Ahoy, squirts! Quint here writing in from my warm New York hotel after a night of debauchery with some New York friends. And by “debauchery” I clearly mean eating specialty hotdogs and tater tots in the East Village. That’s how I roll.
I was out in Park City trying to keep my head above water at Sundance when I received an offer to be in the limited audience to preview a section of the Trey Parker/Matt Stone/Robert Lopez musical THE BOOK OF MORMON. I’m a massive fan of theirs, so I was definitely interested, but travel so close to Sundance had my head spinning at just the idea of back to back stressful travel.
So, I asked for a 1:1 with the boys. I’m in a win-win situation there. If they said yes then how could I pass up that opportunity? If they came back with a no, then I could just try to scramble to find someone in New York to attend the preview and get a real night’s sleep in my own bed.
As much as I didn’t need the extra trip to plan and prepare for or the 8 ½ hour turn around in traveling, I sit here very glad Parker and Stone said yes and I ended up coming out here. Not only did I get to meet two people who have made me laugh more consistently than anyone else in the last 15 years, I also got to have the very unique experience of seeing Broadway professionals work up close.
The room at The New 42nd Street Studio was small, maybe 50’ at its widest, so when the 50 or so press were let in for the big presentation we took our seats in fold out chairs that were lined up against the wall, the front row all of four feet from the performing area.
Not only did we get to preview this show, we almost literally had the cast in our face as they performed. Screw 3-D, this is the real way to feel involved in a show! I could feel the breath of the Mormons as they sang. Can you match that James Cameron?!?
Trey, Matt and their collaborator Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) came out to introduce the preview and informed us that we were going to see the first 25 minutes of the play with temporary costumes and props. The stages will be at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, with full on previews beginning three weeks from today, but we just had the actors, a live musical accompaniment and rough representations of stages.
Before the play went underway, Parker and Stone set the mood by telling us that the play opens at a kind of Mormon recital and to imagine the sets to be “big and cheesy.” They threw in “You’ll know it’s over when you hear the word “cunt” and they bow.”
And I almost don’t even need to write anything about the first act I witnessed since that above quote should tell you everything you need to know about the play. But I will because I got nowhere else to go!
The play opens with a play. The Mormons are retelling the story of Jesus, Mormon and the Golden Plates. Actors strike over-the-top poses to a pre-recorded booming narration (which sounded suspiciously like Trey Parker) describing the setting as a long time ago “in ancient upstate New York” and tells the story of Jesus in America, Mormon receiving the golden plates and his son burying them.
This leads into the first musical number of the show. I wasn’t given any information on titles of the showtunes, but I call this one The Hello Song. It begins with one young Mormon man, dressed in typical Mormon wear… black pants, black tie, short-sleeved pressed white shirt, hair perfectly combed and a wide smile plastered on his face… walking up front and center and miming pressing a doorbell and launching into a prepared speech about our Lord and Savior that, of course, begins with an enthusiastic “Hello!”
As the one Mormon is singing more and more walk up around him, making the doorbell motions (met with doorbell chimes) and joining into the song until it’s a full 9 man chorus working in tandem. They move around each other stealthily, singing in harmony, sometimes chiming in with an “Hola!” or “bonjour” or “konnichiha.”
The only interruption to this carefully choreographed and harmonious number is when Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad, the chubby brother in LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS) takes his place and begins spouting off-script lines like a giddy puppy happy to spread his love of Jesus. His Elders correct him and he joins in the strictly ordered number.
In the play universe this like the last test these men have to pass before being given their missions. As they eagerly await their pairings we meet Andrew Rannell’s Elder Price, an upstanding clean-cut Mormon boy eager to do God’s work. He prays to be sent to his most favorite place ever: Orlando. He has a slow, hopeful song as the others are paired and given their mission locations.
The first is Norway (“home of gnomes and trolls!” they sing!), the next is France (“home of crepes and berets!”), next is Japan (“home of soy sauce and Mothra!”) and then it comes time for Elder Price to get his pairing and location.
Naturally, in classic Odd Couple pairing, the straight-laced Elder Price is paired with the flabby, loud Elder Cunningham. Then they are given their location: Uganda.
The happy Mormons go into slow motion behind our lead, enthusiastically giving each other very slow high-fives and moving in what I can only describe as enthusiastic white people dancing. Cunningham isn’t all that happy, but gosh darn it! He’s still preaching the Lord’s word.
When they move out of that pretty fun number (which includes the Mormans singing in unison that they are soldiers in the army of the Church of Jesus Christ… of Latter Day Saints!) they move almost immediately into an airport setting as the two Elders are about to board their plane for Africa.
Just before they leave, a lady jumps out and does the Lion King opening music with all the gusto of the actual Broadway performer. I thought this was going to be a funny way to transition into the Uganda section, but instead she runs through the whole number and Elder Price’s dad tells him that was a going away present, getting a neighbor to sing a song “in real African!” They wish them goodbye and Elder Price then gets a duet with Cunningham, where they dream of spreading God’s word. “Heavenly father has chosen you and me… but mostly me!” is the gist of the song. After a bit of this self-centered number off they go to Africa.
I was grooving along with it so far, but this next section is what really won me over. We’re introduced to Uganda by a group of actors toiling in the background, one with a fake looking nappy-headed baby strapped to her back, another walking with a basket balanced on her head. In the foreground a man walks by our stunned missionaries dragging a punching bag with the words “Dead Donkey” behind him. Obviously, this bag will be replaced with a prop on the day, but hell… even if it wasn’t, that’s still funny as shit.
Of course these two stick out like a sore thumb, bibles in one hand and cute little roller bags in the other. They’re not on the ground more than 60 seconds before they’re robbed of all they have by AK-wielding thugs.
Our Elders are then met by their contact, a happy man who says an African phrase and makes a gesture to the sky. It is a saying in his country, we learn, whenever things don’t go quite right. This smiling man then begins a Hakuna Matata like happy song that gets the entire ensemble singing and dancing together.
What do you say when a well runs dry? What do you say when your bags get stolen? It’s not only about halfway through that Elder Price asks what this saying means. Well, the end of the phrase (which phonetically sounds like “hasa deeza ezo eye”) means “God,” and the beginning roughly translates into “Fuck you.” So, it means “Fuck you, God.”
The look of shock on Rannells’ face was just enough to send me into gut-laughter. That was pushed even further when the clueless Josh Gad kept happily singing this phrase, much to Rannells’ dismay.
The song keeps its happy tone, but becomes incredibly filthy with lyrics like “When God fucks you in the butt, fuck him back in his cunt” and an introduction to the townspeople, all who have AIDS, apparently. “Here’s the butcher. He has AIDS. Here’s the doctor. He has AIDS. Here’s my daughter, she has a… lovely personality! But if you touch her, I will give you my AIDS!”
This number ends with a good dozen people throwing up a middle finger to the sky and singing “Fuck you God in the ass, mouth and cunt!” Offensive? Perhaps, but done in such a catchy, light musical number that the contrast really can’t help but make one laugh.
Also, keep in mind that I was trying to take notes while not missing any of the fun stuff being acted out live mere feet in front of me, so I didn’t take full lyrics down. If you’re familiar at all with Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s work you know these guys can put a tune together. This stuff would easily fit alongside Cannibal: The Musical, Team America and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.
After the presentation, Parker, Stone and Lopez came back out and took a few questions. I’ll bullet point some of them below:
- Parker and Stone met Lopez while they were doing Team America. They heard of this play, Avenue Q, that was doing funny stuff with puppets and thought, “Oh shit!” But they went to see it and their fears were calmed. It just so happens that Lopez was there the night they visited and they got to talking. Parker and Stone asked him what musical he’d want to do if he had the chance and he said he was fascinated by the life of Joseph Smith. Parker and Stone had been kicking around an idea to do a musical based on his life as well and figured why not do it together?
- Lopez said they were an inspiration to him and there would be no Avenue Q without the South Park movie.
- Why Uganda? They wanted to pick a place that would challenge anyone’s belief in God.
- There is a little Music Man influence in the production, some Lion King (“and some cunt,” – Trey Parker).
- They kept reiterating that the play isn’t Mormon bashing. They’re fascinated by the religion, Parker going so far as to say that he’s never met a Mormon he didn’t like. “They’re just so damn nice!”
- When pressed on his own beliefs, Stone said he’s “an Atheist that admires and likes religion.”
- They treated the Odd Couple Elders that the play centers on like a married couple, complete with the break-up musical number and the reuniting number.
After the brief Q&A they wrapped things up and I was pulled into another room to do my own sit down with the three men. I’ll post that as a separate interview, but needless to say… as someone who saw Cannibal: The Musical when it played the midnight slot at SXSW, as someone who saw The Spirit of Christmas before South Park was created… I was pretty psyched to get some time with these guys.
While I can’t vouch for the entire musical, I can say the first 25 minutes gave me the confidence that the entire thing will live up to the already high expectation I have. If I was just shown these 25 minutes blind I would have pegged it as a Parker/Stone musical in a second, which is nothing but highest of praise in my book. I can’t wait to venture back out here to see the full production! And buy a copy of the soundtrack. I want to listen to that “Fuck You, God” selection on repeat right now!
Hope you guys enjoyed the rundown. Keep an eye out for the big interview with Stone, Parker and Lopez which will be running as soon as I can get it readable!