NEW YORK (Reuters) - It’s sprinkled with jokes about Mormons discriminating against black people and repressed gay longings, but the creators of a new musical about Mormons say it won’t attract the sort of religious controversy they are famous for.
One of the most anticipated musicals this Broadway season, “The Book of Mormon,” satirizes the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, sexualizes the ritual of baptism and has plenty of politically incorrect jokes.
But “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone say they have also created a heartwarming story of two young present day Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda who grapple with the relevance of their beliefs for Africans dealing with AIDS and the character of brutal warlord General Butt Naked.
“We didn’t sit down and say, ‘All right, let’s bash Mormons, how should we do it? Let’s spend seven years of our lives writing a Broadway musical so that we can rip on Mormons,” Parker quipped. “We really wanted to just make a very traditional, classic musical.”
While the musical may not get the pair the sort of death threats, show cancellations and religious controversy their animated hit TV show “South Park” has invited over the years, Parker and Stone say the lighter musical fare is still far from PG-rated and no jokes were deemed too much for Broadway.
“If you can’t watch an average episode of “South Park” with your kids, you probably shouldn’t bring them to the musical. But it’s by far not the rawest or filthiest thing we’ve ever done. We could do much more,” said Stone.
The pair behind the film “Team America: World Police” first found success with the 1993 film, “Cannibal! The Musical” based on confessed cannibal Alfred Parker. Then came the animated TV show “South Park”, whose controversies included mocking the Church of Scientology, the Catholic Church, and depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit.
The Mormon church, which has been scrutinized in U.S. popular culture through the TV series “Big Love” and in politics through 2008 Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, said the musical was just a show.
“The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ,” church spokeswoman Kim Farah said in a statement.
Stone, 39, said he has had little feedback from Mormons, but initial worries that the show might upset the tight-knit community have proven unfounded, so far, based on response from a few weeks of previews, blogs and stories in the media.
“It feels like the whole attitude is changing. People are starting to get it,” he said.
The musical, which opens on March 24, begins with a bunch of clean-cut Mormon men in Salt Lake City, Utah dressed in typically white, starched shirts learning how to knock on doors, and goes on to include an entertaining look at how Joseph Smith Jr. founded the church.
Parker and Stone cite a song called “I Believe” in the second act as an example of how the show mixes humor about the beliefs of Mormons with warmth for the two main characters, including rising actor Josh Gad as a bumbling missionary.
“It’s this whole song that gets huge laughs, but it doesn’t have a single joke in it,” Stone said. “It’s just interesting, idiosyncratic things that Mormons believe, but at the same time it is a really heartfelt song from a devout Mormon, so it isn’t really just laughing at this person. It works on both levels.”
The pair hopes the audience comes in with no presumptions.
“This is a musical and it’s a little bit of a different experience than a 22-minute animated show,” said Stone. “We always thought if people could get past what they thought about what we usually do, that we could get them to the point where they understand it.”
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bob Tourtellotte