Mocking on heaven’s door
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org December 5, 2012 9:02AM
Robert Lopez (left), Matt Stone, Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw are the creative team behind the hit musical “The Book of Mormon.”
‘THE BOOK OF MORMON’
◆ Previews begin Dec. 11; opens Dec. 18 and runs through June 2
◆ Bank of America Theatre,
18 W. Monroe, Chicago
◆ Tickets, $45-$115
◆ (800) 775-2000;
Updated: January 8, 2013 6:12AM
Ask Trey Parker and Matt Stone, progenitors of both “South Park,” that blissfully uncensored animated TV series, and the megahit Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon,” if they have yet to stumble upon anything they might consider too hot to handle, too potentially dangerous or sacred to satirize, and, chuckling in tandem, they will answer: “Not yet. But we might come across it one day.”
Let’s just put it this way: You could easily make a long list of the countries in which this pair of mischief-makers would long since have found themselves in jail, or worse. But here, in our (almost) Anything Goes Land, they have only thrived. And in “The Book of Mormon,” their happily subversive instincts have been aided and abetted by composer Robert Lopez (of “Avenue Q” fame), and co-director (with Parker)/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (whose credits include “Spamalot” and “The Drowsy Chaperone”), and whose blithely comic input is visible at every turn.
Together, they’ve created a show that has drawn hordes of true believers to the box office. It is a show that invites audiences to worship at the altar of subversive comedy and playful commentary as it pokes fun at this country’s most homegrown religion — Mormonism and the Church of Latter-day Saints — and, in the spirit of total political incorrectness, upends the wider tradition of Christian missionary work as practiced in modern-day Africa.
“The Book of Mormon” is about to ring bells in Chicago, with an already extended, nearly sold-out engagement at the Bank of America Theatre that begins performances on Dec. 11.
Of course playwright Tony Kushner gave us a gay Mormon in “Angels in America” nearly two decades ago. Well after “The Book of Mormon” received its nine Tony Awards, American voters decided not to elect a (straight) Mormon for president. And as far as theatrical treatments of Africa are concerned, let’s just say that “The Lion King” made it clear that Africans had no need of outside rites and rituals.
But Parker and Stone and their creative enablers had their own ideas to explore, developing them over seven years of on-and-off work. As always, laughter was their primary goal as they began to spin the story of two young missionaries sent from the antiseptically clean kingdom of Utah to a remote village in war-torn Uganda where poverty, AIDS and maggots (a reference to the latter hilariously sums up the limitations of faith) are all part of the stubborn reality.
“Writing this show was a gigantic learning curve for us,” said Parker. “We are used to doing whatever we want in 10 minutes or so, and being able to change things in a flash. Now we had to make the plot move emotionally, and we had to musicalize feelings because songs get more attention than dialogue. Musicals also involve teaching people dance routines and hearing the response of a live audience. And previews are a terrifying time, so you’d better be working with people who like to see things change.”
And their fascination with Mormons?
“I grew up in a non-religious household,” said Stone, whose dad was an economics professor. “But living in Colorado there were many Mormons in my school, and one of my best friends from fifth grade came from a big Mormon family — religious people who said prayers before meals and several times a day. I kept thinking they’d call on me for that, but of course they didn’t. And as a kid you just roll with this stuff.”
It was a similar case for Parker.
“My first real girlfriend in high school was a Mormon, also from a big family,” he said. “Plus, living in Colorado, right alongside Utah — well, we’re two big pioneer states, and Mormonism played a major part in the stories of both.”
It was Parker, now 43, who fell in love with musicals early on — watching VHS tapes of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics and performing in community theater musicals from junior high on. (He made his youthful debut as nightclub owner Sammy Fong in “Flower Drum Song,” and later played Danny in “Grease.”) Parker also “baptised” Stone into the world of musicals.
“I didn’t know anything about them,” confessed Stone, 41. “Trey took me to see ‘Les Mis’ when I was about 23. My mom had the soundtrack to ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ but beyond that, musicals just weren’t on my radar.”
In 1993, as students at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the two collaborated on their first film, “Cannibal! The Musical.” And six years later, Parker, along with Stone and composer Marc Shaiman, created the hit animated musical comedy film, “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.”
But it was only in the wake of their next movie, “Team America: World Police,” the 2004 satirical action comedy — produced with Scott Rudin, and featuring a cast of marionettes — that they began talking about Broadway and the possibility of a puppet musical.
Ironically, that also was when “Avenue Q” became a major Broadway hit, and as Robert Lopez recalls: “Jeff Marx [his partner on that show] and I were very influenced by ‘South Park,’ especially the movie, and in the program for “Avenue Q” we even thanked Trey and Matt. Then, one night in the theater I noticed they were in the audience — my heroes — so I finally met them. Matt said ‘Avenue Q’ was the first musical he’d ever really liked because it integrated his and Trey’s brand of humor. They also liked the idea that audiences never stopped laughing, yet also fell for the characters.”
When the three of them began tossing around ideas for a show, they all said “Maybe something about Joseph Smith Jr.,” referring to that early 19th-century American religious leader who founded the Latter-day Saint movement, and who, at the age of 24 published the Book of Mormon. (For the uninitiated, that tome is said to be the English translation of a long-buried collection of golden plates inscribed with a Judeo-Christian history of ancient American civilizations. As the story goes, Smith had a vision in which an angel directed him to those plates.)
Smith, who began his religion in an area of western New York State that was swept by religious revivals, was eventually replaced by Brigham Young, who founded Salt Lake City. The worldwide Mormon church now has a membership of about 13 million (5.5 million in the U.S.), with 52,000 missionaries and 340 missions.
It is after a class of missionaries completes its training in Utah that “The Book of Mormon” begins. That’s when the handsome, obnoxiously confident Elder Kevin Price (played here by Nic Rouleau), who dreams of ringing doorbells in Orlando, Fla., and the nerdy but wildly imaginative Elder Arnold Cunningham (played by Ben Platt) who would follow Price anywhere, set off on their first assignment — flying out of the Salt Lake City airport to Uganda.
“Trey and Matt grew up around Mormons while I grew up in Greenwich Village and then headed off to Yale,” said Lopez, 37. “I was interested in religion as a kid, growing up Catholic but then becoming Episcopalian, and it was in the church that I first got involved with music. The church was so theatrical; I guess I just fell for the ancient prototype of musical theater.”
“At Yale I was an English major and took a class with Harold Bloom [the eminent literary critic] who had lots to say about Mormons, and even wrote a book about it — ‘The American Religion.’ I remember him saying he thought the closest cousin to the Book of Mormon was ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and that literature of any kind is a consciousness-changing force. Gods exist in stories, and they help us mold our lives. And think about this: What is more of a miracle — that an angel talks to Joseph Smith, or that he writes a book that is long and obscure, and a whole village follows him?”
As you can tell, the forces behind the musical version of “The Book of Mormon” are not just funny; they are a unique type of brainiac.
As part of their research, the men went to Palmyra, New York — the birthplace of the Latter-day Saint movement and Mormonism where, in 1830, the Book of Mormon was first published.
“Every July they stage a big outdoor pageant right on the sacred hill there, with 10,000 people in folding chairs watching the story of Joseph Smith,” said Lopez. “The pageant itself is pretty kitschy, with John Williams-like music and a Disney style, and we drew on that for the tableau in the musical. We also became interested in Mormon art, because the depiction of Jesus is so interesting. He’s kind of a honey blond, all-American football type with muscles and perfect teeth. ”
Parker was the only member of the show’s team to travel to Africa, visiting a Mormon mission in Kampala rather than the embattled northern region of the country where the show unfolds.
About the music for the show, Lopez said: “We didn’t want it to be too brittle or cheap or cynical. We all try to love what we’re writing, and I like to use music in a way it might not have been used before. For the African music, I listened to a bit of Somali pop, but really, I wanted Disney African, because both the Price and Cunningham characters have a Disnleyland sense of what Africa is like.”
And what about the iconic opening “doorbell” number?
Lopez said none of them is quite sure whose idea it was, but it came early in the process — a process that was “gradual.”
As Parker explained it: “Because we all had other jobs and families and were living in different places, we decided to think about it as an album, so that even if a show never happened, we’d have this funny album at the end. So we’d get together as often as possible to just write a song in a two-hour headf--- session.”
“With every song we’d also talk about musical precedents,” said Parker. “ ‘All-American Prophet’ has a ‘Music Man’ connection; ‘I Believe’ has its roots in ‘The Sound of Music.’ ”
“The fact that it took so long to write this show actually helped,” said Stone. “We’d come back together after a break and be reminded of what we had. But it took a toll, too, so finally, about four years ago we just said: OK, we have all these songs, so we better s--t or get off the pot.”
For true-to-life details they all headed to Salt Lake City where, according to Stone, the waiters in the local restaurants were their best source of information.
“They’re all college grads, and many have worked in missions. We knew we wanted one of the guys in the show to think he might be gay, so we asked: ‘Do you happen to know anyone who IS?,’ and the answer was: ‘How many do you want to talk to?’ ”
Casey Nicholaw was the last man to join the team.
“I had seen a workshop of the show two years before I ever got involved and it just made me laugh my ass off,” he said. “I knew nothing about Mormonism, but I got a crash course, and was really thrown into it — just relying on my instincts, which is always the best way. I DID look at videos of the old Donny and Marie [Osmond] dance steps, and thought about the Disney kingdom theme park stuff, and the wholesome, youthful optimism of the ‘Up With People’ phenomenon of the 1960s.”
And, Nicholaw observed: “The interesting thing about this show is that it might be irreverent along the way, but by the end it’s kind of pro-faith.”