Book of Mormon: The South Park crew find God

The Times

March 16, 2011


The Book of Mormon, if it achieves nothing else, can claim to have reduced America’s sharpest political satirist to an embarrassing, babbling mess. Jon Stewart could barely muster a coherent question to the Broadway musical’s creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the duo behind the animated TV comedy South Park and that gleefully rude deconstruction of global politics, Team America: World Police, when they appeared on Stewart’s Daily Show last Thursday. Stewart, better known for his barbs at the political establishment, gushed fan worship. “I can’t tell you how impressed I was,” he said. “You have somehow managed to satirise religion yet also celebrate it.”

The show (tagline: “God’s Favourite Musical”) is a gaudy cavalcade of song and dance with as much profanity and outrage as you would expect from the duo, including a song called F*** You God — with a refrain “Don’t f*** that baby, f*** that frog” — sung by a group of Ugandans who have misunderstood the teachings of a pair of hopelessly out-of-their-depth Mormon missionaries sent to convert them to Mormonism. The musical’s title is the title of the sacred text of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Stone and Parker have described their show as “an atheist love letter to religion” but, five years in the making with 18 original songs, it is also, says the lifelong musicals fan Parker, a “musical in the most traditional sense of the word. There are no special effects, we don’t make any grand claims to reinventing the Broadway show and,” he adds earnestly, “it’s certainly not about hating Mormons.”

If the early audiences’ reaction is echoed by the critics, The Book of Mormon — which Parker, 41, and Stone, 39, wrote with Robert Lopez, the co-writer/composer of Avenue Q — may soon supplant the crisis-beset Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark as the most talked-about show on Broadway, for the best possible reasons. Stone reveals that they hope to bring it to London and to begin a touring production in America.

The show has so far met with nightly standing ovations and surprised audiences, including far-from offended Mormons. It is mocking, outrageous and satirical, but also humane, thoroughly researched and moral, focusing on how the faith and practice of devout believers in a Third World country can buckle in the face of extreme misery and hardship. Its message is: don’t be prideful, don’t be vain, be a good friend and you might emerge an unexpected hero.

Parker acknowledges that those who perceive South Park as a happily gratuitous rude joke-fest may approach the musical expecting the same, “but we see both as having a moral framework. South Park couldn’t have survived without that. With this musical, we didn’t want to produce a theatre show that made cheap jokes against Mormons. We wanted people to leave feeling warm and happy.”

“Listen, a good fart joke will make me laugh till I’m 80,” Stone says. “We’re not elitist about our jokes. But you need to say more than ‘f***’ and ‘shit’ to keep an audience interested for two hours.”

The two lead characters in The Book of Mormon, just like South Park’s Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny, may learn a lesson but it’s a perverse odyssey. As with many Mormon missionaries, the teenagers from Salt Lake City go on their first mission at 18 as a pair: an all-American boy who dreamt his trip would be to Orlando, Florida, not Africa, and a schlubby guy who idolises him; there is more than a hint of homoeroticism thrumming throughout. The teenagers begin full of hope, but once in Uganda are shocked by a country brutalised by war, Aids and corruption. One of the most rousing scenes evokes an all-singing, all-dancing Mormon Hell, featuring figures from history such as Hitler and the mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. Just as in South Park (where he is voiced by Stone), Jesus makes an appearance, as do the Mormon Church’s founder Joseph Smith, his successor Brigham Young and the angel Moroni.

“I was expecting to be offended,” Anne Christensen, a New York member of the Latter Day Saints, told a Utah newspaper, “but was pleasantly surprised by how incredibly sweet it was.” Her mother Janet added: “They treated us with affection. And they did their homework.” Parker, who is from Colorado, says: “I grew up around Mormons and I have never met a Mormon I don’t like. It’s no sillier than any other religion, it’s just newer and more American, which means it’s easier to research. I wanted to be accurate about the setting and we’re into storytelling and fables and the Mormon story is rich in both.”

Stone says that every time he and Parker — who met at college in Colorado — make fun of any group in South Park, “that group loves it”. Theirs is an equal-opportunities offence-giving credo. “We like to keep our own prejudices and political beliefs unfixed and elusive,” Stone says. “The people most upset after Team America were liberals who thought we had betrayed them by not making a totally anti-Bush film. But once you start thinking you’re the rational one, the one’s who’s right, and everyone around you is irrational or wrong, that makes you the stupid one. We say, ‘The truth is everyone’s stupid, hooray.’ ”

Stone (“I’m a rock’n’roll guy”) was converted to musicals by Parker, who has been a fan since he was little, when his parents took him to watch “every single classic” of the genre at their community theatre. At school he played Danny in Grease. The new musical was inevitable given that he’s been “trying to force musicals into everything we do”, from the low-budget movie Cannibal! The Musical (1993) to Orgazmo (1997), about a Mormon- turned-porn-star. Fourteen seasons of South Park all feature musical numbers. After their South Park film Bigger, Longer & Uncut was released, for which Parker shared an Academy Award nomination with Marc Shaiman for the song Blame Canada, Stephen Sondheim sent Parker a fan letter, which — he said later — “was worth 20 Academy Awards to me”.

For The Book of Mormon, Parker reveals he, Stone and Lopez wrote the songs first, “and that dictated the shape of the show. I’m a huge lover of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and I wanted to keep that structure and feel.” Stone says the reception afforded to Spider-Man didn’t put them off. “We’re more nervous to see if our own show works. A couple of weeks ago I was a wreck reaching for the Scotch, now I’m reaching for the Scotch hopeful we got it right. What’s surprising is watching audiences titter at points where I really laugh, and them really laughing at parts I only tittered at.”

Now their musical is up and running, Stone and Parker, who have a $75 million contract with the cable channel Comedy Central, must deliver seven new episodes of South Park. The show began in 1997 and will run “a few more years”, Stone says. “It has a life span, like everything on TV. We like doing it but not for ever.”

Another film is slowly germinating, “though first we’re going to take a rest,” Parker says. Stone is married with a one-year-old son, while Parker is in a relationship with a woman who has a 10-year-old son. But don’t imagine pipes and slippers. When I suggest they make a serious drama, Stone laughs. “That would end up being terrible and unintentionally funny.” Parker adds: “We live to offend. We’re just profane people. We’re trying to come up with new swear words all the time.”

“Ever since we met, it’s been about trying to make the other one laugh,” Stone says. “If we manage to do that, we consider it a job well done.”