They’ve offended many, but entertained even more, and now, “South Park” co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are poised to bring their unique brand of comedy to Broadway.
This time, their target is the Mormon Church (otherwise known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) with a musical they’ve titled “The Book of Mormon.” Six years in the making, the musical starts preview performances Feb. 24 and opens officially on March 24.
Few people outside of the production had seen any of it until Monday evening, when a small group of reporters and a handful of hand-picked “South Park” fans were treated to a sneak-peek performance of three numbers in a rehearsal space on West 42nd Street in New York.
“The Book of Mormon” is ostensibly a story about young, male Mormons embarking on an adventure that is unique to their sect. At 19, these clean-cut young men in white shirts and ties are sent around the world in pairs, to locations that are chosen for them, to do missionary work for two years. The musical focuses mainly on a pair who are sent to Uganda, which is portrayed as the most forlorn location to which a young Mormon can be sent (the best being Orlando, Fla., according to the show).
The mismatched missionaries who are sent to Africa are played by Josh Gad (known to many as a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”), in the role of a “black sheep” Mormon who doesn’t fit the mold of the religion’s well-groomed, neatly combed youths; and Andrew Rannells, whose character is the straitlaced, polar opposite of Gad’s. Rannells and most of the members of the musical’s young cast are Broadway vets with few, if any, TV credits.
Of course, the whole show is broadly satirical and characteristically biting. The young missionaries are portrayed as naïve and sheltered, and when they arrive in Uganda, these deeply religious 19 year-olds receive the shock of their lives – not only from the lawlessness and squalor, but from the attitude toward God that they observe from the Ugandans. That attitude is summed up in a song – which we got to see performed – in which God is brutally and casually cursed. And it’s just not any curse either – it is the F-word and it is aimed squarely, with middle digits aplenty, at God Almighty.
In fact, when word of this song gets out, “The Book of Mormon” will likely receive a motherlode of publicity as shocked groups of people – religious or otherwise – lodge complaints and mount protests. And it won’t be too surprising if Mormons – at least some – come out against the musical too. Interestingly, though none have seen it, reactions in the Mormon community so far, based only on what they’ve heard about the musical, have been more varied than you might think, according to this story on Foxnews.com.
For their part, Stone and Parker were unapologetic about the musical. The two have long courted controversy with “South Park,” so they’re accustomed to raising hackles. Indeed, they’ve addressed Mormonism in the long-running Comedy Central series, so it’s pretty obvious they have an unrequited fascination with this religion. Moreover, they’re no strangers to producing songs with an edge such as the Oscar-nominated “Blame Canada” from the “South Park” movie (subtitled “Bigger, Longer & Uncut”) and, from the same movie, the song titled “Uncle F***er”.
In a brief Q&A after the preview performance, they tried to explain their interest in Mormonism. “We are just fascinated by it,” Parker said. Stone explained that their fascination stems in part from the fact that Mormonism is so American – the only major religion established here in the U.S. (originating in upstate New York in 1835).
They to have no particular animus toward Mormons. “Mormons are just so damn nice!” Parker said, explaining why he thinks Mormons won’t protest against the show nearly as much as some other groups. “We’re not as afraid of [Mormons] as we are of other people,” he said.
One group likely to embrace the show: Young people who have grown up on the Parker-Stone style of comedy via “South Park,” which has now been around for an incredible 14 seasons. And, as one long-time chronicler of the New York theater scene observed at the preview, a musical that draws younger audiences to Broadway is just what the Great White Way needs right now.