Divine comedy

For all their talents, sneaking the subversive into the mainstream is perhaps Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s biggest skill. Now they’re mocking mainstream religion on stages worldwide

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Since it premiered on Broadway in 2011, The Book of Mormon has been an astonishing hit. Astonishing because of the amount of people who have seen it (17 million) now outnumbers actual Mormons (14.8 million) but also because its subject matter is such an unlikely one for a hit musical. It follows a pair of mismatched teen missionaries who attempt to spread the word in Africa.

“We really wanted to just open up a Broadway show, have it be successful, and we thought we could do that,” explains Trey Parker, sat in the studio where he makes the satirical cartoon South Park with his work partner Matt Stone. “But we didn’t think it would be this. We did have some confidence in it, but we didn’t think it would be this.”

“We didn’t think Mormons would go as far as taking out ads in our programme.”

Before the comedy pair got their hands on it, The Book of Mormon was the founding text of one of America’s most entrenched religions. Today, arguably more people recognise it as the name of a potty-mouthed and big-hearted musical, sending up the absurdities of faith. Ever since its premiere at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York it has been a critical and commercial hit, conquering cities across America, Canada and Australia as well as Broadway and London’s West End. The musical is now tackling cities in the UK and continental Europe, opening for an 11 week run at Manchester’s Palace Theatre last week.

Parker and Stone are sat in their west Los Angeles HQ, where they are in the middle of the six-day cycle that produces a South Park episode. The method hasn’t much changed since they first started airing in 1997, and the tone hasn’t either. In those two decades – whether in South Park, in the cartoon’s film adaptation or in Team America: World Police – the duo hasn’t shied away from any target, ever, from Osama bin Laden to Oprah Winfrey. Are there any topics that haven’t worked? “This one this week that we’re trying to do,” chuckles Stone with good-natured exasperation. Every week, they admit, it’s pretty much the same feeling, until it’s not. Stone seems the slightly calmer, fixed presence, while Parker paces restlessly around the room. “We’ll figure it out,” he says yawning. “We find the funny in everything.”

In many ways, The Book of Mormon’s kinship to the South Park oeuvre is quite clear. There are few musicals on the main stage that make eye-popping jokes about cannibalism, rape, Aids and FGM and the medicinal virtues of having sex with frogs. Yet it’s also a classic coming-of-age tale, even a (platonic) love story, which pays tribute to many of the musical greats – no surprise when you consider that Parker has been a musicals nut since childhood (he eventually converted Stone). They co-wrote The Book of Mormon with songwriter Robert Lopez.

Aficionados of the genre will easily spot tributes to The Music Man and The Sound of Music, to The King and I and The Lion King. However, The Lion King this is not. The Africa that Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, two perky 19 year olds from Salt Lake City, arrive in is more a sun-drenched Armageddon. Reaching an understanding with it – and with their faith, and each other – is the crux of the show.

Left to right: songwriter Robert Lopez, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Photo: Joan Marcus

“It’s really two kids coming out of high school, going out into the world, thinking they’ve kind of got it and they know it all,” spells out Parker. “And getting their asses handed to them. I think anyone around the world can relate to that a little bit.”

Indeed, for most viewers, the most shocking thing about The Book of Mormon won’t be its humour, but its heart. The show thrives on a kind of bromance, perhaps not unlike Parker and Stone’s, as the two Elders – bright-eyed, all-achieving Price and the schlubby, eccentric, prone-to-lying Cunningham – are lumped together and make the most of it.

In 2003 Parker and Stone went to see the musical Avenue Q – a huge success thanks to its pairing of cutesy Sesame Street-style puppets with shocking, sweary confessions and hit numbers with titles like The Internet is for Porn. The pair, who loved it, were surprised to see a thank you note to them in the programme, from a man they had never met: Lopez. The New Yorker, who had co-written the show, and has since gone on to write the music for Frozen, was expressing gratitude to them for their South Park movie. This musical film, which earned Parker and Stone an Oscar best song nomination in 1999, for the hilarious Blame Canada – the pair famously turning up to the awards ceremony high on acid and dressed as women – had been a major inspiration. The three met afterwards and had a casual chat about the projects they’d
like to do next. What Lopez suggested floored them. “I’d love to do something on Joseph Smith, and Mormons…?”

They’d thought they were the only ones. Smith officially founded Mormonism in 1830 somewhere on the east side of America. He claimed he was presented with two golden plates by angels, and wrote down their contents as this all-important Book of Mormon. It’s a key piece of American history, but might appear essentially weird and niche. This, naturally, is what made it appeal to Parker and Stone who, growing up in Colorado, just one state across from the Mormon heartland of Utah, were well aware of this branch of Christianity.

“We grew up with Mormons. We had Mormon friends, my first girlfriend was Mormon. I mean, it’s weirder that Bobby had a fascination,” says Parker. Stone agrees, laughing. “For us it was next door, but he grew up in New York City.” Yet Lopez, like them, was drawn to the outlandishness of the Smith story too. Those golden plates, for instance – no one else ever saw them. In short, the trio had a shared sensibility.

What followed was a long, protracted bouncing about of ideas, covering several years. “We dabbled with it a long time,” admits Parker. When he and Stone weren’t working on South Park, and Lopez wasn’t pursuing his own projects, they would meet up and write songs on their favourite theme.

“We almost did it like a band,” says Parker. “It was really: ‘Let’s make an album.’ I really wanted to just make this thing and sit down with my dad and press play.”

Preparation also included attending the annual Hill Cumorah pageant in New York State, where the Mormons tell the story of their religion in their own defiantly showbiz style. “It was an 800-person musical,” says Stone.

Even weirder, though, was observing the pageant being protested against by other Christian sects, outraged at the Mormons’ take. “I remember there was a little kid there just saying to me ‘You’re gonna burn in hell’, because he assumed I was a Mormon,” says Parker. “And I was watching him, like: you have no idea, kid. I’m going to super burn in hell. Like, really burn in hell. You’re worried about these guys…?”

The first six or seven songs – deeply melodic, wickedly funny, as all the show’s songs would become – arrived very quickly. And so the next question became, what is the story here? And how should it be told? For Parker and Stone, who’d only worked on screen, a film seemed the obvious conclusion. But as the group began to workshop the songs with singers and performers, its identity as a live show became clearer. Stranger yet, it was not some quirky off-Broadway venture, but a big gleaming mainstream show, despite its bracing subversiveness.

The rest is already a kind of showbiz history. The team premiered the show on Broadway, where it soon gained rapturous acclaim. And here’s the surprising thing – there was barely any outrage. No picketing, no protests inside the theatre, no performances cancelled to allow for shocked sensibilities. Surprising to outsiders – but not to them. “Me and Trey called it,” shrugs Stone.

“Everyone beforehand was like, ‘are you worried?’” says Parker. “And we were like, no. Because we know Mormons. Mormons are nice people and they’re smart people. We didn’t think they’d go so far as to take out ads in our programme.”

It’s true: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints respected the musical’s right to say what it wanted about them, and they even decided to piggyback on the show’s success, pointing punters to the original Book of Mormon in the show’s official literature. Parker and Stone can only admire the move. “They trumped us, really,” admits Parker.

The church’s reaction to the show highlights that The Book of Mormon, for all its foul-mouthed fun, is a much more complex beast – one that celebrates the joys of faith as much as it parodies it. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the two Elders push the stories of Mormonism very far – before realising, like we do, that these are also stories which people often need, and which help them to behave better.

The show is, the two say, about more than religion. It’s about the delusions of a certain type of America, and the misperception of a certain type of Africa. It’s also about friendship and growing up.

“There is an element to comedy that is ‘laugh at these people,’” admits Stone. “The Book of Mormon uses that mockability of the Mormons – and then tries to tell you a larger story, and rope you in and open it up. Laughter breaks down your defences, you know? And then you’re open to a different story.”

The Book of Mormon is at Manchester’s Palace Theatre until 24 August 

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