Nothing sells like bad taste, especially when it comes dressed up as a musical. • The Book of Mormon is the hit of the season on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, playing to 102 percent capacity — standing-room tickets are sold at the back of the orchestra section. This month, the show racked up 14 Tony Award nominations. • It's the result of a rather unlikely partnership between Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the masters of outrage behind the long-running South Park animated TV show, and Robert Lopez, who struck pay dirt with his music and lyrics (co-written with Jeff Marx) for the puppets of Avenue Q.
Parker, Stone and Lopez got together when the South Park guys were planning a movie with puppets, which became Team America: World Police, and they decided to check out Avenue Q on Broadway. Lopez was at the theater that night, and the three went for drinks after the show.
"Matt and Trey asked me what I was interested in doing next, and I said I was kicking around the idea of a Mormon musical," Lopez told me recently in a phone interview from his Brooklyn home. "They said they were, too. It was this huge coincidence."
Parker and Stone have always been obsessed with Mormonism. One of the favorite episodes of South Park fans was All About Mormons, which is about what happens when a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Mormon family moves into town. The guys have come a long way artistically from Orgazmo, the dorky 1997 movie they made about a Mormon missionary (played by Parker) who becomes a porn star. They got their musical theater chops down in the screen musical South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, which features the sublimely obscene Canadian duo Terrance and Phillip.
They found a true fan for a collaborator in Lopez, who is a bit younger and grew up on South Park. "Bigger, Longer & Uncut was a seminal work for me," he said. "It was like the very first musical where you laughed all the way through."
The Book of Mormon is about a pair of Mormon missionaries, Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) and Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), who are dispatched to Uganda to convert the natives. Understandably, the Ugandans, plagued by poverty, AIDS and warlords, aren't very receptive to the theology of Mormonism's American prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., so the schlubby Elder Cunningham has to get creative to save some souls. Hilarity ensues.
As several critics have pointed out, the musical is modeled on the buddy movie, employing the classic comedy formula in which a dim, thin guy (Elder Price) is paired with a clever, fat guy (Elder Cunningham). Think of the two as Laurel and Hardy in Africa. Except the gags run to fart jokes and four-letter words.
"We're big fans of Pixar, and Pixar makes buddy movies basically," Lopez said. "A Bug's Life was high on our list of structural models."
I don't want to spoil too many of the surprises in The Book of Mormon, which depends on shock value for a lot of its laughs. Needless to say, a big production number ripped off from The Lion King that includes the lyric "F--- you, God" sung over and over is not what you expect to find in a Broadway theater. Nor is a character named Butt F------ Naked. If this sounds sophomoric, well, it is, but the comedy doesn't come across as harsh or mean-spirited, and while the profanity may grow tiresome over the course of a two-hour, 25-minute show, it's no big deal anymore.
So, the humor in The Book of Mormon is not exactly the wit of Cole Porter, but what makes the show work is how it uses Mormonism as a window on the absurdity of the stories of all religions. The tale of Smith discovering the golden plates of God in the ground under a tree in upstate New York is no more farfetched than Moses and the burning bush.
Parker, Stone and Lopez probably could have made a musical about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, an idea that Lopez has thought about. "I think Mormonism is similar to Scientology in that they're both relatively new and founded in America, except I think Scientology is more sinister, more cultish than the Mormons," he said. "They do have similar creation myths. Mormonism is more Lord of the Rings-like. Scientology is the Star Wars version."
For all its naughtiness, The Book of Mormon is actually a conventional piece of musical theater. Many of the numbers include lampoons of other shows, such as Bye Bye Birdie, The Sound of Music and The Music Man. A song called You and Me (But Mostly Me) owes a lot to The Wizard and I from Wicked.
Avenue Q has its share of risque lyrics — The Internet Is for Porn is a classic — but nothing like The Book of Mormon. "We didn't hold back on the profanity," Lopez said. "In Avenue Q, we did because we felt like we should save the four-letter words for when we really needed them. In Mormon, we just went for the jugular. I like my humor a little bit hard core. But I don't think it's ever uncalled for. I think it's earned. I took my aunt, who is 70 and a former nun, and it didn't seem to register with her that there was any obscenity."
Floridians may wince at a recurring theme that depicts Orlando as the capital of mindless fantasy, and therefore, a kind of utopia for Mormons. "Ah, I don't think that's what we mean," said Lopez. He and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, wrote Finding Nemo: The Musical, playing at Disney's Animal Kingdom since 2007.
"We spent a lot of time in Orlando and loved it. I think it's just a place where you can surround yourself with stories and pretend to be someone else. You can go to Orlando and be a kid. It's akin to Salt Lake in that it has a big castle in the middle of town."
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.