posted February 17, 2011 10:10 AM
This looks great.
Holy Terrors: A Conversation With the Creators of ‘The Book of Mormon’
By DAVE ITZKOFF
Josh Haner/The New York Times Matt Stone, Trey Parker and Robert Lopez, the creators of “The Book of Mormon.”
What happens when you put Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the unrepentant provocateurs behind Comedy Central’s animated series “South Park,” together with Robert Lopez, who tarnished sacred childhood memories as a co-creator of the Tony-winning puppet musical “Avenue Q”? At the very least, you get “The Book of Mormon,” their new musical comedy — nearly eight years in the making — about a pair of young Mormon missionaries whose sunny dispositions and understandings of their faith are seriously challenged when they are dispatched to remote Uganda.
But given the audacious comic spirit that “The Book of Mormon” proudly wears on its sleeve (not to mention the vividly vulgar language that rolls off the tongues of its performers); the pedigree of its creators; and, especially, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone’s track record when it comes to offending religious groups to their fullest possible degree, will the musical shake up Broadway’s spring season or have theatergoers reaching for their torches and pitchforks?
Audiences will soon find out when “The Book of Mormon” begins previews at the Eugene O’Neill Theater on Feb. 24 and opens on March 24. An article in this weekend’s Arts & Leisure section looks at the making of the musical and the careers of its creative team. In these excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Lopez, Mr. Stone and Mr. Parker, they talk about their longtime, (mostly) professional interests in Mormonism, and why they think “The Book of Mormon” is ultimately pro-faith.
How were the three of you brought together on this project?
TREY PARKER Matt and I were writing “Team America,” so we came out to meet with [the producer] Scott [Rudin]. Matt and I were in Scott’s office, and he said, “Oh, you know there’s these guys doing a puppet thing on Broadway.” And my first reaction was like, “Oh, no, someone’s doing ‘Team America,’ basically.” For some reason, we thought to do something with marionettes was such a sweet idea.
MATT STONE We have to do this before Peter Jackson does it or something.
PARKER So we got tickets to “Avenue Q,” and right away we really liked it. We were happy that it wasn’t marionettes, too. And we noticed in the program that there was a thank you to us. And we didn’t even know these guys. So then we met up afterward and talked a bunch. We were asking, what are you going to do next? And Bobby said, “I always wanted to do a thing about Joseph Smith.” And we’re just like: “Oh, we love that stuff. We’re so into Mormons and stuff.” Actually, since we did “Cannibal! The Musical” in college, we thought about doing a Joseph Smith musical.
STONE 1800s historical musicals, that’ll be our thing. No one’s doing that.
ROBERT LOPEZ I remember the way Trey phrased it was, “We’ve been wanting to do that for 10 years.” And I was like, “Oh, well, if you have the prior claim, all right.”
Was this before you did the “South Park” episode “All About the Mormons?”
LOPEZ It came out a very short while after. I was like: “Oh, they did it. All right, that’s fine.”
PARKER But we had gotten together a couple times. And really quickly we decided it shouldn’t be a musical about Joseph Smith. Really, the most musical kind of story that’s inherent to Mormon is the story of missionaries, and just the fact that it’s such a built-in coming-of-age story. Boys can be paired with someone for two years they don’t even know and then sent somewhere across the world.
Bobby, what made you interested in the subject of Mormonism?
LOPEZ I’d taken Harold Bloom at Yale. I really liked the idea of the Bible as literature – a story that can change the world in this very profound and powerful way, but in the end it’s just a story. Nothing demonstrates that as well as the Book of Mormon, because it was written so recently. When you hear the story of it, he so clearly made it up. It’s such a load of baloney. But people believe in it so strongly, and their lives really are demonstrably changed for the good by it. I had thought about doing the Bible Part III, but then I realized, that’s the Book of Mormon. That’s the Bible fan fiction.
Trey and Matt, why do Mormon characters and ideas about Mormonism often appear in your work?
PARKER A lot it is because we grew up in Colorado, right next to Utah.
STONE My best friend, when I was sixth grade, was a Mormon.
PARKER My first serious girlfriend was a Mormon. I remember going to family home evening at her house, and just being like, “What are you people doing?” But in a good way. I was actually going home to my parents and being like, “Can we play a board game?” They were like: “What? No, we’re watching TV.”
STONE They seemed like the perfect way to talk about religion because you talk to a Catholic, and it’s like, “Uch, Mormons, come on.” To me, it’s not that different. Mormons believe that Jesus, in the three days between crucifixion and resurrection, in that period was one of the times he appears in the Americas to the Israelites that came here. And seriously, Catholics will be like: “Come on. He came all the way across the ocean? How he’d do that?”
PARKER [nasal voice] “How’d he do that? He was dead.”
STONE If they’re your next-door neighbors, you’re lucky. They’re really good people to have in your community. Of course that’s a huge, broad-brush stereotype. And then you look at what they believe and you go, that is just goofy. And then you start going, well, do those goofy stories have something to do with the niceness? Do goofy stories make these people nice? What if, in their goofiness, these stories somehow inspire that, in the right way? Is that a social good?
And from that came the idea to center the musical around the two young missionary characters in the present day?
PARKER It’s like “An American in Paris.” We can set this anywhere and have that double thing where not only are we talking about Mormons, but we can also be talking about wherever we are.
STONE And they go to one of those places that is just kind of cursed. Sub-Saharan Africa. That seems shorthand for a place that God forgot about. You take these boys from this gleaming white – figuratively and literally – city in Utah and send them to someplace like that. It’s so audacious to send a 19-year-old into somewhere and go, “Hey, I’m going to tell you how to make your life better.” “You’re 19. And you’re from Utah, and we’re in Cambodia.”
Growing up, were any of your families religious?
PARKER & STONE [simultaneously] No.
LOPEZ Mine was. My parents made me go to church. They weren’t really religious, but they made me go to Sunday school. I got into it, and then in college I was like, “Oh, wait a minute.”
STONE I just didn’t grow up religious, but our job is to tell stories. So, I think coming at it as storytellers, we all have a weird sense of respect or awe. Sometimes we look at these stories and we’re like, that’s not even a good story, but for some reason, this captivates people.
For Trey and Matt, have you been able to see any other Broadway shows while you’ve been working on “Book of Mormon”?
PARKER I go all the time. I love Broadway. I love musicals. But I also hate bad musicals. It’s so funny how a good musical can make you just love musicals, and a bad one just makes you so angry. I like the big ones. I liked “Jersey Boys,” I liked “Wicked.” I took my whole family to see “Elf,” and everyone had a great time. That’s why it’s so important. We wanted to make this not just cynical and Mormon-bashing, but hopeful and happy, because to me that’s what musicals are all about. I don’t like “Next to Normal.” Made me want to kill myself. [laughs]
You’ve said that “Book of Mormon,” for all its satire and strong language, is ultimately a sweet show. So where does the sweetness come from?
STONE The boys who go on the mission are goodhearted. They’re not bad guys, and they’re not hellfire religious guys. They’re just two 19-year-old kids trying to do the right thing. And most of the Africans, they’re really good people stuck in the [worst] place on earth, with no hope to get out. You put them in there. Seemed like that should be funny.
LOPEZ It’s “The Music Man.” They’ve got a town with a problem. Instead of a pool table, it’s AIDS and warlords. These guys are trying to sell a lie to them, but the lie turns out to be true in a different way.
STONE The Africans are sweet, too.
PARKER One of the Africans who hears about this stuff – she doesn’t hear anything about the religion, she just hears about this place, Salt Lake City, and she confuses that with a real paradise on earth, where there’s going to be waterfalls and unicorns and rainbows, and all this stuff. And as soon as you know that she’s going to try to follow this because she thinks she can actually go to that place, it starts to have a heart there.
As you’ve brought new cast members into the show, have you had to warn them in advance about the material they’re going to be asked to perform?
LOPEZ People come in now, and we watch the new people come in, and we watch their faces the first day of the read-through. “What did I sign myself up for? Everyone else seems to be O.K. with this.”
STONE It’s like those experiments where they put everybody in a room, filling out job applications, and they pump smoke under the door and wait to see – because it’s a bunch of people not doing anything, you kind of go with it, you know? We’re definitely going to exploit that. “Just go with it, everyone else is. You’re fine, you’re fine.”
PARKER The thing is, they’re theater people. So they can’t hide behind anything. We can do it [on “South Park”], but really it’s just coming out of Cartman’s mouth. Now we’re asking you to go up there and say that to all these people. [laughs] So it’s a real difference.
LOPEZ They’re fearless.
Why did you decide to bring the show directly to Broadway without an out-of-town or Off Broadway run?
PARKER For a long time it was really, what do we do? What do we do?
STONE We talked Off Broadway. To see [a certain number identified by a vulgar lyric] Off Broadway, is like, Hmm, O.K. guys. And to do it on Broadway is the point. We didn’t have the Off Broadway run, but we had the wherewithal to have enough workshops to replace that. I mean, hopefully, right? I don’t know. Pretty presumptuous.
PARKER We didn’t even know. At first it was like, well, we’ve got to do it Off Broadway first because we don’t want to look arrogant. And then it was like, no, we can’t do it Off Broadway because we don’t want to look insincere. It’s like, oh come on, you know you’re taking this Broadway. Come on. All of it was just a big guessing game.
Are you concerned that more traditional theatergoers might see “Book of Mormon” and go, “What did they do to my Broadway?”
STONE It doesn’t seem incongruous to us that Broadway could have those ideas, and that little bit of shock value – that electric shock that makes you think a certain way. They take off all their clothes at the end of “Hair.” Why do they do that? Honestly, why do they do that? It’s just a big “boom” moment.
LOPEZ In the ’60s they did it because they were high. Now they do it to sell the show.
In the two-part, 200th episode of “South Park” last year, you suggested that a character in a bear suit might be the Prophet Muhammad, which resulted in a Muslim group writing a vaguely threatening message about you on its Web site. Were you worried for your own safety during this time?
PARKER It’s so funny, the way we do “South Park,” we were just under the gun to deliver a show. And when we’re doing “South Park,” and we’re in production, we’re like this. [puts head down] It wasn’t even until the run ended that we could finally come up and be like, “O.K., really, what happened?” But we have to stick by what we’d always said. It either has to be all O.K., or none of it is. And we’d said that for 12 years, so we couldn’t suddenly go, well, O.K., maybe that goes.
Do you think that “Book of Mormon” could open you up to similarly extreme responses?
PARKER All we can do is what we always do, try to let the show speak for itself. The most [upset] ones will be the ones that won’t even watch it.
STONE We tried to make a show in which, at the end of the day, religion – our definition, our new definition – religion wins the day. And it’s a source of good. We all feel that way.
LOPEZ It’s pro-faith.
STONE It’s a pro-faith show. It is. It gets there a funny way, but it’s our version of that argument.
How is it pro-faith?
PARKER Because of what faith is to us. We all grew up with “Star Wars.” In a way “Star Wars” was our religion, and Spider-Man’s a religion. That affected our lives way more than Jesus, but they were still stories. And they were great stories, and that’s why they affected our lives.
LOPEZ It doesn’t matter whether they’re true or not – whether you believe in them literally.
STONE Joseph Smith, you can either look at him like a prophet or a pathological liar. But whatever he did, he put himself and he put America at the center of the narrative. “Let’s make ourselves the star of the story.” It’s such a powerful thing. You can imagine Americans in the 1850s and 1860s, these poor settlers, and it’s like: “No, no no, you’re not just a poor settler. You’re a main actor in a cosmic narrative.” Of course you’re going to be like, “That’s better than being Joe Schmo.” “Star Wars,” whatever you think about it, they’ll be talking about it in 800 years. And they’ll talking about Jesus, and they’ll be talking about Joseph Smith.
Will you be sticking around New York to see how “The Book of Mormon” fares after it opens?
STONE Two weeks after opening night we go back to L.A. to do seven episodes of “South Park,” and then we come back in June. Hopefully we’ll still be running. That’s a really new thing for us. We have friends and family asking when they should come see it. I’m like, “Well, probably pretty soon.” I can’t guarantee it will be here. I hope it will. I hope you can come see it for years, but I don’t know.
Will your next batch of “South Park” episodes somehow address your Broadway experience?
PARKER We’re keeping them pretty separate.
STONE They always talk about that. “What if Cartman comes on TV, and says, ‘Hey go buy tickets to “Book of Mormon.” ‘ ” He wouldn’t say that. It really still bugs us. Cartman might like this show.
PARKER Cartman has some things to say about “Spider-Man,” I can tell you that. We’re trying to keep our karma good.