Skirt by Moschino. Necklaces by Alexis Bittar. Watch by Nixon stylist’s own bangle. Third picture: Blouse and pants by Sonia Rykiel. Necklace by Mixology. Watch by Michael Kors. Boots by Loeffler Randall. Bottom pictureL

Trey Parker & Matt Stone Bring Their Brand of Blasphemy to Broadway

Upon seeing The Book of Mormon, you will convert to Mormonism. At least, that’s what Trey Parker and Matt Stone are banking on. The controversial South Park creators make their Broadway debut this month with a satirical musical that explores the oddities of religion through the lens of contemporary Mormon culture. Despite having a little fun—okay, a lot of fun—at the expense of Mormons, Parker, 41, and Stone, 39, insist that their show is laced with optimism and all kinds of feel-good moments.

Before airing their now-infamous “All About the Mormons?” episode on South Park back in 2003, Parker and Stone had a fortuitous encounter with 36-year-old Avenue Q writer Robert Lopez when they first met over drinks following a performance of the raunchy puppet show. The unholy trinity discovered they shared a desire to craft a musical based on the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith. The result of that meeting of minds, deranged as they may be, is The Book of Mormon, a contemporary coming-of-age story that follows two young missionaries who travel to Africa, only to discover that they’re illequipped to deal with poverty, war, and AIDS.

“As professional storytellers, we’re fascinated by religion,” Stone says. “Making The Book of Mormon allows us to fuck around with religion, racism, colonialism, and all of the narratives that change people’s lives. We usually do a 22-minute TV show that allows us to focus on one theme, or one idea, but this is so much bigger.” And longer. And, yes, uncut.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Team America: World Police were both musical comedies, but The Book of Mormon is your first time on Broadway. How is this experience different? TREY PARKER: For the first time, we can actually be honest that we’re making a musical. With South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, we had to hide that fact, especially from the people at Paramount [the studio that distributed the film], who said, “An R-rated musical? No, that’s not happening.”

Are people expecting an extended version of the South Park episode “All About the Mormons?” in for a shock? TP: We’re not at all trying to rehash that episode into a Broadway show. We started with it as a point of reference, but over the seven years we’ve been working on this show, it’s really become its own thing entirely. ROBERT LOPEZ: When the three of us first met, we discovered that we’d each individually planned to write The Book of Mormon: The Musical, so we decided to do it together. Later, when Matt and Trey premiered that South Park episode, I thought, Oh, they did it without me. MATT STONE: We’ve talked about doing a Mormon musical since college. It was going to be the next thing after Cannibal! The Musical, but then that became Orgazmo and the distributors wouldn’t let us put music to it. All of the songs got taken out, and it just became a weird porn comedy. TP: “Regret” is the wrong word, but I do wish Orgazmo had been a musical. It’s just that when doing a superhero porn comedy with an NC-17 rating, singing kind of complicates matters.

Where does your interest in Mormonism come from? TP: Mormonism is so new. So much of their religion talks about a prophet who lived 200 years ago. You can actually visit the places written about in The Book of Mormon, so it’s like witnessing the birth of a religion. It’s also just so American. It really is the American religion. MS: Mormonism is also a way to talk about religion in general. Christians, Jews, and Muslims can watch the show as outsiders looking in, but also see themselves in it. Christians will say, “Jesus showed up in America? Please!” Oh, but he came back from the dead? Really, guys? That’s where you draw the line? RL: “You’re telling me that all this time, when we thought Jesus was crucified and had died, he was really in America? Bullshit.” But how does this crazy Christian story make any more sense? Because it happened 2,000 years ago? image

Are you already bracing for the inevitable backlash from the Mormon community? TP: The musical never came from a desire to bash Mormons—we love Mormons! We find their stories fascinating. By now, we know more than a lot of Mormons do about Mormonism. Besides, they don’t care. They’re all so happy. RL: They have the blindest faith of all.

How does The Book of Mormon compare to other contemporary portrayals of Mormons? TP: Shows like Big Love are about fundamentalists, but this has nothing to do with that. MS: Ours focuses on missionaries. When you turn 18, you’re paired with someone called your “companion” for two years. This stranger becomes your best friend and you’re sent somewhere together, usually across the world. We thought, what a great idea: Take away all of the Mormonism and focus on the coming-of-age story of an 18-year-old boy, fresh out of high school, from a really nice place in the U.S., who gets stuck with someone and shot across the world. We didn’t even have to write it—it wrote itself.

But weren’t you even a little apprehensive about pairing musical numbers with important issues such as poverty, AIDS, and war in Africa? Doesn’t it all seem a little much? TP: The words “too much” don’t ever pop into our heads. When we were creating scenes, I always tried to think about the high schoolers who would put on their own versions of this show in five years. We’re used to writing and performing the material ourselves, though, so it was new for us to have actors audition and say, “Dude… dude… dude! That’s a little rough.” MS: It is theater, so there are slightly different rules to obey, but we didn’t all of a sudden turn into Mary Poppins. In a way, this is a very traditional musical. It makes you feel good. It has a real Rodgers and Hammerstein upbeat-ness to it. You can subvert it once you’re in it, but it comes from that form. It’s not a brooding emo musical. TP: Mormons are Disney. That’s what Mormonism is—a cheesy story, a bit lost in history.

Broadway audiences don’t exactly match the core South Park demographic. Do you think this show will be well received by affluent Upper East Siders and conservative out-of-towners? TP: The Broadway audience is changing, just like any audience. People tell us, “Well, the Broadway crowd is a little older.” But, hey, we’re older. Those are our friends you’re talking about! MS: We obviously have fun at the expense of these Mormon missionaries, but they’re good people trying to do good things, and the Africans are good people stuck in a bad situation. So here are two cultures that seem—in very broad terms—like they could be the whitest people in the world and the blackest people in the world, but they actually get along, and in the end they sing and dance together. RL: The people who will be most offended by it are those who hear something out of context and judge it based on that. The Book of Mormon is absolutely a pro-faith, pro-religion, and pro-Mormon show. TP: I think it’s going to make more people Mormons.

Wait, you think your musical will inspire the audience to convert? TP: Why not? I’ve become a little more Mormon than I was in the beginning. There are way worse people in the world to emulate. MS: We grew up in Colorado, around a lot of Mormons, and they’re such nice people. I’ve never had a bad experience with one. image

Never? TP: Salt Lake City is one of the places where I’m most famous. People come up to me and say, “I’m Mormon and I love Orgazmo!” That’s just what Mormons do. MS: I’ve had great religious discussions with Mormons. At the same time, I look at the stories they purport as true—ancient Jews came to America and formed huge civilizations, where Jesus visited them—and there’s no archeological evidence for any of it. It’s goofy, and it doesn’t make any sense. But what we’ve been interested in from the beginning is, Do these stories have anything to do with how nice these people are? Is there any relation between these two things? Maybe there is and maybe there isn’t, but they seem really happy. I wish I was happy. Maybe I should believe these stories. That very concern is at the heart of this whole thing. TP: It’s the same with Trekkies who walk around wearing Star Trek outfits and speaking Vulcan. They live their lives by the rules of the Federation, and Mormons are kind of the same. I think it’s pretty awesome.

Just to be clear: Not one Mormon will be offended by this musical? TP: Not one Mormon will be offended by it.

Instead, all non-Mormons will become Latter-Day Saints? TP: Yes, and the world’s going to be a better place.

On his new album, Kanye West threatened to choke you, Trey and Matt, with a fish stick. How nice can you possibly be? TP: Pretty nice, actually. And we’re not scared of Kanye West! MS: We’ve got way bigger people after us.

Like the ghost of Brigham Young. TP: I’m thinking we should sell The Book of Mormon at each performance for $19.95. MS: Or The Book of Mormon, signed by us and Jesus, for $100.

If this show becomes a huge hit, what might your next Broadway musical be about? TP: Mormons. MS: Mormons in space. TP: Mormons go to Europe. MS: Mormons go to college.

What would a musical about your own lives be called? TP: We could do The Trey Parker and Matt Stone Story, but that’s definitely made-for-TV. We belong in the shitty Lifetime Movie Network slot. RL: I’d like to write the shitty soundtrack to that.

iFidelity: iPhone Apps for Peeping Palms

PEREZ HILTON [Free] When you’re desperate to find out if LiLo broke probation, or who Jake Gyllenhaal is locking lips with this week, Perez Hilton is your pop culture compass (even if his moral needle is pointing due south). His official iPhone app doesn’t disappoint, granting gossip fiends access to “Hollywood’s Most Sassy Website” at a moment’s notice, offering live-streaming updates and breaking news on the world’s most famous fuck-ups. It also has a stealth stalker mode with push notifications that tell you where the stars are hiding out (or shooting up) in your neighborhood. Share the latest tweets, YouTube videos, and—ZOMG!—posts from Mario Armando Lavandeira, Jr. with your own personal peanut gallery.

iSAMJACKSON (EXPLICIT) [$.99] When it comes to sound advice, one needn’t look further than Samuel L. Jackson, and now everyone can consult the King of Cool with iSamJackson, an elaborate, expletive-filled soundboard that features 150 original recordings from the Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown star. (There is a free “clean” version, but what’s the fun in that?) Find out whether you’re in the same league as Jackson with a “personality scanner” that decides if you’re a bad-ass in training or just a wannabe super-fan. Recommended for use on long flights—even those devoid of muthfuckin’ snakes.

FOODSPOTTING [Free] Why can’t all menus have photos? There’s nothing worse than being forced to use your imagination while salivating for a specific dish. The Foodspotting application offers sanctuary for your weary taste buds with a visual guide to specific plates, a directory of where to find them, and reviews from fellow food enthusiasts. It’s a user-generated guide to restaurants that pairs recommendations with lip-licking photos and guides from top taste-masters like Anthony Bourdain. It also connects local foodies across the country by offering menu-based scavenger hunts and FourSquare-inspired expert badges. Now this is what we call playing with your food.

BARISTA [$2.99] Everyone seems to have a fancy espresso machine these days, but few of us actually know how to use one. Instead of keeping a Starbucks employee chained in your kitchen, download Barista to access step-by-step instructions and learn classic latte-making techniques. Immerse yourself in coffee culture and learn the proper methods for sorting, selecting, grinding, and pouring. There’s even a coffee-talk glossary that provides a comprehensive list of the latest in bean terminology.

GLEE KARAOKE [$.99] Look, we all know the reason so many people watch Glee is to reenact the show’s perfectly choreographed musical numbers. Enter Glee Karaoke, one of the most downloaded apps in the world, which invites aspiring Glee-ks to sing, compete, and share the stage with other shower showboats. Since we don’t all sound like Lea Michele, the app boasts a voice enhancement option, pitch correction, and reverb tweaks so your song doesn’t clear the room. With new tracks available each week, you’ll be on your way to pop-star status in no time. At the very least, you’ll sound as good as Britney without the help of auto-tune.

POP SUGAR CELEBRITY FACEOFF LITE [Free] When it comes to celebrity superlatives, there’s always room for debate, something this Hollywood-obsessed app welcomes with open arms. Keep up with the latest gossip, and peruse recent shots of your favorite stars while battling over pop culture trivia with your friends. With games such as “Favorite Celebrity Dad,” (The guy who was married to Kate Gosselin!) “Who’s More Fab?,” (Fabio!) and “Sexiest Bathing Suit Bod,” (Bieber! Arrest us, officers!), you’ll be sucked into a pop culture vortex even wider than, er, Octomom’s octo-incubator. Check out high scores and share yours with others to determine who’s really Hollywood’s most wanted.

AMATEUR SURGEON [$2.99] Inspired in equal measure by TV’s Dexter and the classic board game Operation, Amateur Surgeon (from the warped minds responsible for Adult Swim) turns the ER table into a bloody good time. Use instruments like pizza cutters, salad tongs, and staplers to perform invasive surgeries on unknowing subjects, while hacking your way through 30 different surgeries. Save some virtual lives and become the dreamy doctor Mom always hoped you’d be.

Droid Rage: The Best Android Apps to Download This Month

PARALLEL KINGDOM [Free] This role-playing game, admittedly for total nerds, doesn’t just drop players into a wholly fictional world; it enhances real life by using your location on Google Maps and overlaying your environment with special challenges. Parallel Kingdom, for example, reveals hideous creatures lurking on a street corner, or mythical beasts standing in front of your local bodega. Battle it out with a host of characters in real time while talking to—and hunting down—other players. Trade resources with allies in this parallel world, and then stake out land to found your own kingdom on this invisible plane of existence in your own city. Reality bites, so escape into this enhanced one.

BRAINWAVE TUNER [Free] Do you have undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder? Use BrainWave Tuner to control your mind, settle down, and focus on the task at hand. The (somewhat terrifying) concept is one part subliminal message and one part Mozart, enhancing your state of mind by generating beats that direct your brainwaves towards your mood of choice. Choose from over 19 preset sound patterns, including headache therapy, self-hypnosis, and sleep induction. With its well-designed and easy-to-use interface, you needn’t waste any more time feeling unbalanced.

PSYCHO [Free] Of all the iconic scenes in pop culture history, the shower sequence in Psycho stands out as a masterpiece of cinematic terror. Thanks to the magic of modern technology, we no longer have to imagine what it feels like to wreak such violence on our enemies. An eerie soundboard plays the sinister music from the Hitchcock classic, while the app transforms your phone into a butcher’s knife. Just touch the screen to enable the blood effects, and allow yourself to go all Norman Bates on an innocent bystander. Go ahead, take a stab at it.

PORTABLE ART [Free] The editors of The Dirt Floor, an online magazine devoted to underground, contemporary art, insist, “We have no direction, motivation other than a cursed reflex to purge our anonymous mental overflows in a public forum and then run away from it and hide behind our cloak of digital anonymity.” Right. As such, they’ve created an app, which features articles and images centered on aesthetic appreciation in its many forms—from artist interviews and new stories (a recent headline reads, “Banksy Partnership with Wal Mart”), to pictures of street art from around the world. Peruse while, well, exiting through the gift shop. SNESOID LITE [Free] At the nexus of cult and current lies Super Nintendo, and this app recalls the absolute awesomeness of the gaming system that only accepted cartridges labeled Street Fighter Turbo and Super Mario Brothers. Play all three versions of Mario and Donkey Kong, as well as classics like Contra, Yoshi’s Island, and Zelda. It’s the grown-up, cartridge-less, cordless Super Nintendo you always wanted as a kid.

GOOGLE GOGGLES [Free] Your smart phone is sometimes much smarter than you are. This app is a living Google search engine that utilizes the Droid’s camera to scan your surroundings and offer search results related to whatever object it focuses on. If you’re too lazy to type, but want to know more about a DVD before buying, take a picture and find reviews, plot synopses, and virtually any other relevant information about the movie. Goggles can act as a personal tour guide if you’re in a foreign city and need to navigate between recognizable landmarks. It’s all but omniscient, taking artificial intelligence into that creepy realm we always knew it could go.

PLUME [Free] Become a functioning social media addict with the Plume app for your Droid. It’s a Twitter client that’s as aesthetically pleasing as it is efficient, allowing you to use multiple twitter accounts with color-coded separation, so you can stay up to date on the Twitterverse around you. Originally named “Touiteur,” which, when said aloud, sounds like “Twitter,” the app had to change its name for infringing on the original social media source. With an app this clean and user-friendly, we can see why Twitter had their panties in a bunch.

Aaron Tveit of ‘Catch Me If You Can’ Takes Us Around Soho

From a table inside Manhattan’s Jane restaurant, Aaron Tveit—part Disney prince, part Abercrombie & Fitch model—throws on his Ray-Ban Wayfarers and starts singing. “I wear my sunglasses at night, so I can, so I can,” he croons to the venue’s waitstaff and a few early birds. Song comes easily and often to Tveit, and lucky for all of us, he’s got a golden set of pipes. A true triple threat, the 27-year-old, New York-based actor has already successfully crossed over from Broadway (Next to Normal, Rent) to television (Ugly Betty) and film (Ghost Town), and back to the Great White Way, where his turn as the notorious Frank Abagnale in the Broadway debut of Catch Me If You Can will probably make him a star.

“I am there so much for work that I try to escape as much as possible,” Tveit says of New York’s Theater District while trudging through the snow-covered streets of Soho en route to his next favorite hang. When he’s not shuttling between Astoria, Queens—where he lives with a roommate—and Times Square, Tveit ventures downtown to catch his breath. Still, he’s not complaining about his busy schedule. “There’s nothing like being on the stage,” he says. “It’s different every time, and the immediate response from the audience is like nothing else.” It’s been over a year since Tveit was last seen on Broadway, but this month he’ll take the stage for the first previews of Catch Me If You Can, reprising a role he’s been perfecting for the past five years.

Over a pint of Stella Artois at his preferred Gramercy bar, Plug Uglies, Tveit reveals that, three years ago, he was asked to do a screen test for the role of Finn on TV’s Glee (a part that eventually went to Cory Monteith). He removed himself from contention, however, opting instead to follow his passion for the theater and continue working in Next to Normal and Catch Me If You Can. “I think that show’s great and I’m glad it’s gone on to be a huge success,” he says, “but it wasn’t right for me at the time.”

Between playing Gossip Girl’s congressional candidate Trip van der Bilt (which had him making clandestine moves on Blake Lively’s Serena), nerd-hunk playwright Zachary Boule on Ugly Betty, and Allen Ginsberg’s lover Peter Orlovsky in Howl, Tveit has locked lips with some of Hollywood’s hottest stars. “Everyone asked me at the Howl opening about kissing James Franco, but in that department, Blake definitely takes the cake,” he says, donning a crinkled smile that could make just about anyone blush.

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Plug Uglies , 257 3rd Avenue 212-780-1944 I’ve never really been to a club in New York. I usually just stick to bars when I go out. I like it here because it’s an unpretentious, genuine dive bar. Plus you get to play shuffle-puck. This is where my friends and I always seem to end our nights. We actually came here after my buddy’s wedding reception. Everyone was still in their suits, and the bride was in her gown. I’m not a big cocktail guy, but I like my beer. There’s a great jukebox, so when there’s room I’ll throw on some old ’90s hip-hop and get down. I listened almost exclusively to hip-hop in high school and still love me some old Nas and Jay-Z songs.

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Flying A, 169 Spring Street 212-965-9090 I always come here and follow the same pattern: I walk in, wander through the racks of clothing, and then I get to the end and walk out. They have really great boots and vintage T-shirts that I love. I really like the experience of shopping, which is crazy because I hated it as a kid. But working so much and being in New York, shopping is a great way to clear your head. I like this place because it’s not like Topshop—there are always only a few people in the store. I think clothes are really helpful when trying to get into character for a show. When I was in Rent I got all tatted up to be Roger and put on those iconic plaid pants and giant boots. Catch Me If You Can has also influenced me fashion-wise. Since doing the show, I’ve started to get really into ’60s-style suits, and I finally bought myself a pair of quality sunglasses. Being on the set of Gossip Girl, I’d have to say that Ed Westwick definitely had the best on- and off-screen style. That guy really knows how to put things together.

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Spring Street Natural, 62 Spring Street 212-966-0290 I don’t eat strictly organic stuff, but I am working out five days a week and trying to get my body in shape to run this marathon of a show, so I try to eat really healthy. They have a great yellowfin tuna salad and an amazing organic stir-fry. I like to convince myself it’s healthier here. I’m a big fan of this neighborhood and they’ve got a great bar, so sometimes I’ll also come down here and grab a beer.

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Jane, 100 West Houston Street 212-254-7000 This is definitely a special occasion type of place, and it’s really cozy at night. I like the vibe, and they support local farmers so it’s all clean, local grub. They have this dessert here—it’s essentially cookies and milk—and you have to order it in advance because they bake the cookies fresh and they come out half-cooked. Then they bring you a giant glass of milk with a scoop of fresh gelato. It makes you feel like you’re 10 years old again. I’ve been raving about these cookies forever, so I finally took my brother here on New Year’s Eve. There was a prix-fixe menu, and they didn’t have them. I have to say, I was legitimately angry.

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La Colombe, 270 Lafayette Street 212-625-1717 I’ve been coming here ever since I moved to the city, which was about four-and-a-half years ago. I just stumbled in here one day after an audition. It’s probably my favorite spot to get coffee. The coffee is just so good, and I try not to go to places like Starbucks whenever I can. The space is designed really well, open but still intimate. I don’t do lattes or any of that kind of stuff, so I usually just grab an iced coffee in the summer or an espresso when it’s cold.

A Sample of This Season’s Most Scholarly Scotch

There’s nothing like a well-aged Scotch whisky to chase winter’s chill from your bones. Fine single malts are our reward for toiling in the cold, and this season brings a fresh crop of old spirits that take the sting out of the deep freeze. Setting the standard is Highland Park 50, the oldest release from the most northerly distillery in Scotland. With a price tag of $17,500 per bottle, it’s a luxury only a fortunate few will taste, so here’s what you might be missing: an amazingly round, smoky, spicy whisky with hints of citrus and a flavor that lingers long on the palate and even longer in the mind. Whisky doesn’t get any better.

That said, for far less money you can savor several single malts that come quite close. At an affordable-by-comparison $1,000, the Macallan Sherry Oak 20 is an astonishingly well-balanced spirit with notes of fruit, spice, and oak, and each bottle comes with a portfolio of 10 prints by Scottish photographer Albert Watson, who was commissioned especially for the release. (The iconic Macallan 18, with a sophisticated mix of orange, chocolate, and spice, remains a perennial bargain at $150.) At 55.6% alcohol, the Glenlivet Founders Reserve 21 ($375) comes with an extra kick. The non-chill filtered whisky, released to celebrate a major expansion of the distillery, has traces of marmalade and toffee and a velvety mouthfeel. But for a third of the price, the Speyside distillery has an equally mature whisky that’s nine-tenths as good: the Glenlivet Archive 21 ($120), with an exquisite mélange of autumn spice, fruit, and vanilla. The gorgeous, golden Scapa 16 ($82), meanwhile, is designed to steel souls against the brutal North Sea winds that buffet the Orkney Islands with a playful mix of apple and honey.

The crisp Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix ($90) is a direct result of winter’s ferocity. In January 2010, an accumulation of heavy snow collapsed the roof of a remote part of the distillery warehouse, exposing Oloroso sherry and American oak casks containing whisky that Malt Master (yes, that’s actually a thing) Brian Kinsman used to create a brisk spirit of renewal. The result is a heavenly nectar of pear and honey. But perhaps the best bottle of them all, assuming you’d like to send your kids to college one day, is the Talisker 30 ($350). From the rocky shores of the Isle of Skye, it hits you right away with a refined sweetness, envelops you with notes of vanilla, sandalwood, and caramel, and imparts a warm peatiness that hints at its provenance without making you feel like you’re snorkeling in a bog. Even the air you exhale after taking a sip tastes delicious. Why can’t winter last all year?