After arriving early for a mid-January showing of The Book of Mormon, I secured my tickets from will call and looked down Broadway for anything to occupy the 30 minutes prior to the doors opening. I was drawn in by the dark blue lights that radiate along the tall spires of a church known as “The Actor’s Chapel,” which sits a stone’s throw away from the Eugene O’Neil Theatre. I had not attended Mass in months and was about to review a musical I presumed would mock religion to its core so I decided it would be appropriate to catch the end of the Sunday evening Mass to, if only momentarily, get back on God’s good side.
St. Malachy’s Church has been a theatre district staple since the performing arts renaissance of the 1920s. The illumination on the exterior gives off a hip vibe, one that sets the church apart from some of New York City’s other gothic-styled stone temples of worship. I presumed the color stored some otherworldly meaning behind it that would give me the context to contrast the church and the play across the street that is unafraid to more or less flip off God. Pastor Richard Baker would later inform me that the color of the lights wasn’t a calculated message, but rather a computer glitch that he likes to think represents the Blessed Mother.
Quietly, I shuffled into the church’s back row mid-homily as the priest honed in on what the Christmas season should mean to churchgoers. “Love, Family, and Jesus,” he says, was written on a billboard in mid-town, on the façade of another church.
“Guess who put that up?” he asks, and then pauses. “The Mormons… thank God for them.”
The Book of Mormon, now in its third year on Broadway, is the most talked about show to hit the theatre district in some time. Before it blossomed into a winner, the musical was a pipe dream of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who were particularly enamored with the idea of doing a show based on the story of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. After 16 seasons of writing, voicing and directing South Park and starring and directing in a number of highly grossing feature films, the comedy duo looked to exceed expectations this time by bringing their brand of crude humor to the high-brow streets of New York City, where producing a dud could prove to be a costly mistake.
Any doubts that Parker and Stone would falter on the “Great White Way” quickly fizzled as The Book of Mormon rode positive early reviews, marketing exposure through South Park’s massive audience and wild fanfare to seemingly instant Broadway stardom. On Broadway’s biggest stage, The Tony Awards, Parker, Stone and co-creator Robert Lopez’s efforts were justified. Nine awards in total, including Best Musical and Best Score, confirmed that the stage was yet another medium that Parker and Stone could not only be successful on, but also conquer. A national tour, a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the opening of the musical in London’s prestigious West End have furthered the reach of Book of Mormon beyond anything that its creators could have imagined.
Accolades aside, The Book of Mormon, as a stand-alone production, has enough shock value to be refreshing for traditional Broadway patrons and ultimately win over its audiences with earnest power ballads and a message felt long after the final bows are taken.
To the South Park fan, The Book of Mormon is Parker and Stone’s chance to make a defiant statement on religion, well beyond anything they’ve accomplished in 30 minutes of a South Park episode. It is the culmination of years of trying to make a definitive point while toeing the boundaries of provocative religious commentary through the eyes of South Park’s residents. But as The Book of Mormon makes you laugh, maybe even cry with joy, it becomes apparent that Parker, Stone and Lopez (who already had the popular Broadway show Avenue Q under his belt) wrote the musical to search for answers, only to find out that its topic, not being a Mormon missionary, but religion as an institution, is perfectly ambiguous.
As a South Park fan, I have waited to step foot inside the Eugene O’Neil Theatre ever since The Book of Mormon was advertised during the 2011 South Park episode “Broadway Bro Down.” Eight months after the musical opened, Parker and Stone used South Park to put their spin on what it means to be successful on Broadway. The South Park creators invited Lopez, the man who was instrumental in bringing The Book of Mormon to Broadway, out to Los Angles to help write the episode.
“Put your time into the musical and the rewards after will be awesome,” says Randy Marsh’s co-worker after taking his wife to see Wicked. In the context of the episode, the characters take their wives to musicals because it results in blowjobs and Randy, so enamored with the idea, goes on to create his own blowjob-centered production. In Bro Down, Broadway’s “Bros,” theatre legends Andrew Lloyd Webber, Steven Schwartz, Elton John and Steven Sondheim criticize Randy for making the subtext of his new musical too obvious, but in the end, a strong play will garner respect no matter who wrote it.
The episode is indicative of The Book of Mormon bringing a new generation to musical theater and the idea that the popularity of such a contemporary production is hard to ignore. For Parker and Stone, Broadway might have looked like a boys club for the elite from the outside, but like they did with South Park and without any discretion, they crashed the party.
“A cheers to Randy Marsh,” says Steven Sondheim, one of the greatest Broadway composers of all-time. “Welcome to Bro’dway.”
The last Broadway production I attended was The Lion King, now a Broadway mainstay, when it was in previews. My nearly 15-year absence from a Broadway theatre only heighted my insecurities about reviewing a musical for the first time and the third row seats, nearly putting me into the production, did not help either. This was big-time, I thought to myself, unsure if I’d be able to read the notes I would later frantically try to jot down in the dark.
The buzzing atmosphere of the theatre calmed my nerves. As I expected, the show was filled with teens accompanied by their parents and younger adults who clearly grew up in South Park’s heyday. The aesthetics of the theatre, a cloudy, light blue with bright stars that framed the stage, popped. It all felt spacey and welcoming. If this is Mormon heaven, then maybe they have this religion thing figured out.
“I am Jesus,” a voiceover says to begin the show. It is a familiar sound. Trey Parker’s voice (or someone with an eerily similar voice), in the tone of Eric Cartman, plays as Jesus appears on stage to frame the background story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although the actual lines aren’t overly witty, the recognizable voice ignites laughter.
The show picks up in the present day with the first musical number “Hello,” in which missionaries-to-be train at the Latter-day Saints Church Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. The song has become the signature number of The Book of Mormon, as the ringing of doorbells is the advertising theme for the musical and was featured as the opening to the 2012 Tony Awards, with a live performance by the cast. The future missionaries, including the protagonists of the musical, Elder Price, the happy-go-lucky, model Mormon teenager and Elder Cunningham, the bumbling, overweight, slacker, are giddy with excitement as they await the announcement of their mission destinations.
It is easy to see why Parker, Stone and Lopez chose to base the musical on the mission of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. When the unlikely duo is paired up on a mission to Africa (not quite Elder Price’s dream of going to magical Orlando) it starts a roller coaster ride of a coming of age tale. Having to grow up fast when presented with a difficult challenge is the basis for nearly every South Park episode, as Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny routinely have to explain circumstances that would puzzle most adults.
In South Park’s sole play on Mormonism, Stan is peer-pressured into picking a fight with the new kid in school, Gary Harrison, who happens to be a Mormon. But when Stan realizes how genuinely nice Gary is, he backs off and they start a friendship mocked by Cartman, Kyle and Kenny.
“Every Mormon I know is a really good person.” Parker says in the DVD commentary for the 2003 episode “All About Mormons.” “So I can’t really rip on them.”
To further complicate the situation, Stan’s father, Randy Marsh, sees how tight-knit the Harrison family is and decides to convert his own family to Mormonism. The episode is tame on Mormon jokes, aside from the background music continually thumping “dumb, dumb, dumb” as the story of Joseph Smith is told. Parker and Stone admitted they struggled to buy into story of the creation of the Book of Mormon, but agreed that some of the best responses they received on the episode came from Mormons who had never seen an animated satire on the story of Joseph Smith.
“That was hardest thing about this episode,” Parker recalls. “We were doing stuff and saying here is the Mormon religion but everyone thought we were making stuff up to be funny and we’re not, this is all real.”
“We love telling practicing Catholics about it,” Stone says in the commentary. “You go isn’t that goofy but then you get to that point where you can basically say yeah, but it is no more goofy than your religion.”
Growing up in Colorado, a state with one of the highest Mormon populations in the country, the South Park creators based the episode on interactions they had with Mormon families. Their initial interest in the religion sparked the duo’s involvement in the 1997 film Orgazmo, in which Parker wrote, directed and starred as a Mormon missionary turned Los Angeles porn superhero. The NC-17 rated Orgazmo, didn’t stymie Parker’s hunger to continue Joseph Smith’s story. “All About Mormons” is more or less a love letter to Joseph Smith and the golden plates that helped establish a new America religion and while Parker finally had the chance to tell the story, he found it too dry to be the basis for a full musical comedy.
“The idea was, let’s do the Joseph Smith story as a musical. We pretty quickly realized that wouldn’t make a very good one,” Parker said in an interview for The Book of Mormon. “While it is all really fascinating, none of those characters were that great of people. And so we decided, let’s do a story that talked about Mormonism and let’s set it in today’s world.”
South Park is seen through the eyes of children mature for their ages. 16 seasons of wacky situations will do that to the group of ill-mannered fourth graders. The Book of Mormon’s protagonists, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are young adults and they show every bit of it. Sheltered from reality, they are set loose in Africa to turn the starved, war-ravaged Ugandan’s into God loving people.
As one of the more contemporary religions (Mormonism and Scientology gained significant popularity in the last two hundred years or so, with Scientology booming in the last 50), the Mormon Church and the beliefs of its members aren’t universally understood. The “Hello” number is a side of Mormon missionaries most people can relate to. At some point everyone has turned away someone going door-to-door preaching about Jesus. The rest of the musical chronicles the internal struggle to find faith when believing seems like an impossible thing to do.
The Book of Mormon isn’t about laughing at the expense of Mormons, though they do get their fair share of jokes in. It is a commentary on religion as a whole, something Parker and Stone have done in South Park, going after nearly every religion in turn. Stone makes it well known he is an atheist, whereas Parker has been mum on the subject in interviews but they have always taken the message at the core of religious thought at face value and those ideas inspired them to make The Book of Mormon.
“[We thought], what would that look like?” Parker said in an interview.
“What would an atheist love letter to religion look like? And I think that’s what this musical is”
While the response by the Mormon Church to The Book of Mormon likened the musical to a funhouse mirror, it wasn’t as forgiving after the airing of “All About Mormons,” calling the episode a “gross portrayal of church history.”
Parker and Stone contend that they give every religion fair treatment, even spending a two-episode arc on atheists. Regardless, South Park has been heavily scrutinized for mocking religions, most notably sparring with Scientology and its famous church members.
In the controversial 2005 episode “Trapped in the Closet,” Stan Marsh becomes the new face of Scientology and, realizing the episode might invite legal action, South Park replaced the names in the end credits with “John” or “Jane” “Smith.” As promised, the episode struck a few nerves, most notably those of actor Tom Cruise, who according to multiple reports, allegedly threatened to not promote Mission Impossible: III because the movie was produced by the same parent company as Comedy Central. It was later reported that the Church of Scientology allegedly targeted Parker and Stone in an investigation to dig up dirt on the comedy bad boys.
Not only did the church respond with venom, but also a longtime South Park cast member and popular contemporary recording artist, the late Isaac Hayes, left the show. Although the reasons for his departure are disputed, it was widely believed that Hayes, an outspoken Scientologist, was upset with the depiction of his church.
In an Associated Press interview in the weeks after Hayes hung up the Chef hat, Stone voiced what the motto of the show had been from the start: equal opportunity satire.
“[Trey and I] never heard a peep out of Isaac in any way until we did Scientology.” Stone said. “He wants a different standard for religions other than his own and to me, that is where intolerance and bigotry begin.”
On Broadway, the creator’s names are up in lights, so no John or Jane Smiths can be sued. If “Trapped in the Closet” is at the top of measuring stick for religious satire on South Park, The Book of Mormon comes up short on being offensive. It is a show that appears not to take organized religion seriously, with a musical number flipping off God and a ballad straight out of “Spooky Mormon Hell,” which introduces plenty of elements and characters often used in South Park. While providing the quips and potty satire fans expect from South Park, the musical has the softer moments that marvel at the good in believing in a higher power.
Just as the priest at St. Malachy’s church had praised the Mormons for their Christmas message, The Book of Mormon wants you to know that no matter which faith you believe in, at some point the messages of all the world’s religions run together and it is the core values, not the finer details, that make a personal transformation possible.
On this quest to Africa, where the musical’s protagonists are supposed to find their religious identity while recruiting others, the third act reflects that Parker and Stone finally realized what they were trying to convey with South Park throughout the years. The audience goes on this journey with Elder Price, who loses and regains his faith and claims, in one of the final musical numbers, that a Mormon “just believes.” Parker, Stone and Lopez found something beautifully uncertain and funny in that. As Stone sums up “All About Mormons” it relates to a similar message to what is delivered in The Book of Mormon. “Fuck off, it works for me,” he says.