Fans of South Park rejoice: Matt Stone and Trey Parker's first Broadway musical endeavor, The Book Of Mormon, is beginning previews at the end of the month, and based on the 30-minute press preview I saw, this musical will change your life.
"You'll know it's over when you hear the word 'C*nt!' and everyone bows," Matt Stone said, standing next to Trey Parker in a bare-bones rehearsal space filled with mock sets in unfinished pine. He was addressing a group of 30+ people invited to attend the Jan. 31 preview of which I was happy to be a part. Already I could tell this was going to be something special.
The musical, created by Stone and Parker as well as Avenue Q co-writer Robert Lopez, has been six years in the making, coming about not long after the classic "All About The Mormons" episode of "South Park" in 2003. Those unfamiliar with Stone and Parker's history might scoff at a Broadway production based on South Park style mockery, but the duo aren't strangers to musical theater. The South Park movie itself was a musical, and Cannibal! The Musical came out several years before that.
The preview I attended was essentially the first 30 minutes of the musical, enough to establish the main characters as well as about three musical numbers. It was hard to see exactly what the real production will look like while watching it in the rehearsal space, but Stone asked us to imagine the opening scene as "a big cheesy pageant," and the performance definitely matched that vibe.
The first song we heard, I believe it's called "This Book Will Change Your Life," established Elder Price, a young Mormon with a heart of gold, determined spirit and impeccable haircut who definitely thinks he's better at this than everyone else, as the main character. The upbeat song (complete with a Mormon doorbell-ringing montage reminiscent of Parker's performance in Orgazmo) kicks things off just like you'd expect: high-energy, and mildly offensive but completely hilarious.
We were then introduced to Elder Cunningham, the second main character, with his stout figure, out-of-control curls, half-tucked in shirt and little boy backpack. When the young Mormons are given their mission assignments, Elder Cunningham and the polar opposite Elder Price are paired together to be sent on a two-year-long mission in Uganda, Africa. This sets the scene for the rest of the musical, which follows the odd couple on their less-than-ideal mission (Elder Price was hoping for Orlando) through the land "that would challenge anyone's faith in God," as Lopez described it.
Now at this point in the musical, as fellow attendee Jordan Hoffman of UGO.com perfectly put, "Cue the walkouts." As soon as Elders Price and Cunningham set foot in Africa, the humor takes a decidedly controversial turn. The Ugandans immediately rob the young missionaries on arrival, then launch into a song that sounds a lot like "Hakuna Matata" from The Lion King but is really an African phrase that translates to "F**k you God," and other obscenities.
"Does it mean 'no worries for the rest of your days?'" the naive Elder Cunningham asks one of the suspiciously joyful Ugandans, who replies, "Yeah, something like that."
The song accumulates ensemble members as it covers topics like AIDS, baby rape and female circumcision, confusing and disturbing the young Mormons (and undoubtedly some of the audience members) as it goes on.
If you're like me, at this point you're asking yourself: Why Uganda? And more importantly: Why Mormons? What is it about all this that Stone and Parker find so funny? Even Broadway funny?
As I learned during a brief Q & A after the show, the mission country was originally supposed to be Somalia, but Uganda was chosen because they wanted a country that would make people think, "Did God forget about them?" as Lopez said.
And why Mormons? According to Parker, and Stone agrees, it's because "They're just so damn nice."
If they feel Mormons really are "so damn nice," why make a musical that is
probably definitely going to offend them? Well, as you might expect, neither Parker or Stone is too worried about offending people. And both agreed that they are less worried about Mormons not liking the show and "more worried about other people."
"I thought to myself, is the older crowd going to care?" Stone asked. "And then I was like, 'Wait -- I'm 41.'"
Both Parker and Stone defended their love of Mormons during the Q&A, saying that above all else they are "fascinated" by them.
"It's this religion that's so young," Stone said. "It explains a lot of religions in a way. We are not Mormon-bashing. We've liked every Mormon we've ever met."
"Stay through to the end and [the musical] has a point," Parker added. "We think it has a point."