Who’s it more fun to write songs for: puppets, cartoon characters or Mormons? Ask Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-creators of the "South Park" animated TV series, the epic superhero/puppet saga "Team America" and the musical Broadway smash "The Book of Mormon."
Why drum up a musical about an obscure minority religion founded by a 19th century self-proclaimed prophet? Both Stone and Parker grew up in Colorado, where many of the friends belonged to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and have long shared a fascination with the culture.
"It's the fact that it's the American religion, and it's such a young religion. You had all these great stories of Joe Smith and the big exodus from New York to Utah, instead of from these lands so far away," Parker said on AirTalk. "For Matt and I, who are both so into storytelling, it's part of why we've just always been so fascinated by Mormon writings and Mormon things — it's such an American story."
According to Stone, the campy, cheesy qualities they felt were in Mormon stories were begging to appear in a script. "We moved to L.A. out of college and we'd start telling people about Mormons, and they were just like, 'Really?' And we were like, 'Yeah, they're just over there, just over in Utah, near here!' It was just always something that seemed to be right there at the tips of our tongues, a musical using their stories and the story of the birth of their religion," he continued.
The duo found creative synergy with Avenue Q’s lyricist/composer Robert Lopez, who recalls that the seed of the project was planted the night they all met, and is meant to speak to broader themes about faith. “I think it all came from our interest in religion,” he said, “that was the point we always wanted to make about religion being a lie and yet ultimately true.”
Somehow, the trio tapped into the zeitgeist — who could have guessed that a year after the show’s premiere, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney would inspire nationwide scrutinization of all things LDS? And how do Mormons feel about their beliefs being made fodder for song and dance? They love it, says Parker. Stone adds, “We actually have a lot of Mormon fans… [who] see it as their Fiddler on the Roof.”
"Their response to 'The Book of Mormon' sort of encapsulates why [Robert], I and Trey have always said from the beginning that the show doesn't really rip on Mormons," Stone said. "The church's response is exactly the way you want a religion to respond to someone joking around with them. I think they've gained even more respect from people, the fact that they can take a joke."
Parker added that not all the funnies are cheap or slapstick, something he credits the British comedy group Monty Python for. "It's doing what we learn with comedy ... which is that it's never supposed to be a line that's funny. Very rarely. It's not about hamming up a part as much as you can, and it's not about how many times can you have the guy run into a wall and hit his head," he said.
It may be hard to imagine any seriousness within the musical, but Parker said breaks help fuel the comedy.
"The setting is funny, what's going on is funny, and the story is always way more important than the joke," he continued. "That's really the thing with the actors, just getting them to realize hey, you can get a bigger reaction with this line if you say it in a bigger, funnier way, but that's going to hurt the seriousness of the rest of it. There are parts of it that really have to be taken seriously to make it so funny," he continued.
With religion-themed show-stoppers like “All-American Prophet” and “I Believe,” "The Book of Mormon" may not be every theater-goer’s cup of tea. But if singing, dancing and proselytizing is your idea of jolly entertainment, you might want to make it your mission to see this production.
Trey Parker, co-creator of "The Book of Mormon," "South Park" and "Team America"; actor, director, screenwriter, animator and producer
Matt Stone, co-creator of "The Book of Mormon," "South Park" and "Team America"; actor, director, screenwriter, animator and producer