The Best Of Fresh Air 2011
South Park Creators Talk 'Book Of Mormon'
Originally published on Fri December 30, 2011 10:25 am
Take the creators of South Park and the composer of Avenue Q. Add solid musical storytelling, Mormons, Uganda, AIDS, a chorus line and a healthy amount of smut — and you have The Book of Mormon, Broadway's blasphemous, hilarious and oddly endearing new hit.
The New York Times' Ben Brantley said the musical, which led this year's Tony nominations, is "more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak ... [but its] heart is as pure as that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show." The Washington Post's Peter Marks said it's "one of the most joyously acidic bundles Broadway has unwrapped in years."
Fans of South Park — the bawdy, crudely animated TV show on which Trey Parker and Matt Stone have satirized everything in the news and pop culture for the past 15 years — won't be surprised to learn that Mormons are the focus of the duo's new musical; the religion has been popping up on South Park for years. In one episode, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith fought an evil David Blaine. In another, Satan announced that only Mormons made it into heaven. Mormons also show up in two of Parker and Stone's earlier films, Orgazmo and Cannibal! The Musical.
If you think the musical skewers Mormons, though, think again. Parker and Stone do challenge the literal credibility of the story of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But the Mormons they write about come across as lovable and optimistic.
"I don't think anybody would want to see a two-hour-long Mormon-bashing, and we wouldn't want to see that either," Parker tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "We love the goofiness of Mormon stories. Some of them are incredulous, and we loved almost all the Mormons that we had ever met. So this was sort of this conundrum that we like to talk about — we think what they believe is really, really ridiculous, and yet they seem like pretty happy people."
The Book of Mormon stars Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells as two Mormon missionaries sent to a remote village in northern Uganda, where a brutal warlord is threatening the local population. Naive and optimistic, the two missionaries try to share their scriptures — which only one of them knows very well — but have trouble connecting with the locals, who are worried about famine, AIDS, maggots and all sorts of other things.
"We wanted it to be that place where you always read about ... where you go 'Can this place get a break? They have earthquakes and then cholera and then a warlord and then a famine and then no water?' " Stone says. "It was just supposed to be that place. And we settled on Uganda because they speak English there ... and it borders Congo and Sudan.
"It's supposed to be just generic, war-torn worst place on Earth. If you're in Utah, nothing you've learned in Utah when you're 18 or 19 years old makes any sense when you get there."
Because this is Parker and Stone, that dire setting is the frame for a show that features tap dancing and pop anthems, a Greek chorus and a Lion King-esque ensemble number. Along with critical acclaim, the musical has received largely positive feedback from Mormons who have seen the show, Parker says.
"The official church response was something along the lines of 'The Book of Mormon the musical might entertain you for a night, but the Book of Mormon,' — the book as scripture — 'will change your life through Jesus,' " Stone says. "Which we actually completely agree with. The Mormon church's response to this musical is almost like our Q.E.D. at the end of it. That's a cool, American response to a ribbing — a big musical that's done in their name."
"Before the church responded, a lot of people would ask us, 'Are you afraid of what the church would say?' And Trey and I were like, 'They're going to be cool.' And they were like, 'No, they're not. There are going to be protests.' And we were like, 'Nope, they're going to be cool.' We weren't that surprised by the church's response. We had faith in them."
On Mormons coming to his home
Trey Parker: "I've always tried to start a dialogue with them. But you learn pretty quickly that they are trained impeccably to be able to handle anything. So it's pretty cool to try to mess with them — because you can't do it."
On research for the show
Matt Stone: "We did take a field trip to Salt Lake City with Bobby Lopez, our co-writer, who had never been to Salt Lake City. And we interviewed a bunch of missionaries — or ex-missionaries. For us, it was pretty easy to find [these people]. We just talked to waiters in downtown Salt Lake City. Almost every single waiter had been on a mission. So that was where we got a lot of our research."
On writing about missionaries
Parker: "Naturally, when we're 17 or 18, we all think we know everything, and then life slaps you upside the head. And I think that happens for a lot of people just when they go away to college or they move out of the house. But a lot of these kids go to another country or another culture — and a lot of them end up in third-world countries — and they're probably seeing things that they have never seen before. So in addition to the coming-of-age story, we have a fish-out-of-water story — and it just seemed really funny to send these two kids who've grown up in this perfect place to a place where nothing makes sense."
Parker: "I have religious friends, and they're like, 'Well, if you look, it's proven.' And you're like, 'No, it's not proven.' Don't try to tell me that you can prove this stuff. Just say 'I believe it,' and I'm down with you. Don't mix the two together. Because you can't logically say, 'We know that Jews came from Jerusalem and settled in America and turned into Native Americans.' That just doesn't make any sense. But at the same time, if you say, 'I believe this,' I say, 'OK. Cool, man.' Because at the end of the day, we all have certain beliefs and deeply held things that probably don't make a lot of sense to anybody else."
On the ringing doorbells in the opening number, "Hello"
Matt Stone: "For every song, we wanted to figure out what the comedic hook of the song would be and what the idea of the song would be. It was the first song we wrote for the entire show. Once we knew that we wanted to start with missionaries, and we knew we wanted to start with missionaries at the missionary training center, [we thought] 'Let's start the way that your average person interacts with Mormons, which is those guys in white shirts that come to your door.' So before we got into anything else about Mormonism, we just wanted to start there. And then, pretty quickly, we came up with [the idea] to use the doorbell as actually part of the music, and start layering things on top of each other."
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. The hardest ticket to get on Broadway this year is the musical "The Book of Mormon," a collaboration by Robert Lopez of "Avenue Q" and our first guests, "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. "The Book of Mormon" won nine Tonys at the 2011 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Terry spoke with Trey Parker and Matt Stone last May, a month before those Tonys were awarded.
If you know anything about "South Park," you would expect that a musical co-written by Parker and Stone would be irreverent, and you'd be right. But it's also got heart. The story is about two young Mormons who are sent on their first mission to Uganda, where they learn Africa is not like "The Lion King." Let's start with the opening song, set at a mission training center in Salt Lake City, where young Mormons are learning door-to-door missionary techniques.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO")
ANDREW RANNELLS: (Singing) Hello, my name is Elder Price, and I would like to share with you the most amazing book.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Hello, my name is Elder Grant. It's a book about America a long, long time ago. It has so many awesome parts. You simply won't believe how much this book can change your life. Hello, my name is Elder Green. I would like to share with you this book of Jesus Christ. Hello, my name is Elder Young. Did you know that Jesus lived here in the USA? You can read all about it now in this nifty book. It's free. No, you don't have to pay.
Hello, hello, my name is Elder Smith. And can I leave this book with you for you to just peruse? Hello, hello, I'll just leave it here. It has a lot of information you can really use. Hello, hi, my name is - Jesus Christ - you have a lovely home. Hello, it's an amazing book. Bonjour, hola, me llamo Elder White. Are these your kids? - This book gives you the secret to eternal life. Sound good?
Eternal life - Jesus Christ - is super-fun, hello - ding-dong! - and if you let us in, we'll show you how it can be done. No, thanks. - You sure? Oh well, that's fine. Good-bye. Have fun in hell. Hey now! You simply won't believe how much this book can change - this book will change - this book will change your life...
JOSH GAD: Hello, would you like to change religions? I have a free book written by Jesus.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: No, no, Elder Cunningham, that's not how we do it. You're making things up again. Just stick to the approved dialogue.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Hello, my name is Elder Cunningham, and we would like to share with you this book of Jesus Christ. Hello! Hello! Ding-dong! Just take this book. It's free - for you from me. You simply won't believe how much this book will change, this book will change, this book will change your life. So you won't burn in - Hello! You're going to die someday, but if you read this book you'll see that there's another way...
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Trey Parker, Matt Stone, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on "The Book of Mormon."
MATT STONE: Thanks.
TREY PARKER: Cool. Thank you.
GROSS: Before we talk about why and how you wrote the musical, let's talk about the opening song that we just heard. The ringing doorbells, as part of the song, that works so well musically and in terms of the narrative. How did you decide to work that in? How did that come to you?
PARKER: It was actually the first song we wrote for the entire show. Once we knew that we wanted to start with missionaries, and we knew we wanted to start with missionaries at the missionary training center, and let's start the way that most people, your average person, their interaction with Mormons, which is those guys in white shirts that come to your door.
You know, so before we get into anything else about Mormonism, we just wanted to start there, and then it was - pretty quickly we came up with the hook of, like, let's use the doorbell as actually part of the music.
GROSS: So did Mormons come to your door, and did your family let them in when you were growing up?
STONE: They never came to my door, I don't think. I don't know if my dad would have let them in either.
PARKER: We lived in - we grew up in Colorado. So we actually, we were around a lot of Mormons. And we went to school with Mormons and things like that. But I think that the first time I actually saw them come to the door was in college, actually. I had some Mormons come to where I was staying in college.
Since then we've had a few, and we always try to - I always tried to start kind of a dialogue with them. But you learn pretty quickly that they are trained impeccably to be able to handle anything. And so it's pretty cool to try to mess with them.
STONE: Knock them off their game.
PARKER: You can't do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STONE: But then, you know, with "Hello," the idea was that you'd reveal that you were at the missionary training center, which is in Provo, Utah, which is where they get - they learn all their language skills and they learn their - you know, what to do when you do get invited into a house.
And we found out later, at the missionary training center they actually have, like, prop living rooms, like fake living rooms with actors that, you know, it's like one of your tests is to go and, like, go into this fake living room and sit down and do your spiel, and have to deal with this in a real situation.
PARKER: It's like the holodeck. It's like the holodeck on "Star Trek."
STONE: It's like a driving simulator, yeah.
GROSS: So did you go to a missionary training center as part of your research for the show?
STONE: No, we didn't go there, but we went to - we did take a field trip to Salt Lake City with Bobby Lopez, our co-writer, who had never been to Salt Lake City. And we interviewed a bunch of missionaries or ex-missionaries, people who'd been on mission, which really for us was pretty easy to find. We just talked to waiters, you know, in downtown Salt Lake City.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STONE: You know, most, like, post-collegiate, kind of like 25- to 30-year-old guys, and almost every single waiter we asked if they'd been on a mission, they had. Right? It was like every single one. So that was where we got a lot of our research done about missionaries, was actually in Salt Lake City.
GROSS: So maybe this is a good time to hear the song in which the missionaries are getting paired, and they're finding out what mission they're going to be sent on. And the song is called "Two By Two." And would you talk about writing this song and maybe talk about how it changed your relationship to be writing songs with a third person, with Robert Lopez, who wrote the song, co-wrote the songs for "Avenue Q"?
PARKER: It was - it was like being in a band. I mean, it was just - we would just hang out in a room, and again, we'd kick around the idea of what's the hook of the song.
And we'd come up with the hook, and you'd sort of talk about that first. And we're like, okay, well, what is it? You know, they're sent two guys at a time. They're being paired off here. Of course, you know, the idea of two by two came out really quick. We thought it would be a really militant - I remember it started being much more...
STONE: It was a much more (humming). It was much more snare drum and a militaristic kind of beat, like two by two we go from door - it's supposed to be this joke of they're the army. And we had this kind of metaphor going that they were sent along - they're soldiers of God and they're going around the world to sell their stuff.
The joke - and it kind of comes at the end of the song is, is just how funny we find that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be kind of grammatically weird with two of's in there. And so we made the "of" kind of this running joke of, like, we're the army of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And you can start stacking these of's in this crazy way, and that was kind of a central joke too.
PARKER: And I remember at one point we were, like, yeah, it's a good song, but it's just - it's a little dry. And we realized it was because of the military thing. I remember Bobby being, like, you know, we could put this different feel to it that's a bit more just cheesy, and then that's when - one of my prouder moments - where I remembered a thing from high school, when I was in choir in high school, we actually had a song where we sang ooh-wa-hey-ah shout out wow.
GROSS: Oh, I love that stuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PARKER: And it was like shout out wow. And I remember - and so we actually just recorded that, singing it, you know, shout out wow. And it just, the rest of the song fell into place after that.
GROSS: It's a great song. So here it is, "Two By Two," as the young missionaries are paired off and assigned their mission. And this is from "The Book of Mormon."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO BY TWO")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Shout out wow. Two by two we're marching door to door 'cause God loves Mormons, and he wants some more. A two-year mission is our sacrifice. We are the army of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
(Singing) Two by two, and today we'll know who we'll make the journey with and where we'll go. We're fighting for a cause, but we're really, really nice. We are the army of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Elder White and Elder Smith.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Oh, I knew we'd get paired together.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Your location will be France.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: France, land of pastries and turtlenecks.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Two by two, I guess it's you and me. We're off to reach across land and sea. Satan has a hold of France. We need to knock him off his perch. We are the soldiers of the army of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Elder Cross and Elder Green, you will be serving in Japan.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: Oh, Japan, land of soy sauce. And Mothra!
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Elder Harris and Elder Brown...
RANNELLS: (Singing) Heavenly father, where will I go on my mission? Will it be China or old Mexico on my mission? It could be San Fran by the bay, Australia where they say g'day, but I pray I'm sent to my favorite place, Orlando. I love you, Orlando, Sea World and Disney and putt-putt golfing.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Elder Price...
RANNELLS: Yes, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Your brother will be Elder Cunningham.
GAD: That's me. That's me. Hello. Oh, hi.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: And your mission location is Uganda.
GAD: Uganda? Uganda? Cool. Where is that?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Africa.
GAD: Oh, boy, like "Lion King."
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Two by two and now it's time to go. Our paths have been revealed...
GROSS: That's a song from "The Book of Mormon," which was co-written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of "South Park."
So as we heard in that song, the two stars of the show, the two lead missionaries from the show, are assigned what turns out to be Uganda. Why did you choose Uganda as being, like, the nightmare come true as opposed to the dream come true for them?
STONE: We just wanted it to be that place that you always read about where - and a lot of times it's sub-Saharan Africa, it seems like. I mean, lately it's been Haiti, where it's just that place you go, can this place get a break? You know, they have earthquakes and then cholera and then a warlord, you know, and then a famine and then, you know, no water.
And you know, it was just supposed to be that place. And we settled on Uganda honestly because they speak English there. So that seemed one, like, less leap to make. And we settled on Northern Uganda, which has had a humanitarian crisis of its own, and it borders Congo and the Sudan.
So really it was kind of a bunch of different things that brought us to that. We didn't start with Uganda. It's supposed to be just generic, war-torn worst-place-on-Earth that where - if you are from Utah, nothing you've learned in Utah when you're 18 or 19 years old makes any sense when you get there.
GROSS: Let me stop you there. Is that part of what you were trying to kind of puzzle through in this musical, why 19-year-old white missionaries from Salt Lake City would feel like they could go to a place in Africa...
GROSS: ...where they didn't understand the culture, and have something to offer?
STONE: Yeah, I mean I think that like Trey said, we have this coming-of-age story, which is, you know, missionaries, you know, you're that perfect age. When I was 18, I thought I knew everything.
I think, you know, you're 18, you're told you've got all this information. Now go change the world. You're like - you know, I just think naturally when we're all about 17 or 18, we think we know everything, and then life, you know, you get - life slaps you upside the head.
And I think that happens for a lot of people just when they go an hour away to college, or they get - they move out of the house. But a lot of these kids go to another country, another culture, and a lot of them end up in Third World countries, and they're probably seeing things that they never have seen before.
So in addition to the coming-of-age story, we have a big fish-out-of-water story going, and it just seemed really funny to send these two, you know, kids who've grown up in this perfect place, you know, quote-unquote, to a place where nothing makes sense that they've learned. So definitely that was a big part of it.
BIANCULLI: Trey Parker and Matt Stone, speaking to Terry Gross. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview from earlier this year with "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Their musical "The Book of Mormon" won nine Tony Awards and is now the hottest ticket on Broadway.
GROSS: So I don't want people to get the wrong idea about how you present Mormonism in your show because you kind of challenge the credibility of this, the literal credibility of the story of the Book of Mormon.
But you love your characters, and you think that eventually they do do good in the world, not in the way that they expected to, but you're not about being, like, really kind of cynical in this.
PARKER: Yeah, no, and I - really what I grew up loving Broadway for was the fact that it, at least, you know, in all these classics, you know, they weren't cynical. They were very optimistic, and it offered this kind of - they always ended with a big happy number, and everything was okay. And as cheesy as that can seem, I loved it.
You know, and that's - you know, I don't think anyone would want to go see a two-hour-long Mormon-bashing, and that's not - we wouldn't want to see that either. It's just not - obviously you have to have characters that you love.
And even if you, in certain things, have characters that you love to hate, that's fine, but you know, everyone wants to see a little piece of themselves up there, and that's what makes a musical, draws people in.
And so, you know, like we were saying about the whole thing about this - even though this is about a very devout Mormon getting put with someone and getting shot around the world and trying to be very Mormon, people can relate to just that feeling of being in high school and getting out and thinking: Okay, well, now I'm ready to just go tell everyone what's up and make my mark in the world, and it's going to be really awesome.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PARKER: And then you get slapped back down to reality. You know, and I think that everyone can relate to that part of it.
And also the reason we knew it would work great with Bobby right away was because we all shared this thing where it's like we love the goofiness of Mormon stories. We love the - you know, some of them are so incredulous, and yet we really liked most - almost all the Mormons we'd ever met.
GROSS: So have Mormons in the audience enjoyed the musical? Do you know? Have you gotten feedback?
PARKER: It's really funny. We can actually - when we were there for previews, and we were there that whole month, where we'd go and watch it every single night and try to change it, you could hear the pockets of Mormons. You could hear where they were because there are some certain things in the show that are very specifically Mormon and things you - you either - or at least ex-Mormons.
You know, like, you could hear these people, this little group of people laugh, and no one else really got the joke, and it would just be some reference to something that's very Mormon.
And you know, obviously it's a select group of Mormons that are going to come to the show - have kind of embraced it.
GROSS: And the official church response?
STONE: The official church response was something along the lines of: "The Book of Mormon," the musical, might entertain you for a night, but The Book of Mormon, the book as scripture, could change your - will change your life through Jesus, or something like that.
PARKER: Yeah, which is a great response.
STONE: Which we actually completely agree with - it's a totally very big-hearted, American response. It's kind of like - the Mormon church's response to this musical is almost like our QED at the end of it. It's like: See, we told you, Mormons are - that's a cool, that's a cool American response to, like, a ribbing, you know, a big musical that's done in their name.
So it just - that was like - we were like, there, see? That's what we were talking about. Because before the church responded, a lot of, you know, people would ask us about, like, are you afraid of what the church is going to say? And Trey and I were like: They're going to be cool. Trust us. They're going to be cool.
And people in New York are like: No, they're not. They're going to be, you know, mad at you guys. There are going to be protests. We're like, nope, they're going to be cool. And I mean, I don't know if we totally knew, but we weren't that surprised by the church's response.
PARKER: We had faith in them.
STONE: Yes, we had faith.
GROSS: There's obviously some Disney in there. And one of the songs is kind of a parody of "Hakuna Matata." And in "The Lion King" "Hakuna Matata" is a song about the expression that describes our problem-free philosophy. It's a lighthearted song. And your version is "Hasa Diga Eebowai." And did you want to talk a little bit about this song?
STONE: Yeah. I mean, that's our, like, welcome to Vietnam song.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STONE: That's the song where, you know, you get off the plane and they just get off the plane like full of vigor like here we are, we're here to change the world and it's like, okay, you're in a new reality. And so it started kind of from an anti-"Lion King," you know, song, but write it in the same tone so it has that same kind of gallows humor. But, yeah, I mean that was a really fun song to write, actually.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STONE: That's where we really got to go for it, you know, that was the point of that song.
GROSS: Okay. So imagine the missionaries stepping off the plane meeting some actually very poor people from Uganda and hearing this song. This is from the cast recording of "The Book of Mormon."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HASA DIGA EEBOWAI")
MICHAEL POTTS: In this part of Africa we all have a saying: whenever something bad happens, we just throw our hands to the sky and say Hasa Diga Eebowai.
GAD: Hasa Diga Eebowai?
POTTS: It's the only way to get through all these troubled times. There's war. Poverty. Famine. But having a saying makes it all seem better.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) There isn't enough food to eat. Hasa Diga Eebowai. People are starving in the street. Hasa Diga Eebowai. Hasa Diga Eebowai. Hasa Diga Eebowai.
RANNELLS: Well, that's pretty neat.
GAD: Does it mean no worries for the rest of our days?
POTTS: Kind of. (Singing) We've had no rain in several days. Hasa Diga Eebowai. And 80 percent of us have AIDS. Hasa Diga Eebowai.
GROSS: Okay, so we're fading out before all the expletives.
STONE: Before the good stuff.
STONE: Before the meat and potatoes.
GROSS: After this part we just can't play it on the radio. And it's quite a send-up of the "Hakuna Matata." Have you gotten interesting reactions to this one?
PARKER: Well, "Hasa Diga Eebowai" is that song in the show where you know people are in or they're out.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PARKER: Basically, you know, it's either the point where we lose you or we really get you on board, and we have a lot of that in a lot of the stuff we do. We have that moment in the show, which is either, you know, you're with us or you should get out now. And it really is sort of that song.
GROSS: So this is your first Broadway musical. You've done musicals, but they've been animated. So now you're working with real people, real audiences in the theater. You have to worry about renting a theater, an orchestra, just, you know, all of this stuff. So what's one of the biggest nightmares that you had that you'd never have to face doing animation?
PARKER: Well, I'd say - I mean, what was crazy for us - and something we had to get used to fast was just the idea that if we want to rewrite something, if we want to change something, you know, it's like - especially in a song, then you got to get it re-orchestrated. Then you got to get it re-choreographed. Then you got to teach it to everybody. And meanwhile, you're doing a show that night.
You know, so it was just this crazy thing where we're so - especially with "South Park," you know. We can change things so last-minute, and especially because we do almost all the voices. We can, like, go in there. We can write it down, run into the booth and record it, slap it in, see how it looks, change it again if we need to. And with this, you know, pretty quickly, we had people telling us, like, guys, guys. You can't change this much right now.
And learning how to dish that out, you know, learning how to - all right, well, we can change these lines right now. We'll give them this because we want to change that. We'll try to see that in two nights' performance. We're not going to see it tonight. You know, just a lot of things like that that was, for us, a big learning curve.
BIANCULLI: Trey Parker and Matt Stone, speaking to Terry Gross in May. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2011 interview with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the animated series "South Park." They've been working together nearly 20 years. Now they have the biggest hit on Broadway: the musical comedy "The Book of Mormon," which they co-wrote with Robert Lopez, who also co-wrote "Avenue Q."
A month after Terry spoke with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, "The Book of Mormon" won nine Tony Awards. The show is about two young Mormom missionaries who were sent on their first mission to Uganda. They're supposed to be converting people who are facing problems about which the young Mormons are totally clueless.
GROSS: Okay. Time for another song. So I want to play "Turn it Off," which is this great production number. And, you know, in a lot of musicals, there's that big, inspiring number where you're told to, like, you know, be yourself and think great thoughts, whenever you're sad, like, put on a happy face. Or if you fall down, pick yourself up and start all over again.
But this is called "Turn it Off." So, like, if you're feeling something unpleasant, just, like, turn it off. It's a song about repressing feelings. Tell us about writing this song and the kinds of songs that inspired this one.
PARKER: This was a little ditty - I wrote a first version of this, basically, because I just - we knew we had to have a big tap number. We've got a bunch of dudes in, you know, white shirts and ties.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PARKER: It's, like, we've got to have a tap number. But I just - this was a great example of a song that, like, I had just a little ditty for that was just this very repetitive... (Singing) Turn it off, like a light switch. Just go click. Da, da, da, da, da. (Speaking) And I remember Bobby right away saying yeah, it's cool. It kind of runs in place.
You know, it's kind of, like, was the same thing musically, over and over and over. And this song expanded and expanded. And then we all would sit in the room together and say: Well, maybe it shouldn't just be - it was all just the stuff about gay thoughts and all those jokes. And they were great jokes and it worked, but then we sat there going, well, what else?
You know, maybe we should have other Mormons chime in on other things that aren't just gay thoughts, but other things. And we started writing the other verses, and then Bobby actually wrote the verse about the father, the abusive father. And then it grew and it grew. And then Casey came in and turned it from a little tap number...
GROSS: Your co-director and choreographer. Yeah.
PARKER: Yeah, the co-director and choreographer, and turned it from a little tap song into a giant tap song and added all this other stuff. And so it was just this great song that you watched going from this little ditty to this big Broadway number, you know, kind of before your eyes.
GROSS: So let's hear it. This is "Turn it Off," from the new cast recording of "The Book of Mormon" which was co-written by my guests Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the co-creators of "South Park."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN IT OFF")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (Singing) Turn it off, like a light switch. Just go click. It's a cool little Mormon trick. We do it all the time. When you're feeling certain feelings that just don't seem right, treat these pesky feelings like a reading light.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) And turn them off, like a light switch. Just go back. Really, what's so hard about that? Turn it off. Turn it off. Right now.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (Singing) When I was young, my dad would treat my mom real bad. Every time the Utah Jazz would lose, he started drinking and I started thinking: How am I going to keep my mom from getting abused? I'd see her all scared, and my soul was dying. My dad would say to me, now don't you dare start crying. Turn it off.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Like a light switch. Just go click. It's our nifty little Mormon trick. Turn it off. Turn it off.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (Singing) My sister was a dancer, but she got cancer. The doctor said she still had two months more. I thought she had time, so I got in line for the new iPhone at the Apple store. She lay there dying with my father and mother. Her very last words were: Where is my brother?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Turn it off. Yeah. Bid those sad feelings adieu.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (Singing) The fear that I might get cancer, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN IT OFF")
RORY O'MALLEY: (As Elder McKinley) (Singing) When I was in fifth grade, I had a friend, Steve Blade. He and I were close as two friends could be. One thing led to another, and soon I would discover I was having really strange feelings for Steve. I thought about us on a deserted island. We'd swim naked in the sea and then he'd try and...
(Singing) Turn it off, like a light switch. There, it's gone.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: Good for you.
O'MALLEY: (As Elder McKinley) (Singing) My hetero side just won. I'm all better now. Boys should be with girls, as heavenly father's planned. So if you ever feel you'd rather be with a man, turn it off.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: Well, Elder McKinley, I think it's okay that you're having...
GROSS: That's "Turn it Off" from the new cast recording of "The Book of Mormon," and the show was co-written by my guests Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who also created "South Park." So every time I hear that song, I laugh, because it's ironic, but it's also - it's so upbeat and so catchy and so - I don't know. The...
STONE: Yeah, that song for me...
STONE: That song for me is funny, because it's so happy, but it's about something that, like, we all...
GROSS: Exactly. It's about all these tragic things.
STONE: ...we all know, and it's kind of the most tragic thing, yeah. And, I mean, not just for, you know, like the character that sings it is played by Rory O'Malley, who just kills it in that song. He's amazing. Is about a missionary, you know, who's overseas and obviously gay, and, like, the church has just said yeah, you're not. Just don't think about that. You know, which is like no solution at all.
But it's not even - even if you were just - they send these 19-year-old kids around the world, even if, you know, they're just - they're sexual beings, you know. They're sexual animals. And they just say, yeah. Just turn that off. And there's just nothing in that.
You know, there's a point in the story when Price - now they've landed in Africa. They've seen some horrors. They're really questioning what the hell's going on. They go back to the mission. He says, wow, I'm having some confusing thoughts. And then this is the song that's given to them. So the song is not supposed to really help you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STONE: You know, he realizes it doesn't really get much. He doesn't get much out of it.
GROSS: Was it really amazing to hear your songs orchestrated in the way they were played by a live band in a theater?
PARKER: Amazing. And what's crazy, the really crazy part about it is they're all kind of rehearsing off on their own, in their own building, all the musicians, while you're still doing it there in the theater with a piano and drums, and then you finally, about four days before you're going to open, you go and listen to the actors sing it. What do they call it, sitzprobe?
PARKER: They call it sitzprobe, and they're like, oh, wait till sitzprobe. Wait till sitzprobe. And you go and you actually hear, and it's the first time even all these actors and actresses, which some of them have been doing workshops for five years, are sitting there hearing, like singing it and this whole orchestra is backing them up.
And I remember Nikki, who sings "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," she did that song and the orchestra is backing her up and she just broke down. She just started crying and couldn't finish. It was really beautiful.
STONE: It was really cool. It was the first time hearing it with a nine-piece band instead of a two-piece band.
GROSS: Just one more thing. I think that "The Book of Mormon" has something of the quality of "South Park" in the sense that "South Park" is just kind of stripped-down animation. It's down to the basics. And there's something so basic about the show. It's like great music, great performers, great orchestrations, really original concepts. But there's nothing fancy about the sets. It's just like, it's...
PARKER: Yeah. It was a very conscious decision. And the reason that we did that is because we did so many workshops in New York in the sort of three years leading up to it. And we would do these workshops which were no costumes, no lights, just in a big room with fluorescent lights and, you know, 40 people sitting there, and it would kill. And we were just like, okay, all we can do now is ruin this.
Even though we had to take this to the stage, let's be really aware of not, you know, let the songs and the acting and the music and the performances, let that all be center stage. Let's not surround it by a bunch of stuff. We knew it worked without any of it, so let's add just enough to make it a beautiful Broadway show but not step on any toes.
GROSS: Well, it's been great to talk with you again. Congratulations on all the success you've been having with "The Book of Mormon," and thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.
STONE: Thanks a lot.
BIANCULLI: Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-writers with Robert Lopez of the Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon," this year's hottest ticket on Broadway. And probably next year's too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.