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?
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.
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.