On stage

Raunchy meets sweet in ‘The Book of Mormon’


If you go

What: ‘The Book of Mormon’ by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone.

Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 22.

Cost: $44.50-$154.50 (limited day-of-show $25 tickets by lottery).

Information: 954-462-0222, www.browardcenter.org or www.ticketmaster.com.


The biggest Broadway touring show to hit South Florida this season was born of the mutual admiration that South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx had for each other’s work.

The Book of Mormon, which kicks off a four-week run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday, might never have happened if Parker and Stone hadn’t decided to go to a performance of the red-hot Avenue Q one night in 2003. At the time, they were toiling on their satirical 2004 marionette movie Team America: World Police.

Flipping through the show’s Playbill, they discovered Lopez and Marx had thanked them by name. Weird, since the men had never met or communicated.

Turns out, Parker and Stone’s 1999 animated movie musical South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (with its Oscar-nominated song Blame Canada) helped inspire Lopez and Marx to create their no-holds-barred, people-and-puppets show, an affectionate if sometimes raunchy sendup of Sesame Street.

Lopez, who happened to be at the performance that night, introduced himself — though he wasn’t exactly nonchalant about meeting the hugely successful duo.

“When you meet someone whose work you admire a lot, you sort of stammer and think, ‘This is not going anywhere,’” Lopez says by phone from New York. “But we went out for drinks and found these like-minded artists. They were responding to what we had done, telling us we were inspiring them and making them want to do a Broadway show.”

Through the Book of Mormon press agent, Parker and Stone, in production with the current season of South Park, declined an interview request. So did co-director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, citing his workload. But in a “Frequently Asked Questions” handout with the show’s publicity materials, Parker (who co-directed with Nicholaw) suggests why he and Stone jumped into the years-long collaboration that results in a Broadway musical.

“There’s just nothing more perfect in the universe to me than a good musical. And a bad musical makes you want to kill yourself,” Parker explains. “A good musical is to me so much more moving and powerful than a great movie or a great book, or anything.”

In that first late-night conversation, Parker, Stone and Lopez discovered they all had thought about doing a musical centered around Joseph Smith, the founder and first prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka the Mormon church. (Marx was initially involved but later left the project.)

“Religion is something I’ve always wanted to write about, as the subject of satire or maybe a sequel to Avenue Q or even a religious epic,” Lopez says. “We discovered we were looking at religion from the same angle, especially with the idea of Mormons and their wholesomeness ... [but] we didn’t realize we were creating something solid enough to appeal to a mainstream musical audience.”

Did they ever. The Book of Mormon, running at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre since February 2011, has chalked up more than 1,000 performances, winning a slew of Tony Awards and often playing (thanks to standing room) to more than 100 percent of the O’Neill’s capacity. Yet given the show’s tone and style — the uncensored and potentially offensive humor of South Park meets a classic uplifting (and, yes, ultimately sweet) musical — that success wasn’t a sure thing.

In brief, The Book of Mormon follows the misadventures of an Odd Couple of missionaries who, despite their dreams of getting sent to someplace cool like Paris or Orlando, are dispatched to Uganda. Good-looking, by-the-book Elder Price is dismayed at being paired with chubby, slovenly Elder Cunningham, an imaginative guy with a short attention span and a woeful lack of detailed knowledge about his own religion. The two swiftly discover that their would-be recruits are dealing with rampant AIDS, famine and the terrorizing attacks of the local warlord, a general with an unprintable last name. Orlando it isn’t.

Against all odds, what Parker, Stone and Lopez created manages to be shockingly raunchy, an affirmation of the power of faith, and insanely hilarious.

“The show is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Period,” says Larry Hochman, who won a Tony for co-orchestrating the stylistically varied score of The Book of Mormon with Stephen Oremus. “There are so many parts where you can’t believe your ears ... [but] as much as you believe at first that it’s bashing a religion, it turns around, and you feel it’s affirming the purpose of religion.”

In the touring company coming to Fort Lauderdale, British actor Mark Evans plays Elder Price opposite Christopher John O’Neill as Elder Cunningham. Evans says that though he and O’Neill are the only starring pair who never auditioned together, their chemistry works.

“It really does come down to the partnership,” Evans says. “They have to have that natural chemistry. You want to feel the actors really get on well offstage too, even though you don’t see that.”

Of the show’s style, Evans observes, “You can get away with being vulgar and crass and shocking if there’s a purpose for it. The things you see in the show are really happening in Uganda. ... We mock Mormonism and religion in general, but the end of the show is a real celebration of faith.”

O’Neill is a comedian who was doing The Chris and Paul Show with performing partner Paul Valenti at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe when a Book of Mormon casting director caught his act. (“It was in a cave,” O’Neill marvels.) Now, he’s playing his first professional musical theater role — a lead, no less — in one of the hottest shows on tour. No one seems more surprised than he is.

“I went back to New York and auditioned for it, and I thought that was very surreal. My mom called and asked me, ‘Do you think you’ll get a callback?’ I said, ‘No!,’” O’Neill recalls, laughing. “I didn’t even have an agent or a head shot, so my fiancee took a picture of me on the roof of our apartment building in Queens. I went into the audition with my ghetto head shot, and they kept calling me back.”

O’Neill describes Elder Cunningham as “a train wreck of a Mormon missionary. He’s a guy with ADHD, pudgy, a goofball.” But audiences do respond to the show’s coming-of-age story and to the delicate balancing act the show’s creators pull off.

“People are surprised by how much heart this has. But these guys know how to write comedy and shocking humor, and they know how to make it sweet,” he says.

Lopez, who composed two of the most successful musicals of the last decade in Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, says that writing a musical that is “purely raunchy or shocking or funny” was never what he, Parker and Stone intended to do.

“There has to be something to care about for a full-length musical. There has to be a real emotional arc,” he says. “Weaving it all together with craft and making an audience care — that’s the hardest part.”

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