PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Robert Lopez

By Kenneth Jones
April 4, 2011

Avenue Q co-songwriter Robert Lopez has another Broadway hit on his hands with the profane, funny, heartfelt new musical The Book of Mormon.



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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.

 

Andrew Rannells as Elder Price.
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" [1999] 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.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

What did you learn from the workshops?
RL: The workshops were all about getting the story right, as they always are. The songs always landed nicely. But it was always about: Does this story make sense? Who are these characters? What do they want? How can we create a story that really makes sense from beginning to end? I don't see why it's so hard to create an original story that just simply makes sense and gets you from point A to point B. It's really hard — extremely hard. The story element that was kind of in place from the beginning was Elder Cunningham. We always knew that he would get to Uganda and kind of be abandoned by Elder Price there, and resort to changing the stories to make them relevant to the problems that the Africans had. That part was always there, pretty much. But it was the other character, Elder Price, that we didn't know who he was or where he was coming from. He was just an inactive stage weight for a long time. Part of it was the casting not being quite right and part of it was just us — not having written anything for him to play, and, as a result, we would cast these amazing performers and they would just be up there and you wouldn't notice. Then Josh [Gad] would be so unbelievably funny, and they'd just be inhaled by him. Not that they weren't great and not that they didn't get us… help us make great strides in it. When Price began, he was a sort of doubting figure. Cunningham followed him blindly and he was questioning his faith from the very beginning so it wasn't fun to watch — even though he was the voice of reason in the show. It wasn't fun to watch the main character try to decide if he even wanted to be in the story for two hours…

Now he has a fleeting disappointment, but he soldiers on…
RL: He begins with a great amount of faith and is sort of Mr. Perfect, but in a way that you will hopefully like him, as well. And then he loses his faith — it's a coming of age story for him, kind of like Princeton in Avenue Q — he has expectations for life and his special place in the world and then he gets to reality and gets into the real world — here, it's the problems of Sub-Saharan Africa, and he is kind of stopped by that. That's sort of how his journey took shape, and for the last six months, it's been a matter of tweaking how that plays out in the end.

Obviously, optimism fuels great musical theatre, and it always has. I'm wondering if it was ever a darker story — if Elder Price ever had a darker turn, for example. It seemed very much in the second act that he might well be murdered.
RL: [SPOILER ALERT!] Well, the very first idea [laughs] — it's funny you say that — Elder Price started as just a joke: That there would be this handsome leading man, who you think would be the lead, and then he would just get killed immediately and then Elder Cunningham would just have to take over. Then we kind of got intrigued by him and followed him throughout the story. The problem was there was nothing for him to do because he was always designed to enter and die. So we kept on trying to find ways for him to die. We had him killed by the warlord at one point, we had him [laughs] — we had other dark moments for him. There was a whole story with his family that got cut — a phone call with his father that turns really darkly comic. I always miss that — that was the best thing that we cut, I think [laughs] — it was an amazing, amazing scene.

[SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!]

Rema Webb, Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad
photo by Joan Marcus

It was very clear to me Elder Price was going to get killed, or raped or get HIV or something; that there would be some dark alley that you guys would go down, but you ultimately didn't. Is it because the optimism needs to surface in the piece?
RL: Did you not notice that he was raped with The Book of Mormon?

Yes, but he wasn't shot in the head.
RL: It's pretty dark. If you don't think that's dark, I don't know what's wrong with you! [Laughs.] The fact that it is funny, and also symbolic, helps it along…

Also, this is not a show about musical theatre "in-jokes." You do have references to "I Have Confidence" from The Sound of Music, and The Lion King, but it was not about you guys indulging in theatre jokes.
RL: I'm not a fan of self-referential musical theatre jokes, but, I do, in my writing process, work from models and think about other songs as I'm writing. Trey and I made it our first goal to write good songs. Not necessarily over-complex — clearly they are broad stroke kind of songs — but with enough juice in them to give it its own feeling, its own engine.

Were you worried about getting criticism from the Mormon community? Was that in your mind, or were you just writing to write?
RL: We weren't writing to offend Mormons, for sure, and I think that we always had the feeling that even if we did offend Mormons in the course of the show that we would somehow get out of it at the end of the show and redeem ourselves. That would be the shape of a traditional show — you always get yourself out of trouble at the end of a traditional musical. You resolve the problems. And we didn't want to bum people out. That was the last thing we wanted to do. On the other hand, there is a lot Mormon humor that we could have done that we didn't do. I think that in the end we all expected maybe a little bit more controversy, but I am glad that we didn't get it. I would much prefer a show that audiences like, than a show that angers people. [Laughs.]

How were you raised, religion-wise?
RL: I was brought up liberal Catholic. I grew up in Greenwich Village, so I went to a very gay [laughs] Catholic church, which was very tolerant. It was the best of both worlds. I always felt very religious growing up and I was religious and I sang at church. I got involved, you know. I was the cantor for my church in high school and then in college, it became my money job. I would get my pocket money from singing in Episcopal choirs — they paid the best. I think, as a result from doing that, even though I was exposed to a lot of amazing music, and was a singer, I think I lost some faith just from being around mass so much and seeing the secret workings behind the sets — behind the scenes. Mass is just this — when you look at, when you see how it works and what's involved — really this boring prototypical musical from ancient times. It's musical theatre. Just like the Bible is really boring literature. I think at first I was bummed out by that because I always had a personal relationship with God and I think I kind of lost it as a result of peeking behind the curtain a little bit too much. But I think when you take away the need for God to be literally real, and you take away the need for the religious stories to be literally true and then you look at religion to see its effect on people and the results of religion — the behavioral impact of religion — I choose to see it as a miracle. I think my faith was restored once I started thinking about it, for real. And part of it is the object lesson of Joseph Smith. It's all right there in looking at what Joseph Smith did and how his third part of the Bible made religion relevant and fresh to a group of people and how those people have gone out and grown and multiplied and changed the world. And now it is this sort of amazingly happy group. Not that all religion is good, and religion doesn't have extremely bad facets to it, but I think on an ordinary scale and ordinary people's lives, religion has a very good effect.

It seems to me the institution, so often, gets in the way of the message or spiritual aspect.
RL: Yeah, I guess so. If you look at some of what Mormons have done, it's not all great. But you can say that about every religion. You can say worse things about Catholics if you wanted to.

That's another musical.
RL: [Laughs.] I think I kind of hit my breaking point — I just couldn't stop laughing when the pope said, "Actually, condoms are okay in some circumstances. For example, gay prostitutes." [Laughs.] 

Tell me what co-director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw brought to the table.
RL: Casey brought so much to the show. I was so happy when he came on board and to see what he was doing. [Dance arranger] Glen Kelly also came with him. And together they took our bigger numbers and restructured them slightly and added dance breaks — and some of what they did was too much, but we worked together with them. I just didn't know — I don't have that skill yet, for knowing how to create a dance show. And Casey has that skill, so it was just a big learning experience to watch him work and to see him bring these songs to the level of dance numbers. It just elevated the show, energy-wise. I mean, just from a pure aspect of energy: From kind of a think-y, talk-y comedy — to a singing and dancing comedy. One with much more athletic energy than it had in the past. I couldn't be more of a fan of Casey. And the other person that really, really aided this process was [conductor and co-orchestrator] Steven Oremus, who worked with me with Avenue Q too. He is such a gifted arranger and is really a genius at it. The vocals — I am so happy with them. He brings soul to everything he does — the way he plays, the way he helps arrange stuff and I think our collaboration has deepened our second time around.

They sort of add whipped cream to the experience.
RL: I guess so. [Laughs.] Anything you do that's small, they can make big. It is really a wonderful treat — to have an idea, come up with a structure, a germ of something and send it off to a master craftsman and have them construct something enormous….

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write to him at kjones@playbill.com, or follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)

Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Casey Nicholaw discuss The Book of Mormon: