Just 'Park' it here
Cartoon duo write Mormon musical
April 14, 2010
A lot of very smart theater people -- Stephen Sondheim among them -- think the movie "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" is one of the best musicals of the past 15 years.
"South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone demonstrated a flair for musical theater, lovingly sending up its conventions and traditions while knocking out a batch of witty, catchy tunes that echo the beloved scores of the Golden Age of Broadway.
It was inevitable that these guys would write a stage musical one day.
And, in fact, there have been sketchy reports about a project they're working on with Robert Lopez, one of the creators of "Avenue Q."
Here's the skinny: The show is called "The Book of Mormon," and it will open on Broadway next March.
Parker is co-directing with Jason Moore ("Q," "Shrek"), and the producers are Scott Rudin ("God of Carnage," "Fences") and Anne Garefino, the executive producer of Comedy Central's "South Park."
The musical tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries sent off to spread the word in a dangerous part of Uganda.
Their tale is told alongside the story of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-day Saints.
"There's a lot of Mormon stuff in our work because Matt and I both grew up around a lot of Mormons," says Parker. "I've never met a Mormon I didn't like. They're really nice people. They're so Disney. They're so Rodgers and Hammerstein."
Lopez, it turns out, is fascinated by Mormons, too. At Yale, one of his teachers, Harold Bloom, told him that "The Lord of the Rings" is very similar to The Book of Mormon.
"I picked up a copy and read as much as I could," he says. "It's hard to get through the whole thing."
With both the "South Park" and "Avenue Q" sensibilities at work, you can expect a healthy dose of political incorrectness in "The Book of Mormon."
But the creators hope their show, like all great Broadway musicals, has heart.
"We learned a long time ago that if something is cynical just for the sake of being cynical, it won't last too long," says Stone.
"South Park," which airs its 200th episode today, wouldn't have lasted as long as it has if, as Stone says, "it didn't have a heart."
Parker, who's writing the music with Lopez, has been a musical-theater nut since he was a kid.
"I got into musicals at the Evergreen Players, a 30-seat theater in my hometown [Conifer, Colo.], where every month they'd do an old Rodgers and Hammerstein show," he says. "The guy who ran the gas station would play the lead."
Stone says he had no interest in musicals until he met Parker in film school and worked on a short movie there called "Cannibal! The Musical."
Scott Rudin came across it 20 years ago and, eagle-eyed spotter of theatrical talent that he is, knew Parker and Stone should write for Broadway.
"The score was a parody of Rodgers and Hammerstein," he recalls, "but if you didn't know it was a sendup, you'd think it was really by Rodgers and Hammerstein. I wanted to do a show with them back then, but they had to go off and do this animated series for Comedy Central, which turned out to be 'South Park.' "
Rudin later produced both the "South Park" movie and "Team America: World Police." He was an early champion of "Avenue Q" and told Parker and Stone that they should see the show when they were in New York.
Lopez was at the theater that night, and the three of them later went out for drinks and discussed Mormons.
Since then, they've have made a couple of field trips to Salt Lake City and have pored through The Book of Mormon.
"We're bigger authorities on The Book of Mormon than most Mormons," says Parker.
Parker and Stone are approaching Broadway with a mix of excitement, fear and humility.
"Broadway is big and scary to us," says Parker. "And by no means are we coming in to kick Broadway's ass. We're pretty sure we're going to get our asses kicked. But Bobby and Scott and Jason have a lot of the theater experience, so with their help, maybe we won't fall flat on our faces."