Trey Parker and Matt Stone on The Book of Mormon
We sit down with the South Park stars in advance of the musical’s Chicago premiere.
The Book of Mormon follows a pair of young Mormon men on the missionary trip that’s a rite of passage in the religion. Straitlaced golden boy Elder Price hopes for a cushy, glamorous post in Paris, or maybe his ideal destination of Orlando, Florida.
Instead, Price gets a scary assignment—Uganda—and a scarier sidekick: schlubby Elder Cunningham, who attaches himself to Price like a puppy. The pair discovers a population that’s more concerned with pressing matters like famine, warlords and the AIDS epidemic than with hearing the gospel of Latter-day Saints. Elder Price’s faith is shaken, but an attractive young tribeswoman, Nabulungi, is intrigued by his beliefs.
“When you pitch this show, you don’t get a lot of laughs,” Lopez admits. “I would tell people about it and they would just blink at me, saying, ‘And it’s a comedy? Africa and female genital mutilation and Mormons? Hmm.’ ”
Initially, Lopez and the Parker-Stone team had different thoughts about how to tackle a Mormon musical. “My idea really was to read the Book of Mormon, find some great story in there and basically make it about that,” Lopez says. “But very sadly, I read it and by page ten was asleep. It’s really hard to discern any kind of story within it.”
Stone and Parker were leaning toward recounting the life story of Joseph Smith, the American religious leader who authored the Book of Mormon and founded the LDS movement.
In November 2003, when South Park season-seven episode “All About Mormons” aired, Lopez thought the trio’s collaboration was over: “They went back to Hollywood and did an episode that had Mormons in it and had songs, and I thought, Well, that was them doing it. Oh, well.”
But Parker and Stone weren’t done with the idea. “We took Bobby to Salt Lake City, because he had never been, and we’d been a bunch. So we went and we saw the sights,” Parker says in early September, seated next to Stone in the faded-plush lobby of Los Angeles’s Pantages Theatre.
The first national tour of The Book of Mormon has just arrived for a healthy 12-week stay at the Pantages after launching in Denver, the pair’s home turf. When they sit down with me, it’s the end of a long afternoon. Still, the two are engaged and generous in conversation, though they show decidedly less enthusiasm for the photo shoot that follows.
“I remember we were still thinking of it as the Joseph Smith musical,” Parker says. “And we had the idea that maybe we would have it narrated by Mormon missionaries, and that they would be our guide through the Joseph Smith story. But I kind of remember being in Salt Lake City and getting more into who that guy was, and going, ‘Ah, fuck that guy.’ ”
“We were also at the same time meeting people who had been missionaries,” Parker says. “We’d be like, ‘You ever been on a mission?’ And nine times out of ten at the restaurants we went to, the waiter’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been on a mission.’ It was actually their stories that immediately started being more interesting to us—like, this is what we should be doing a show about.”