Among the goodies in the Ghostlight Records release are liner notes penned by former New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich. Representatives have shared the notes with Playbill.com for your reading pleasure.
Frank Rich – April 2011
Every time the traditional musical comedy is breathing its last gasp, as it is wont to do every few seasons, someone comes along who hasn’t heard the news and slaps it back to life. Such is the case with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the long-time "South Park" partners in comic crime, who have conquered Broadway with their very first stage musical, The Book of Mormon, written in collaboration with Robert Lopez, the exuberant co-creator of Avenue Q. However skeptical their show may be of the Church of Latter-day Saints in particular and religion in general, its faith in the Broadway brand of tuneful, funny, well-told and uplifting musicals is orthodox and unshakeable. The Book of Mormon scrupulously follows the old testament of Broadway circa 1945-1965, A.D., even while fondly spoofing it.
This triumph was kind of unexpected because Parker and Stone are known for their scatological gags, uncompromising irreverence toward all manner of sacred cows, and their willingness to push the envelope of taste well beyond the already rowdy norm of American cable television. But anyone who saw and admired their raucous 1999 movie musical, "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," should not have been surprised.
Nor should any fans of Avenue Q. Not to be religious about it, but someone was clearly looking over Parker and Stone when they were introduced to Lopez, who has been traveling on an uncannily parallel artistic path. Much as "South Park" wed childlike Saturday morning-style animation to wicked (yet good-natured) politically incorrect wit, so Avenue Q, an instant sensation from the moment of its 2003 New York premiere, took another institution of children’s television, the puppet universe of "Sesame Street," and cross-bred it (sweetly) with songs like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "The Internet Is for Porn." Lopez's instinct for the show-tune jugular is omnipresent in this score.
The Book of Mormon picks up where all three authors left off in their previous musical endeavors. Here again they demonstrate that the musical comedy, as conservative a theatrical form as can be imagined, can easily accommodate their sensibilities. If anything, they recharge the old conventions rather than subvert them.
The show's premise could not be more old-school: A pair of dewy-eyed 19-year-old Mormon missionaries travel from squeaky square Utah to the darkest precincts of Uganda to do good. Complications ensue. Indeed, the nearly identical plotline was used, far less successfully, in a now-forgotten 1963 Broadway vehicle for Judy Holliday, Hot Spot, which told of two idealistic Peace Corps volunteers who suffer similar culture shock when plunked down in Africa. That show’s composer was Mary Rodgers, whose father, Richard Rodgers, had joined with Oscar Hammerstein II to pioneer the Westerners-meet-the-funny-natives musical in South Pacific and The King and I.
The songs that tell this story in The Book of Mormon are less in the Rodgers & Hammerstein vein than that of the knock-about musical comedy of R&H’s less high-minded contemporaries – though perhaps the Act II paean to spiritual fortitude, "I Believe," can be seen as a riff on "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." The Lopez-Parker-Stone concoctions are uproarious, whatever the four-letter words. It’s hard not to listen to the giddy opening number – a rondelay of adenoidal Mormon missionary house calls – without thinking of "The Telephone Hour" in Bye Bye Birdie. Or to "Turn It Off" – a comic lesson in the virtues of curbing your enthusiasms – without recalling "I'll Never Be Jealous Again”"from The Pajama Game. Still other songs recall the musical pranks of Tom Lehrer, the brilliant comic songwriter of the 1950’s and 60’s who might have been another Frank Loesser or Comden & Green had he landed in the theater.
This all comes naturally to Trey Parker, who was a Glee kid before it was cool. At 14 he was in the chorus of a community theater production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in his home town in the Colorado mountains. In high school, he was piano player for the chorus as well as president of Choir Counsel. He not only played Danny Zuko in Grease but Sammy Fong in another east-meets-west Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song. "If you can imagine a school of 99 percent white kids dyeing their hair black and making their eyes look Chinese to do a show," he recalls, "it was pretty hilarious." Though Matt Stone led something of a musical-deprived childhood – Monty Python numbers aside – Parker brought him up to speed quickly once they met and undertook their celebrated first collaboration, the film Cannibal! The Musical.
Mormonism is another preoccupation of Lopez, Parker and Stone, and no wonder. Like so many other all-American cultural phenomena, it's inseparable from show business: bigger than life, melodramatic, sentimental, full of spectacular special effects and ripe for parody. The links The Book of Mormon draws between Joseph Smith's over-the-top mythology and the belief systems of Star Wars and the heavenly attractions of Orlando’s Disney World are entirely apt. But the satirical tone is far closer to bemused tolerance than blasphemous antipathy. Like so many other critics of America’s most popular homegrown faith – see, for instance, Tony Kushner's Angels in America – Parker, Stone and Lopez can’t help but be seduced by the fabulousness of those golden plates. Their hymn "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" is so glowing it might be describing such other meccas as Glocca Morra, Brigadoon, Bali Ha'i, Anatevka or Gary, Indiana. Which is to say it’s the rousing old-time religion of Broadway that’s always at the heart of The Book of Mormon. No prophetic powers are needed to predict that the faithful will be filling its pews for years and years to come.
The Book of Mormon has book, music and lyrics by Parker, Stone and Lopez, all of whom earned Tony Award nominations for Best Original Score and Best Book. Parker co-directs with Tony Award nominee Casey Nicholaw (The Drowsy Chaperone, Spamalot), who also choreographs. The musical opened to critical raves March 24 and earned 14 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, Best Direction, Best Original Score, Best Book and Best Choreography.