When "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone announced their plans to write a new Broadway musical called The Book of Mormon, industry folks told them: "Well, Broadway's an older crowd."
"If you look at our career, it makes total sense to take on Broadway," says Stone. "I didn't grow up with musicals like Trey did, but it's such a great form. You can do twice as much in the amount of time with a musical, because you can go in-depth."
For two guys accustomed to writing, directing, voicing and acting in their own projects, Broadway is new territory. "It's a nice departure from 'South Park,'" says Parker. "It's a living thing. I really get what that means now." "We're usually in a room going, 'I'll fart on your head and you come in here. Okay, that'll be good,'" jokes Stone.
The distance from the fictional Colorado town of "South Park" to Broadway is nearly 2,000 miles, but for Parker and Stone that has included pit stops to nab four Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award and an Academy Award nomination — and you can throw in a Tony Award, two Emmys and a Grammy nomination from Avenue Q songwriter Bobby Lopez, who completes the Book of Mormon comedy caravan.
Not since The Producers has a musical comedy been so poised to make Broadway audiences laugh. In 2003 Parker and Stone were in New York prepping their film "Team America: World Police" (which used puppets as main characters) when they heard about a new Broadway musical that was also using puppets. "Matt and I at first were just like, 'Oh, no! Someone's doing the marionette thing on Broadway. They took our idea!'" Parker says.
The show was Avenue Q, with a score by Lopez and Jeff Marx, who along with their collaborators thanked the "South Park" creators in Playbill. Parker, Stone and Lopez wound up talking over drinks after a performance when the inevitable question, "What's next?," came up. Lopez revealed that he was considering a musical comedy about Joseph Smith, who published the Book of Mormon in 1830.
"It was something Matt and I talked about doing since college," Parker says, "We realized, 'Maybe we should [be] doing this together.'"
However, a musical set in the 1800s felt a little "monochromatic," Parker says. So the three asked themselves, "How do people hear about Joseph Smith?"
"It's always from Mormon missionaries," Parker answers. From there, the seeds took root for a story about two young Mormon missionaries sent to Africa to proselytize, only to become stranded together and have their faith tested. "Once it became an emotional story, then it all started coming into place," says Parker.
"We are extremely offensive," he adds, "but we always try to come out at the end going, 'Look, this is what I've figured out!' Comedy done right is in itself optimistic and has heart."
"We're basically riffing on The Music Man," Lopez says, "where someone comes into a town with a lie to sell, and changes the town and, actually, the lie turns out to be true in a way."
"Doing a musical about Mormons, you have a chance to do a very traditional musical," Parker notes. "If you want to do an old Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musical, anything you do is gonna look cheesy now. But those characters talk like Mormons. So if you take a big cast of cheesy, happy-go-lucky Mormons, then, all of a sudden, you can write big, cheesy, happy-go-lucky music!"
The initial kernel of the Joseph Smith story hasn't been abandoned; it's now encapsulated into a four-minute song. "Someone could still do the full story," Parker adds. "Not even as a comedy. Sondheim should just do The Joseph Smith Story. I would watch it."
Turning back to their own project, Parker offers: "I'm going to go out on a limb and say every single Mormon will love our musical."
Stone replies, "I hope I like it too."
(Adam Hetrick is staff writer for Playbill.com. This article appeared in the April 2011 Playbill magazine.)