Who knew what to expect when The Book of Mormon opened on Broadway in March 2011? After all, the show’s creators—South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker and Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez—were best known for dreaming up Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo and puppets who loved porn. But the musical, which follows two missionaries sent to a Ugandan village ravaged by famine, AIDS, and a warlord, was heralded as both blasphemous and heartwarming. Stone explains the appeal: “Can people have really goofy beliefs but be good people? That’s The Book of Mormon.” After racking up nine Tony Awards, the show is finally coming to the town that launched Stone and Parker; it opens at the Pantages tomorrow. Amen to that.
When you were writing the show, was it driven by the song lyrics or by certain themes you wanted to hit?
Trey: It was all driven on funny songs. Avenue Q has such funny songs in it. And our thing with Team America and South Park was all about how to turn a song into a joke and how to make a joke into a song. When we actually started writing this, we wrote it as an album first. It’s hard to sit down and go, “Let’s write a Broadway show.” It's such a mind-boggling thing. But to say, “Let’s write the album for a Broadway show,” seemed like something we could get our heads around. We thought if we can come up with an album of funny songs, we can start writing around that. It helped us make sure the songs dictated the show and it wasn't something that was written with the songs thrown in after.
Robert: I think the South Park movie was the first time anyone had written an entire musical comedy with funny songs from beginning to end not just funny lines here and there. It was the first example of that. And it was pretty quickly after that we got the idea for Avenue Q.
Is it harder to write songs for puppets or animated characters than for humans?
Trey: No, a song is a song. Actually, when we were writing it, we thought too much about how it would end up. Would it end up as an animated movie? Would it end up on stage? Would it end up being puppets? It didn't really matter.
Matt: This is kind of weird, though. When we met [Robert], it was because we went and saw Avenue Q. Bobby was working with puppets. Trey and I were about to do Team America with puppets. We were all in puppet land. The thing we both loved about Avenue Q when we first watched it, the thing that hit us between the eyes is that you could tell that a lot of people went thinking, "Oh, this is going to be dirty puppets." But then there were moments where you really cared about the puppets. It had a lot of humor, but what makes Avenue Q work is that you are sitting there looking at a puppet and totally giving a shit about what that puppet thinks and feels. Trey and I were like, “That's amazing!” And that's the Book of Mormon too. There's jokes and funny stuff, but at the same time if you actually care about the people on stage, that's the only way it could work.
Since you wrote the album first, was it difficult to go in later and construct the story and make it emotional?
Trey: No, because we actually made the songs plot-driven too. We would talk about the plot of the show as we were writing the songs like, "We want some big moment like this." For instance, talking about the moment where the girl finally gets baptized, it's a big deal not only to her but to the guy doing it. The song evolved out of that, but we knew that the song should start with that moment, and they should sing their way through that. After we had a bunch of songs written, we played them for people and [they] almost started to get the idea of the show, because there was plot within the songs.
What for you are the crucial songs and moments in Book of Mormon?
Robert: "I Believe," turned out to be the biggest emotional moment. It's in Act Two where Elder Price has lost his faith but decides, “If I'm going to stay here, I better do it right.” He decides to re-up his belief in Mormonism and enumerates all the tenets including some of the very obscure ones of the Book of Mormon. It’s at once very impassioned for this character and at the same time it's funny because he’s listing these goofy beliefs.
Matt: There are no real jokes in that song. He just says "I believe," and then he states a Mormon belief. But it's done in the rhythm of 1-2-3. When it works, that song just brings a pinpoint to the whole show.
What song or moment was the most difficult for you to write?
Trey: I think All American Prophet in Act One. That song had many different permutations. It was a bear to wrestle to the ground.
Matt: That's because in one song we were trying to tell everyone the entire history of Mormonism. For the meta-joke of the show to work, you need the audience to know a certain amount of things about the Mormon religion. It was a song where we had to get a lot of information across and that's why there were a lot of versions of that. How do you get a lot of information across and still make it energetic, catchy, and funny?
Why Mormonism as a subject?
Trey: Matt and I grew up in Colorado, so we know a lot of Mormons. We had friends that were Mormons growing up, being right next to Utah. Matt and I always went to the Sundance Film Festival and we'd always go to the Mormon temple and hear about their stories. We just thought it was fascinating. It turned out that Bobby had the same fascination with [Mormons]. I think that came from the fact that it's such an American religion and such an example of how a religion can get started because it's only a hundred something years old.
Robert: The night we met, we started talking about Mormons and maybe doing a musical about them. I think it all came from our interest in religion; that was the point we always wanted to make about religion being a lie and yet ultimately true. If we did it about Jews or Muslims or Christians, everybody kind of already has their stance on those things. Mormonism is sort of this minority religion. They're very easy to make fun of. They come to your house. They're dressed in these suits. We always wanted to kind of turn that on the audience: Laugh at these guys but in the end that's actually all religion. They were the perfect little lab rats.
Matt: It's not Moses from 6,000 years ago. It’s Joseph Smith from upstate New York in 1823. So it’s something that people can kind of grasp.
I think for people who aren’t familiar with them, the beliefs seem so odd they are really ripe material for comedy.
Matt: All three of us really like Mormons. Whenever we meet them, they’re just such nice people. Can people have really goofy beliefs but be good people? Do those stories help you be nice people? That’s the Book of Mormon. Does it really matter if a religion is true or not? I'm not sure we really know that.
Matt and Trey, the two of you are noted atheists or at least agnostics. I think a lot of people would assume the show is negative toward Mormonism. Do you think it is?
Trey: No, not at all. We didn't want it to be because none of the three of us are negative toward Mormons. We're sort of fascinated. Like Matt said, most Mormons who we know are really nice, good people. Most times they're better people than we are. Not only that, but who wants to go watch a musical that’s about ripping on someone for two hours? Musicals are supposed to be big, jolly, happy fun things, at least to me. That's what I loved about musicals when I was a kid. It was a super happy, colorful world where everyone sang and dance, so that's what we want, not a cynical dark look.
I know you don’t see the musical as being negative toward Mormonism. Does the Mormon Church feel the same way?
Trey: Yes, they love it completely.
Matt: We actually have a lot of Mormon fans. That’s not to say they all love it because I'm sure there are loads of them that would never even see it, but we actually do have a lot of people who consider themselves Mormons who see it as their Fiddler on the Roof.
Robert: The show's not anti-Mormon. It’s really not. When people see it, they're really surprised by that.
Have you done anything differently for the LA staging?
Trey: We just transposed everything to half-steps. We didn't necessarily write the show for a New York crowd. Like anything we do, we wrote it to make each other laugh, so I don't think we have to change too much.
Robert: I did a show out in L.A. when Avenue Q went on tour, and it was a great crowd. It's always nice when a show opens and it's fresh there to that crowd. That's the most fun time to see something. The actors are excited and the audience is excited, so I'm excited for that.
Were there any musicals that inspired you?
Robert: For me, I kept thinking back to The Music Man. I don't think Matt and Trey ever knew The Music Man, but I kept thinking back to it because it’s about a guy who comes to a town and even though he's selling a lie, the lie turns out to be true and he changes the town. He's selling them musical instruments and tells them he's going to start a band though he doesn’t know how to play or teach music. But in the end they're all changed by him and they’re happier. That seemed to be the general outline of the show we were writing except that our salesman believes what he's selling.
Matt: For me it was all the Rodgers and Hammerstein [movie] musicals. They were on VHS. That was my exposure. I grew up in the mountains of Colorado so we weren't seeing a bunch of theater. One show we talked about really early on was The King and I. It’s the idea of someone who doesn’t quite know what they're doing but will tell this story that will get told back to the audience, which comes back to the whole thing about All American Prophet. We never point it out as a big number, but really the number that is the crutch of the entire show is the African version of Joseph Smith American Moses. It’s towards the end of the show and it's when the Africans tell their version of the story of Joseph Smith.
And of course it's very different from the official version.
Matt: Very, very different. But it made them happy.
Robert: They also got a skewed version from the missionary they were talking to.
Are you considering another musical and if so what would it be?
Trey: It would be a movie probably. For Matt and I doing a stage musical for the first time, it's just crazy the lack of finality. It's like having a child. You agree to have this child, but now the child's out there in the world and if you don't pay attention to it, the child's going to start acting up. It wants to do its own thing, but you've got to somehow try to control it without completely making it yours all the time.
Matt: And for the first three years, it shits its pants all the time.
Trey: Then you leave it alone for a few years and it starts getting into drugs, doing bad things.
Matt: You've got to whip it back into shape. It's much more like having a kid than a movie or a TV show, which gets put on DVD and you’re done.
Trey: They don't shit their pants. They don’t talk back.
Robert: With a theater child, you have to eventually disown it. Just say, I have no son.
I don’t know if you can. It's going on a national tour.
Trey: Yes, but it’s going to do it all on its own. Without dad watching over it.
Matt: Not a penny from us. "Go out and earn your own money!" Now it’s putting us in the home and paying for us.