Ready or not Chicago, 'The Book of Mormon'

So how exactly does "South Park" get away with this? How can it be so outrageous and so simultaneously popular, when conventional theatrical wisdom says otherwise?

It wouldn't be accurate to discount the huge contributions of co-writer and co-composer Lopez ("The Book of Mormon" has much in common with "Avenue Q" as well) and Nicholaw, who knew more than Parker about moving actual people through time and space. Still, the answer to a question that is preoccupying a slew of would-be "Book of Mormon" imitators probably can most readily be found at the South Park Studios. One especially intriguing antecedent is Season 9, Episode 12, titled "Trapped in the Closet," wherein Stan is revealed to be the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

"That episode was a benchmark for us," Garefino says. "Our attorney kept saying, 'I want you to do everything you want to do, but I want you to get right to the edge of where you are almost getting sued. I want you to go as far as you can and get as close to that edge as you possibly can.'"

So what is the edge? "Well, we couldn't say that Tom Cruise was gay," Garefino says. "But we could say that Tom Cruise won't come out of the closet, but then we literally had to put Tom Cruise in a closet to make that work. Our attorney, who was great, kept saying, 'The more people you can put in that closest, the better it will be for me.' So we put more and more people in the closet. It was a fascinating, really amazing week. We learned how far we can go."

In other words, Garefino and her boys figured out that the further you go, the more protected (legally, aesthetically, with your audience) you become. At one point the show had every intention of just killing off its main character. ("Elder Price," says Stone, "was just going to die, just because nobody ever does that.") Clearly, the protective powers of going to the edge informed "The Book of Mormon," which had chins on the floor by going so very much further than any Broadway show ever had gone before. The raping of African babies as the content of a gag had, hitherto, been off limits on the Great White Way.

"The show really did come from the discoveries on 'South Park,'" Garefino says. "If you know Matt and Trey's work on 'South Park' and how it developed, and then you see 'The Book of Mormon,' it all makes sense."

Of course, mere outrageousness does not a Broadway musical make. There is the little matter of storytelling. And that, along with a good dose of heart, is the "South Park" secret weapon No. 2.

In the first act of "Mormon," most of the jokes come at the expense of the naive missionaries, whose assumptions are continually challenged and beliefs undermined. But just when that is starting to feel like shooting fish in a barrel, the show makes a crucial shift. Elder Cunningham, one of the central missionaries, decides to take the Mormon doctrine and fit it to the needs of the people of Uganda. That allows for a hilarious "Uncle Tom's Cabin"-style pageant in Act 2, when the Mormon elders are confronted with compromising their doctrinal beliefs. But it also makes you love the missionary, because you see he is just doing his best in the kind of tough situation we've all experienced. In other words, the show does a clever, 180-degree turn, switching the initial objects of ridicule into kind-hearted (if naive) protagonists with whom you cannot help but empathize.

That is a classic "South Park" trick. If those boys were not lovable, nobody would still be watching.

Don't go out there looking for laughs

By the Wednesday of that week, Obama has indeed won his election (Romney and Cartman notwithstanding), "Obama Wins!" has been finished on time, and, on the opposite coast of America, the latest, made-for-Chicago version of Parker and Stone's "Mormon" is in a 42nd Street rehearsal room, filled with fresh-faced lads bubbling with the kind of morning enthusiasm your typical Mormon missionary would struggle to muster.

The Chicago cast is rehearsing "Hello," the show's hugely popular opening number that involves Mormons ringing doorbells. The actors look as if they were in preschool when "South Park" started its run.

After they sing the number, Nicholaw gives notes. "You have to believe you are really going to get an answer," he tells the actors. "You have to have faith." It's a way of translating a truism that Parker and Stone say they found out long ago: When anyone doing their material really tries to be funny, he fails to be funny.

"Our sense of humor really is a brand, a take," Parker says. "Part of the joke of everything we do is how seriously everyone takes it. It's that way with 'South Park,' and it's that way with 'Book of Mormon.' The moment anyone feels like they have to be funny, you're screwed."

"This show requires actors that have restraint," Stone says. "They have to know there will be a bigger laugh to come."

Here in New York, the actors listen politely (not unlike missionaries) as Nicholaw reminds them of that gospel. On that morning, the Chicago cast had yet to meet Parker and Stone. But Parker and Stone are coming, and they're eagerly awaited.

Will Parker and Stone be coming back to Broadway? Hard to say. First, they say probably not, then both say various shades of maybe, if they could come up with the right idea, being as they enjoyed it so much, with the caveat that the pressure of a follow-up would be something with which to wrestle. They insist they still don't know what they are doing.

"I wish," Parker says, "that there was an easy way to do what we do. But even after 16 years, every episode of 'South Park' is a f---ing nightmare."

But then Stone tells a funny little story about Parker running away from the theater in a tense moment during Broadway "Mormon" previews and disappearing down 8th Avenue. And Parker smiles. "When 'South Park' airs, I'm usually having dinner or not thinking about it," Stone says. "There might be 2 million people watching, but I'm not in the room with them."

Broadway, it becomes clear, mattered to Parker and Stone a great deal. And, it seems clear, so will Chicago. "I think there is a hunger to get back to a movie," says Parker, when pushed for future plans. "It is nice when something stays done."

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib