Trey Parker and Matt Stone Talk The Book of Mormon


Officially opening tonight in Los Angeles, The Book of Mormon is receiving its West Coast premiere after taking Broadway by storm. The original musical, from “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” co-creator Robert Lopez, won nine Tony Awards in 2011, including Best Musical. The 12-week enagement is being held at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood and features original Broadway cast member Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham and Broadway star Gavin Creel as Elder Price.

A surprisingly loving lampoon of the Mormon religion, the musical follows two young missionaries to a Ugandan village where they try to spread their gospel in the face of some of the most horrific living conditions the world has to offer. Samantha Marie Ware also stars as Nabulungi, with Grey Henson as Elder McKinley and Kevin Mambo as Mafala Hatimbi. had the opportunity to check out a performance during the preview weekend and participated in the below Q&A with Parker and Stone. In it, the pair discuss the seven-year journey it took to realize The Book of Mormon on Broadway, the incredible response from both theatergoers and the Mormon church and the possiblity of one day bringing the musical to the big screen.

Q: There’s a recurring gag with the “I’ve got maggots scrotum” line. At what point in the writing process did that come about and what were the lines that were thrown out?
Trey Parker:
Before we even knew it would be a show about Mormons we said, “Let’s write a musical with maggots in the scrotum!” (laughs) Actually it’s funny, that line started as a song that used to be called “The Bible is a Trilogy,” the one that’s now “American Prophet.” It used to go, [singing] “The Bible is a trilogy!” and it made movie references and was kind of a joke about how the third part of a trilogy is always the best movie and how the third “Matrix” was actually the best, which is, of course, a great joke. So it ended up being that the African guy kind of stepped forward and said, “Can you imagine if ‘The Matrix’ had ended [singing] after the first one?” And then another African guy said, “[singing] I actually thought the third ‘Matrix’ was the worst one!” It was this thing we had for the longest time and we finally decided we couldn’t do “The Bible is a Trilogy.” It didn’t make sense with the story anymore so we changed it to this other song.

Q: I was wondering about the character Butt F–ing Naked. How did that name come about?
We had the warlord really from the beginning.

Matt Stone: Really, he was based on Joseph Kony. Luckily we didn’t, but we toyed with just making it Kony. I mean, it is in northern Uganda where Kony has done his deeds. But now after the whole Joseph Kony thing this year I was so glad we didn’t do that because it sort of changed the context of it. That’s who it’s based on, though. The warlords in Liberia have such colorful names and we were reading about the one named General Butt Naked. We just ripped off his joke, basically.

Parker: We were like, “What’s better than Butt Naked? Butt F–ing Naked!”

Q: Can you talk about your plans to make “Book of Mormon” into a movie?
We don’t have any. The only thing is that, when we first started working on it seven years ago, we kind of toyed with the idea of it being a Broadway show or being a movie and, obviously, since Matt and I knew how to make a movie we were just like, “Let’s make a movie! We can do that pretty quickly!” But we stuck with it and after we saw our first few workshops with an audience, we were like, “Nah, this would be cool as a stage thing.” As we were doing scenes, I was always kind of visualizing it as a movie because that’s just what I knew. So I don’t think it would be a really difficult thing, but it would also have to be a pretty different animal when we’re done with it. We don’t talk about it too much right now or think about it, but it’s very possible one day.

Q: Are you going to do another stage musical?
I don’t know. These are hard!

Stone: What we’re learning, they’re never done. They’re never done, done, done. We’re used to, especially with “South Park,” finishing the show and sending it off to get uploaded. It goes on the air and, the next morning, half the time, honestly, you could ask me and I wouldn’t be able to tell you what that show was about. We are so good at wiping the hard disk and being done. A movie is the same thing. Here’s a movie. Here, I hand it to you. It’s on DVD or whatever. A theater thing is just not like that. It needs to be taken care of. It’s weird.

Q: Do you like the process of doing this?
Some parts of it, yes. A lot of it, no. It’s just new. It’s a different thing. It needs to be taken care of and in both the new company and the old company on Broadway, it’s a great show. But it’s a different show. You’ve got to find the strengths of the actors and stuff. It’s cool, but that part of it is surprising us.

Parker: And it did take us seven years. We wouldn’t have wanted them say, “Okay, well that worked well,” and then try and crap one out in another two years. You know, do a “Miss Saigon” all over again.

Q: As fans of musical theater, you must be aware that there are so few original shows being done. They’re all based on a film or based on an existing property. Now that you’ve had this great success, do you feel responsible to keep going? You’re one of the few guys who can get an original show done on Broadway.
No, we don’t think it’s our responsibility anymore.

Stone: We want to do the movie remake thing! (laughs) We’re proud that it’s all an original thing, but it is a load of work. I don’t know if we’re responsible for another one. We honestly don’t have any plans.

Parker: We don’t even know what we’re doing for “South Park” in three weeks.

Q: What are some of the most profound changes between the New York version and the L.A. version?
Well there’s nothing script-wise or music wise. That’s all the exact same show. But the new cast is great because they bring all this energy, because they’re really excited to do it and we’re coming to do it again. You kind of feed off their energy of discovering the show and it has its own personality. There are things in the original cast that they maybe did better years ago. You’re always gonna have that, kind of, in the back of your head, but this cast has found totally new things that we never thought was there. Some stuff is just way better and they just have different strengths and different takes. It’s a trip. I don’t really think there’s a profound difference. It’s just about us getting our heads around the fact that it’s not done. It’s not in the can. That never happens in theater and its something we’ve dealt with our whole careers. When it’s in the can, it’s done. That’s the way we want it, you know? This is just different.

Q: Is there any other sort of medium you guys would want to try at this point?
Painting. (laughs) We’re doing a video game next. That’s a b*tch so far.

Q: Can you expand on how it’s been difficult doing a video game?
Parker: It’s another whole new can of worms. First of all, it’s 400 pages instead of 40 and that’s just the main thing. With this it was really cool because it’s such a community for learning about how all of this stuff works. We got schooled quick and it was a great learning experience, but thank God we had really awesome, talented people around us that knew — unlike us — what they were doing. It was fun, but it was also very scary. But we honestly thought, “This’ll be great, because if we can get this thing to run for a year on Broadway we can say it was a success”. So we’re fine, we’re happy.

Q: You had a Mormon character in “Orgazmo” and in a “South Park” episode. Do you think you’ll come back to it at some point after this or is this kind of the finale?
I hope we’re done.

Stone: Yeah, I think we should be done with it now.

Parker: It was another thing we connected over when we met in college. We both had this kind of fascination because we both knew Mormons growing up and my very first girlfriend was a Mormon. We had exposure to that and thought it was fascinating and goofy and wonderful and all this stuff. It did seem to kind of eek its way in all the time, but that’s why it just made sense for us to say, “Let’s do our big blowout Mormon story.”

Q: Since there’s a chance we could have a Mormon president this time next year, have you guys reached out to Governor Romney and invited him to the show? What do you think his reaction would be?
He’s been invited. He said he’s gonna come when he has time. If he gets elected, it’s because of us. If he doesn’t get elected it’s because of us. (laughs)

Q: You guys did a recent episode of “South Park” that was about breaking into musical theater. Was it autobiographical, based on your experiences working on “Book of Mormon”?
It was an episode that Bobby Lopez came out to L.A. and worked on. That was fun. It was like a week of working together, klind of being in the same room and doing “Book of Mormon” again, but on a different kind of schedule. That was really fun.

Q: When you open up the playbill, there are advertisements from the Mormon Church. Did that surprise you?
We’re the only ones who aren’t surprised. We’ve been telling people since the very first interviews we did for this whole thing – which was before it was even on Broadway – we’d been fielding that question for years. We were the only ones who were like, “They’re going to be totally cool with it. Just watch. That’s the way Mormons are.” They’ve just proven themselves. They’ve put a nice little period at the end of the whole musical. No matter what they do, they will out-nice us guaranteed.

Q: Have you noticed any major differences between the audiences between coasts?
For me, personally, the theatres all feel so different. The audiences really feel about the same, especially because in New York you’re getting a lot of tourists, a lot of people that aren’t from New York, too. So it is a kind of sampling of the United States and, even in Denver where we started, it was a theatre that was also very big but very high and had four tiers of balcony. It was all about how a room plays. But it almost had more to do with the theatre itself.

Q: You guys haven’t really dulled your edge in any way, but it’s become embraced on a huge level, sweeping the Tonys. Is it surreal that you continue to do what you’ve always done and the mainstream is kind of accepting – that the Upper West Side old ladies are now coming to see you?
Yeah, but I think part of that is, we’re in our 40s. We’re not so far from being Upper West Side old ladies ourselves. I remember having that feeling, watching people on the Broadway show and I’d seen this little old lady with gray hair. I was thinking, “Oh, what’s she going to think?!” That lady is, like, 20 years older than me.

Stone: It’s sad, right? We’re old f–ers.

Parker: We’re [thinking] we’re still these young guys in our 20’s being rebels!

Q: Does that same attitude keep you drawn into “South Park”? Has this success brought anything new to what you’re doing with “South Park”?
Yeah, they always do. Because of the fact that, with “South Park,” we still write and direct every episode ourselves. We haven’t handed it off. So even if it isn’t a better show, it is a fresh show because we want to do something different all the time and we don’t just want to do “Cartmen’s fat and he likes Cheesy Poofs!” As we grow older, it’s fun because it is kind of like being in a band and having all of these albums to look back on knowing, “Oh, that’s where we were at in our lives then,” and, “This is where we’re at in our lives now.” We can really watch the episodes and see that.

Q: I know the production schedule on that show is punishing. Is it harder now that you’re “old men”?
It really gets worse. We used to use more kids’ storylines and now we’re more interested in the adults a little more. Maybe because we’re closer to them.

Parker: I was all about being Stan, but now I love being Stan’s dad. I identify way more with him now!

Q: Some of the musical numbers feel like homages to “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “West Side Story.” Was that your intention going in?
Yeah, it was just sort of how we were able to communicate as we were sitting there writing. We wrote this as an album first thinking, “If we have an album of songs – because we know how to record songs and play the instruments and get it down – we could just get a demo of that album, at the very least we’d have that and that would be funny.” It was just something to kind of work from. It was a language that [we approached as], “If the Mormons are here, then it can be just like ‘Music Man’ where he’s pitching the whole thing”. It’s so great having YouTube and all of this stuff where we can pull it up on the Internet and watch it real quick and go, “Yeah, it would be something like that!” We could then pull up a Mormon baptizing song say, “Yeah, let’s do that, but way more literal.” Stuff like that. It was just part of the language.

Stone: I’m the least musical person between me and Bobby and Trey. Working with them is like having an encyclopedia of musical theatre history. Even in “All American Prophet,” there was a whole time it was going to be a hoedown. We’d play a hoedown version of it, and then we’d play a polka version of it, and then a fast punk polka version of it. Making the album was fun because you have to go through all of these different styles. Ultimately, I think we all felt like, when you’re putting together a musical, these guys are so good at saying, “Well, you have to have this kind of song. You have to have this kind.” So you cover the ballad, duet. You don’t want to do the same song over and over and over. In trying to come up with a well-rounded show, you get to touch on all of that stuff and bring all of those musical styles in. It’s really fun.

Q: Is there anything in the Mormon religion you wanted to stay away from?
Yeah, the only thing was the polygamy, and that’s only because it’s just not — we wanted to do your everyday Salt Lake City Mormon and we obviously do a stereotype of that, too. But it’s sort of a misconception among a lot of people. “Oh, Mormons, they’re polygamists!” It’s like, “Well, no, they’re not, actually,” but they obviously have that in their history and there are some fundamentalists that still are. Because of “Big Love” and because of all of these things, the jokes have been done.

Stone: I think that’s probably the main reason Mormons like the show. They’re so sick of that lazy joke. It’s definitely part of their history and it’s not like it’s not there, but it just doesn’t apply to mainstream Mormons anymore. I think that, in staying away from that, they’re just so appreciative that there’s something mainstream that doesn’t have them saying, “No, that was a hundred years ago.” It just doesn’t fit most of them.

Parker: And we wanted Mormons to buy tickets and take out ads in Playbill. (laughs)

Q: What was your first reaction to that?
It was awesome! It really was.

Stone: I couldn’t believe it. It was so cool.

Parker: We seriously, honestly talked about doing it ourselves a year-and-a-half ago. We were like, “We should put a thing in the Playbill that says, ‘If you want to know more about the Mormon Church, visit your local Temple.’” And then we said, “Ah, no. Let’s not do it.” And they did it! It’s great! There are three pages of it. One of them says, “You’ve seen the play, now read the book” and I think that’s awesome. But then another one says, “The book is better!” And I just disagree. (laughs) Definitely Act Two of ours is much, much better.

Q: What is the legal process involved in being able to show characters like Darth Vader. Do you get away with it because they look different?
It’s shockingly similar to “South Park.” It’s all about being able to justify it as parody.

Stone: Parody. But it’s obvious if you watch it that [George] Lucas wasn’t involved. That’s an important thing. That people know he wasn’t involved.

Q: And it’s the same with reference to “The Lion King”?
Yeah, just as long as it’s obvious Disney wasn’t involved. The notes aren’t the same. We deal with this weekly on “South Park.”

Q: The moral of the whole musical is a sort of balance between accepting religion as technically false but also embracing its value. Was that planned to be the message from the very beginning?
It’s always this way with any episode of “South Park” that kind of has a point to it, and that always ends up being the last thing we do. With “Team America,” it was just that whole “P*ssies, D*cks and *ssholes” thing – that was the last thing we figured out. We try not to start with an agenda – “Here’s what we want to say, now how do we say it?” We really like doing a show or doing something like this and it showing us and saying, “This is what we’re saying and this is where it’s headed.” And so with this, it really was just the fact that, to me, to us, the stories of “Star Wars” and Darth Vader and all these things are just as valid and just as real as all these other ones. And yeah, you can say, “But there was no Darth Vader,” and “Why would Darth Vader have done that?” But it teaches you. It points at something way bigger than that. For us, it points to the fact that we as storytellers and lovers of stories – if nothing else in the last 20 years, that’s what Matt and I have really loved doing – have become better at the craft of storytelling. That’s why we try to make “South Park” not just gag, gag, gag, but really get into the story of it – the beginning, middle and end of it. That’s what we love. It’s really more the love of that than it is the love of religion.

Q: The story for this is a very old-fashioned musical, pushing the story through with the songs. Was that always the plan?
Yeah. We’ve always said that, if you can cut the song out, it has to be cut. You can’t have a character just stop and sing a song. That was really a challenge. In musicals, having a character turn and sing, you should accomplish something. In the songs that work the best, we’d actually draw out, this character starts and ends here, this character starts and ends here, this character starts and ends here. This message starts here and ends here. Everything would have to move. In a lot of the songs, you’d see two characters be moved and the plot be moved along. That works that the best in the show and that was the most satisfying stuff.

Parker: The fascinating thing about musicals that we learned, too, is that, when you have a song and dance number, you can have a scene after it where someone says something to someone, but no one is going to get it.

Stone: Yeah, anything important that you really need people to hear, you’ve got to musicalize it. You’ve got to at least make it a little piece of a song or sometimes a whole song.

Parker: We had an early version with fewer songs, but there were parts where no one was paying attention because it was all about, “When is the next song coming?”

Stone: It needed to be in a song. If it’s not in a song, it’s not an important part of the show. But you have these book scenes to move people along and say, “Okay, they’re over here now.” But if you really want to say something, you have to musicalize it.

Q: What was the toughest number to crack?
“All-American Prophet” for sure. We rewrote that four or five times. It was originally called “The Bible is a Trilogy” and we wrote three or four versions of that song. We had to tell the story of Joseph Smith and to figure out what we wanted to tell out of that was really hard.

Parker: There were versions of it where we talked way more about the Joseph Smith story and even way more about the actual Book of Mormon and what’s in that. Then we realized that it just started to be too much and people were tuning out. The problem was that you needed to know a certain amount about Joseph Smith for the ending to make sense. When the Africans regurgitate it as their own thing, you’ve got to know the original. We couldn’t just skip it. There were certain parts of it that we had to get across.

Stone: You’re just starting to get into this musical and then one of the characters pauses to tell you a story. It’s just a structural bump that we had trouble getting over, though I think we got pretty close. But that was, by far, the hardest song to do.

Q: How strong of a cinematic vision do you have in your head for a feature film version and, considering your busy schedules, would you ever consider letting someone else direct?
Parker: No, no one else is directing it.
No, I don’t think anyone else would direct it. The cinematic vision is pretty strong. I mean, I think we want to do a movie of it someday but, right now, we’re just trying to get our head around this version.

Parker: Once we made the decision to go to the theater, we made a bunch of decisions that were really best for the theater version of it. It would really take a rethinking. We wouldn’t want to just do this on film. We’d have to really rethink it. But I think we could redo it.

Q: Do you have a cast in mind?
Justin Bieber as Elder Price! (laughs)

Stone: A young cast would be cool. Younger than the cast we have on stage because you’d be much closer. But nobody really. Except for Justin Bieber, of course.

Q: This is sort of the third part of your Mormon trilogy…
Yes, that’s true. It is like “Matrix, Part III.”

Q: Of those three projects, do you have a favorite?
This one has made far more money, so this one.

Stone: I think the opposite of that, that one of our biggest career regrets looking back is that we didn’t make “Orgazmo” a musical. It just seemed too crazy. But now I wish, looking back it would have been cool. It wouldn’t have hurt its box office, obviously.

Q: When you guys were writing this, did you hold back one song for the Oscar song?
It’s in here somewhere. We’ll find it.

Q: Do you ever watch the show and do a quick rewrite, adding or deleting lines?
Oh yeah, all the time. But you can drive yourself crazy. As soon as we took it to Denver — there’s this great thing on Broadway that, once you start, you can’t change anything or you can’t get Tonys. So once we launched, it was like, great, we can’t change it. It was actually a relief. Then we got to Denver and we realized we could change some stuff. But that’s such a huge can of worms and, of course, it would be a totally different show.

Stone: It’s really a sweater thread.

Q: Are you involved with approving the touring cast?
Oh yeah.

Q: Can you talk about the new actors and what you think they bring to life in this touring version?
We were really excited about them because we saw really different takes than what we saw on Broadway. It was satisfying for us, first of all, to see that it didn’t have to be a carbon copy and that it still worked. These guys bring things to it that we didn’t even realize were there. I think that, if we opened it up and started writing again, we’d write stuff around them. But you don’t need to because they take the lines that are there and make them their own thing.

Q: Earlier, you mentioned writing it as an album. Was the storyline still intact?
Stone: We had the basics of two guys from Utah going to Africa. It was like, okay, what would their experiences be? It wasn’t just Mormons but the experiences of these two guys.

Parker: And it’s pretty funny demos because we do the voices on “South Park” and Elder Cunningham ends up sounding pretty much like Butters.

For tickets to The Book of Mormon and a full listing of future tour venues, click here.

(Photo Credits: Joan Marcus)