Roughly six years ago, Trey Parker and Matt Stone saw “Avenue Q” on Broadway and then met one of the men responsible for the “Avenue Q” concept, music and lyrics, Robert Lopez. The way Parker and Stone tell the story, Lopez just happened to be there. But for Lopez, it was a meeting with his heroes.
It was after Lopez watched movie musical “South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut” that he was inspired to make a stage show about puppets that sang crude songs like “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?,” “The Internet is for Porn” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” When the three like minds met, Lopez confessed that he’d always wanted to make a musical about the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. Lopez recounted the night: “I thought nothing would come of it, but they wouldn’t stop calling.” And from there, the plans for “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway blossomed.
On Monday night, addressing about 100 theater and arts journalists inside the production’s 42nd Street rehearsal space, Parker and Stone set the tone for the 30-minute sneak peek that followed: “You’ll know it’s over when everyone sings ‘cunt.’ Not the first time you hear it, when everyone sings it.”
The musical follows a pair of 19-year-old Mormons as they go on their mission to Northern Uganda. Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) bears the blue-eyed, brown-haired, knock-’em-dead good looks the religion’s young men are known for. Looking like the love child of Rob Lowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, he’s charismatic and charming; he takes the lead on a song with a cadre of coming-of-age young Mormons as they practice going door-to-door with their message. The chorus of young men is ebullient, all beaming smiles and puffed chests, with the tenets of their faith committed to memory.
All except for Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad). Cunningham has curly black hair. His tie is askew, his pants hang below his rear (a tucked-in shirt spares the audience from a glimpse of skin). The two prove an odd couple and their assignment to Uganda begins a path to shared personal growth and friendship. The sneak peek stopped after a “Hakuna Matata” style song, where the two young men were coerced into singing a cheery chorus that translated to “Fuck You, God.”
From this point in the musical, the team is still working out the kinks. For instance, it was only after Parker took a trip to Ugandan capital Kampala that the team realized they needed to move the setting to northern Uganda, where the harsh realities of life in the developing world are more apparent.
In the first few songs, where the troupe of young Mormon men are frolicking about excited to spread the word, the writers’ perception of the Mormon community was on display. “They’re just so happy!” was the refrain from both Parker and Stone. Beyond the main story following the two missionaries and their new Ugandan friends, the musical will also have interludes devoted to telling the story of Joseph Smith and the stories from the actual Book of Mormon.
When asked what reaction they expected from the Mormon church, Parker said, “We love Mormons. I like every Mormon I’ve ever met. I think if anyone sits through the whole play, they’ll realize we’re not bashing Mormons.”
Stone added, “No one wants to see two hours of bashing religion.”
The two said they want to explore what people think about and do with religions, not what makes them wrong. Stone, who identifies as “an atheist who likes and admires religions,” said that in reaction to a “South Park” episode about Mormonism, the Church of Latter-Day Saints released a statement that effectively endorsed Stone and Parker’s first amendment rights. They come, after all, from the same Constitutional amendment that protects the not-always-popular religion itself. Said Stone, “We’re not as worried about them as we would be with other people.”
As for taking this kind of touchy material to Broadway, Lopez is the expert. “‘Avenue Q’ was not only immensely popular with audiences, it also won the Tony for best musical,” said Lopez, who recounted the times older theatergoers would comment that the puppet characters were much like themselves. “In order to get to 75, you have to be 25,” Lopez said.
If the wild applause and hearty laughter that accompanied the the high-energy musical numbers tonight were any indication, it looks like Broadway may have another smart, crudely provocative hit that bucks the traditions of the Great White Way.
“The Book of Mormon” will play at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. Previews begin February 24; the show opens March 24.