When Joseph Smith Jr. published The Book of Mormon in 1830, he likely wasn't expecting that an outrageously profane musical that purloined his golden title would dominate the 2011 Tony Awards. Then again, he probably wasn't anticipating "South Park" either. We talked on the phone with Matt Stone, "South Park" co-creator and co-author of the Broadway hit "The Book of Mormon," about the show expected to walk away next Sunday with more Tony Awards than Kenny McCormick had resurrections.
Q. So did you expect The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be so remarkably cool about your show (in public, at least)?
A. Actually we did. They have a pretty good track record when it comes to criticism. We went through it before with our Mormon "South Park" episode. They made a public statement -- mentioning us by name -- that basically said the Bill of Rights that protects our minority religion is the very same one that lets these guys criticize us. I read that and got almost teary. A North American church stood up for freedom. I believe they had a very hip response.
Q. You've doubtless heard from individual Mormons.
A. I've met a couple who saw our show. Now I'm not kidding myself. That's a self-selected group. But mellow Mormons seem to like it.
Q. How did you come up with this thing?
A. We worked on it for seven years. This was by the longest we'd ever worked on anything. We'd get together for a week, and then go back and do "South Park" and then get together for another week and so on. The three of us (co-authors) just sat in a room together. Bobby (Robert Lopez) would sit at the piano. Trey (Parker, also a co-creator of "South Park") would sing the hooks, and I'd bring up the rear on the drums. We wrote the songs like a band doing an album of Mormon songs. "You have to have the missionary song, and the army song," we'd say. We decided this would probably be the only musical about Mormons that would ever be written, so we wanted to educate people and include everything.
Q. I would have worried that Mormons, whom you knew could not effectively fight back, were too easy a target.
A. We did worry a lot about that. We decided we wanted to make fun of the religion but not the people. There three of us being storytellers by trade -- I know that's a pretentious way of describing our fart jokes -- we have a weird reverence for religion and religious stories. Mormons are easy to laugh at: They dress up, they go door to door. But isn't it also kind of a beautiful and very American religion? It's a total New York thing to slough off Mormon beliefs but then extol the beauty of a Native American religion. Actually, we wanted to give a New York theater audience -- cynics on a secular night out -- kind of a religious experience.
Q. So you came up with a duo of missionaries who get sent to Uganda ...
A. We have Elder Price, our perfect, captain-of-the-football-team Mormon and Elder Cunningham, our fat schlubby Mormon, and we wanted to send them to the worst place on earth. We were thinking Somalia. Mogadishu. Somewhere God forgot. Actually, our original idea was that Elder Price was going to get shot in the face and die.
Q. That would have meant no Tony for Andrew Rannells.
A. True. We just loved the idea of presenting our lead, our star, and then killing him off straight away. But it didn't work. Elder Cunningham is like Dorothy; he just drops in and tries to do the right thing. He couldn't have a crisis of faith. He hadn't read the Book of Mormon. But Elder Price could. We needed that.
Q. So it's all been fun?
A. We had a somewhat blessed time. We especially liked working with actors. We hadn't worked with human performers in a long time.
"The Book of Mormon" plays at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway. A national tour begins in 2012.Copyright © 2015, RedEye