Robert Lopez, the Tony Award-winning co-songwriter of Avenue Q, a show with lots of laughs and a big heart, follows suit with the new Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, now at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.
We caught up with Lopez — who shares Mormon music, book and lyric credit with "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone — the day before the March 24 Broadway opening night. The writers were flooded with rave reviews for their original musical about two Mormon missionaries (faithful, Osmond-clean Elder Price, played by Andrew Rannells, and needy, sloppy, slower Elder Cunningham, played by Josh Gad) who naively attempt to spread the word of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to lawless, AIDS-ravaged Uganda. (There are some spoilers in this interview.)
The Book of Mormon is wildly funny and irreverent and raunchy, but people are kind of moved by it, as well. As much as it's about poking people of faith in the eye, it's also about the necessity of faith, isn't it?
Robert Lopez: That's a good way of putting it. It was definitely our goal from the outset to do something that would, at the same time we made fun of religion, also embrace it in a different way.
How did your collaboration come about?
RL: Matt and Trey came to see Avenue Q in 2003. They came that summer. I guess they were here meeting with [producer] Scott Rudin to talk about [the] "Team America" [film] script and [Scott] mentioned that there was another puppet project on Broadway and they should go see it. ["Team America" is Parker and Stone's film comedy featuring a cast of marionettes.] I happened to be there that night, and I noticed them in the audience and we went out for drinks afterwards. I went up to them and introduced myself.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
You can't overstate the amount of influence, [they had on] the creation of Avenue Q. It was a few weeks after I saw "South Park"  the movie that I had the idea for Avenue Q. We were looking for an adult puppet show idea. We were coming up with ideas and kind of batting them down. It was something about seeing the "South Park" movie in all of its glory that kind of got me off my ass. Because they were doing what I always wanted to do — a musical that makes you laugh from beginning to end. Not just in the story and in the dialogue, but in the songs as well.
So, we were talking at Barrymore's across the street from the Golden, and they asked me, "What are your ideas? What are you doing next?" And I talked about my idea to do something about Mormons, because I have always been interested in religion — always sort of an important subject to me — and Mormons are really the best religion to write about. [Laughs.] If you want to talk about how religions are created and what function they serve, despite the fact that maybe religious stories aren't 100 percent true, there is no better case. [Laughs.] There is simply no better religion to write about than Mormons…
And there is recent documentation of the creation of the Mormon religion, it's only been around since the 19th century.
RL: Yeah, exactly. It is just back far enough to not have been created in our recognizable era. It's just before the Industrial Revolution. But, it's just recently enough for outsiders, anyway, to go, "That's ridiculous. That's absolutely nuts that [Joseph Smith] would make this claim and that people would believe it — the claim of finding golden plates buried in the woods by his house. And have people — many people — believe him and follow him across the country putting their lives at risk, transporting their whole families, giving him their sisters and daughters to marry." [Laughs.] It's inconceivable, really. It's a fantastic tale, which I was always interested in. But, eventually, we didn't really choose to write about Joseph Smith. We kind of chose to retell his story in another way.
In the world of putting a musical together, I was going to say this came together fairly quickly, but it really didn't — it's been eight years?
RL: It's been eight years since I met them, anyway. We took a long time to get going on it, because they immediately rushed off to do [the TV series] "South Park." That's sort of been the story of our collaboration. We'd work for a short amount of time, get a lot done, then they'd run off back to do "South Park" again and we'd all forget about it for a few months. About twice a year we would get together and work on it for about a week or so, until we started doing workshops and then we got a little more intense about it. Even when we were doing workshops it was still twice a year. It was two workshops a year and we'd work really hard during those months.
Did you work by phone or by Skype?
RL: No, we always would get together. The first trip we took was to Salt Lake City, where we interviewed a whole lot of young people — missionaries, people who had been on missions… When we really got started we talked about the themes and the story for a while and then in 2006, we met in London where I was doing Avenue Q, and they came out and we wrote the first four or five songs there, just in the little apartment that they were renting. There after, we were always at Trey's house or "South Park's" recording studio. They are in L.A. Well, they grew up in Colorado and "South Park" itself is in Colorado. But their operation is in LA.
Knowing that your background is theatre songwriting (with a history at The BMI Workshop, which is focused on craft), did you speak in musical-theatre shorthand with Matt and Trey? Did they know musicals? Were they keen on theatre storytelling?
RL: Yes. Trey is a stage musical aficionado. He grew up doing community theatre and school musicals and stuff like that and always wanted to do this. He just got wrapped up in television — I think like a lot of promising young musical writers end up going to Hollywood. And he always used his theatre background in his story telling. The "South Park" movie was the first good movie musical in forever. Since when before "South Park" was there a better movie musical?
"Little Mermaid"? "Beauty and the Beast."
RL: Yeah maybe.
But, still, a decade or more had passed.
RL: Yeah, exactly.
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