This afternoon I attended a workshop of a new musical opening on Broadway in March: The Book of Mormon created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Along with some of my academic colleagues and press we were ushered group by group into elevators which brought us to a rehearsal studio at a Midtown location. Everyone was visibly enthusiastic about getting a glimpse at what the creators had in store for Broadway audiences. That enthusiasm would not die down for the duration of the 45 minute session which included a run through of the show’s first 25 minutes and a Q&A panel featuring the show’s creators which consisted of Trey Parker, Matt Stone and collaborator Robert Lopez the Tony Award-winning writer of Avenue Q.
When I walked into the studio, it was already packed and within minutes there was not one empty seat. Latecomers gathered on the floor behind the red tape that demarcated the “stage” which had been dressed with makeshift set pieces. Once everyone was seated,Parker and Stone personally introduced us to the sneak peek we were about to see. Parker was wearing a Seattle Seahawks t-shirt which was a pleasant sight. They explained that what we would see is the first 25 minutes and to imagine much bigger as it will be with lavish sets and props when it begins previews on Broadway February 24th. The first part of the show would include a “Mormon Pageant” something “big and cheesy to begin with” as Parker said. Stone followed up with “you’ll know it’s done when someone says ‘c*nt’ and everyone bows.” Nobody working on this show is concerned with censoring themselves or the characters in the show, but what else would you expect from the comedic duo who brought you South Park, Cannibal! The Musical, Orgazmo, BASEketball and Team America: World Police?
The Story So Far
The Book of Mormon begins as a new set of young Mormons joins the “army of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter Day Saints” as one of the opening songs tells us, and receives their mission assignments. Exceptional Mormon leader Elder Price and Mormonically challenged Elder Cunningham, portrayed by Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad respectively, are the focus of the musical from this point on, being paired together for two years and sent on a mission to Uganda.
This is followed by a mock-opening number from The Lion King which continues its run just blocks away from the Eugene O’Neill Theatre where The Book of Mormon will be playing next month. A woman sings something sounding like Swahili then stops and breaks into very American speech. Price’s father explains they wanted to give him “a real Lion King send-off!” and that they “got Mrs. Brown to sing like an African!” As Price and Cunningham prepare to fly to Africa, we get a song called “Mostly Me” that might well be described as a Mormon-themed “Defying Gravity.” This is the musical’s anything-can-happen-if-you-believe moment. Dreaming of heavenly rewards, Price sings, “I’ll do something that blows God’s freakin’ mind!”
When these characters set food in Northern Uganda, their views of the world are immediately challenged. Their bags are stolen right under their noses and even Elder Price’s uneasy perception of missionary work is no match for the harsh reality of a third world country. The last musical number of this preview is an upbeat African tune whose chorus is explained as the words the people say when their troubled lives get them down. A close dictation of the phrase they sing as they lift up their hands to the sky is “hasa diga ibo ai.” Cunningham asks “does it mean ‘no worries for the rest of our days?'” to which one of the locals responds, “something like that.” Soon the song spins into telling the missionaries and us in the audience about their woes including dystentary, malaria and AIDS, but still the Mormon missionaries sing along and are surprised to find that “hasa diga ibo ai” means something all too contrary to their purpose in this foreign land. As Stone promised, the run-through ended right after the ensemble sang the word “c*nt.”
A Conversation with Trey Parker, Matt Stone
and Robert Lopez
The idea for a musical based on the story of Joseph Smith had been simmering in the minds of Parker and Stone ever since they were in college, but the collaboration that would fulfill this dream began about six years ago when they sat down with Avenue Q creator Lopez who told them that he too had wanted to write such a musical. Parker explained that he has “always been fascinated with Mormons” but he never wanted to the musical to be a strictly “anti-religion” piece. “It’s not about bashing Mormonism,” Stone said, “we did try to have a point.” Parker added, “I’ve liked every Mormon I’ve ever met.” Lopez too responded to a question about the potential of offense with this musical sharing that a Mormon friend of his came to a previous workshop like this one and gave great feedback and even suggested additional gags for the show. In fact, as of this afternoon’s workshop, these three men were still in the process of fine-tuning the script.
Ultimately, Parker said that they were not as worried about Mormons being offended as other conservative groups. The creative duo has previously dealt with the Mormon religion in a South Park episode, which surprisingly features on a Latter Day Saints website as an example of “free speech.” Stone said this warmed his heart. They may not like it, but they respect it as the right of others to voice their opinions.
So, what kind of audience are they expecting? Certainly legions of loyal Parker and Stone devotees will-and should-turn up to see it but I also can see many generations of theatre goers coming to see this hilarious investigation of what people believe, why they believe it and what their beliefs drive them to do.
Though the subject matter is unusual for Broadway, Stone explains that The Book of Mormon is really a “big, traditional, original musical…done in a reverent way to the art form.” There are echoes of Music Man, The Lion King, romantic comedies, and “the buddy movie” throughout the show. “It all comes down to the characters and what they’re doing” said Parker which complemented Stone’s earlier comment on the show being about “stories and the transmission of stories.”
Parker, Stone and Lopez all acknowledge that from a certain perspective many of these “stories” not the least of all the founding of the Mormon religion, are fairly outlandish, but as Stone put it so simply, at the core of their belief system is the relatable notion that “this land is special and we’re part of the narrative.” Through the journey of these two missionaries audiences will learn about the Mormon religion and Lopez asserts that the choice of Uganda as the center of that journey was a result of finding “the kind of place that would challenge anyone’s belief in God.”
There was continuous laughter during these first 25 minutes of the show presented. Fellow workshop attendee and Producer Ryan Bogner said afterward that “anything that makes me laugh that much is worth 120 bucks. I might pay full price for this one.” The songs are catchy and witty and when paired with Casey Nicholaw’s choreography, the musical numbers have fantastic flow and high energy. From what I have seen, The Book of Mormon promises to be funny, provocative, and full of character. Next week, the rehearsal process moves into the Eugene O’Neill and soon after I’ll be sitting down to see the Book unfold in all its colorful, comical glory.
Previews of The Book of Mormon begin February 24th. The show officially opens March 24th.