Creating a Broadway musical is hard. But it's what Trey Parker has wanted to do since he was a kid attending classic Rogers & Hammerstein shows at Colorado's Evergreen Playhouse. In high school, he played the lead in all the musicals, and majored in music at the University of Colorado. Not so his student partner in crime, Matt Stone, who Parker roped into making Cannibal: The Musical.
When they were still sleeping on couches, that short got into the hands of Hollywood producer Scott Rudin, who gave Parker the first writing job that led to their 15-year animated comedy series South Park, the R-rated animated musical South Park: Bigger, Better, and Uncut (Oscar-nominated song: "Blame Canada") and hilarious R-rated puppet movie Team America. But they have never felt less constrained than on Broadway's Book of Mormon which opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on March 24 to serious advance buzz.
"We have more freedom than we ever had with anything," says Parker by phone just after a taping of Charlie Rose (here's their feature in Time). "On South Park we had Comedy Central and with movies we had the MPAA. With this thing we have a theater and we can do whatever the fuck we want--within New York decency laws. This is the first time we have not had to deal with that filter."
"Get a babysitter and leave the kids at home," warns the Book of Mormon website. That's partly because the show features a song entitled "Fuck You God." When I ask an admittedly exhausted Stone if besides tap-dancing missionaries in Uganda, the show also features mutilation, bestiality, pedophilia and AIDS, he says "yeah" to each. And sexual acts simulated on stage? "Yes, but not too much."
There's a big difference between singing "Fuck You God" on-Broadway and off-Broadway, where it would be "redundant," says Stone. "To do it on Broadway feels like maybe we have something fresh. You've definitely got to have the reason to tell this story about these two guys. But that song is earned. It's not gratuitous." Stone can tell when Mormons are in the audience. "We make fun of their goofy beliefs. But we embrace that these people believe something and want to do good."
Parker insists that any parent who feels comfortable watching South Park with their kid can bring them to the show, too. "Truth is, a lot of South Park episodes are raunchier than this."
The advance buzz on the show is huge. One sign of success: perpetually over-extended Rudin is so obsessed with The Book of Mormon, he didn't turn up for the Academy Awards.
Back in 2004, Stone and Parker went to see the profane Tony-winning Avenue Q, which like the movie they were just starting, Team America, featured foul-mouthed puppets. They went out afterwards with Q creator Robert Lopez, who turned out to be a kindrid spirit who had been inspired by South Park. They decided to work together and asked him what he'd like to do? "I'm fascinated by Mormons," he replied. They were too, obviously (see 1998's Orgazmo) so the same night they started kicking around what seven years later became The Book of Mormon. Stone says they pledged to "do our sensibility and unconventional material in the totally traditional Rogers & Hammerstein form. It gestated a long time, but now it feels...full term."
They started working on the show's 18 or so songs with Lopez in short stints between South Park. They recorded the album first, like a three-man band, Andrew Lloyd Weber-style. Then they filled in the dialogue and connective tissue between the songs. Eventually they approached Rudin (who is just as big on Broadway as he is in Hollywood) with their demo. The producer was sold. "What's great about him is he instantly visualizes it at the highest possible level artistically," says Stone. "He doesn't ghettoize it as cheap shit, not real art. 'You got to think big on this.' That challenges us."
While Stone took his usual role as writer-producer, because writer-director Parker had never worked on Broadway, they brought in collaborator-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (Monty Python's Spamalot) as co-director. The difference between being in complete control on an animated show where they can do everything over and over and voice the characters (except for the women) is huge. At auditions in New York, Parker watched the actors do a scene, sing a song, and dance. "These people are actually really talented," he marveled.
Parker insists that the show has plenty of heart: "There's nothing I love more than going to a musical and crying, laughing my butt off one minute and crying the next. I don't think you cry too much in this but there are some touching moments."
On the verge of their opening, Stone says: "We've done everything we set out to do. We set out to make a real Broadway musical, a real one, not a spoof of one, not ten minutes of one with a lot of crap. We wanted people to come to two and a half hours of theater and have a great night. That's not an easy thing to do."