Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad in the NYC production of The Book of Mormon.
Composer/lyricist Robert Lopez may be most famous for his work in The Book of Mormon, the wickedly irreverent musical that arrives in Chicago this month, but he grew up loving the work of Broadway icon Stephen Sondheim. The show that got him going on his first breakout hit—the puppet-populated, Tony-winning Avenue Q—was South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, the animated film from Matt Stone and Trey Parker. “It was an honest-to-God musical,” says Lopez, “with a real story and characters and emotional arcs and all the rest—plus elements of spoofing that kept the laughs coming. It was a big moment for me, seeing that.”
It was a big moment, too, for Stone and Parker, when these creators of TV’s shamelessly blasphemous South Park caught a performance of Avenue Q. Taken with the production’s musical chops and its Rent-meets-Sesame Street sensibility, the two joined Lopez for a drink after the curtain came down. And in one of those moments that wouldn’t be out of place in an MGM musical, the three discovered that they were all dreaming of doing a big show pegged to Mormonism. Then again, as Lopez suggests, this meeting of irreverently inventive minds may not have been so serendipitous at all. “Mormonism is everybody’s dog to kick,” he notes. “It’s a young religion and isn’t protected by thousands of years of mystery and tradition. It’s so easy to make fun of. But when people do, they don’t realize Bible stories are just as silly as Mormon stories.”
When the trio’s The Book of Mormon premiered on Broadway, pundits were no doubt ready to assail it as the latest skirmish in our culture wars. Zingingly satirical, the show riotously recounts the misadventures of a pair of young missionaries as they encounter a despotic African potentate. But the Broadway audience is a Catholic bunch, with folks of all stripes sitting in the seats, from Upper West Side lefties to Midwest soccer moms—and they ate it up. No wonder. As Lopez remarks: “Quite honestly, the show doesn’t make fun of Mormons that much. Most everyone is presented as being well-intended. That’s the key to it. Everyone is a good person trying to do good the best way they can. It’s a very conventional show, and it really has a proreligion message.”
Lopez, who collaborated with Stone and Parker on the book, music, and lyrics, was raised Catholic in New York. His understanding of Mormonism—unlike that of his Colorado-bred creative partners—was the typical outsider’s impression, leavened by what he picked up in college from renowned literary scholar Harold Bloom, who categorized Mormon scripture as akin to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. “He spoke of how literature is transformative,” Lopez recalls, “that it changes society and consciousness, but that there’s really no difference, say, between Shakespeare and the Bible.”
Despite its transgressive humor, The Book of Mormon doesn’t slam true believers. Lopez, who had a crisis of faith in college, admits, “At one point, I realized that all that stuff I believed as a kid was made-up, it was all theater and phony. And I thought, Oh boy, all that good feeling and spirituality I felt was based on nothing. There’s no God, and I should feel alone in the universe. And then, growing up a little bit, I realized the truth of the stories didn’t matter. They change people’s lives for the better. Whether they really believe in the stories or just take them as examples of how to live, religion and religious stories can be a force for good. That’s what we wanted to write about.” The Book of Mormon opens December 11 at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., 312-977-1710