Casey Nicholaw admits he was skeptical when he was asked to meet with “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone about their new musical about Mormon missionaries in Africa.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like their TV show. He did, and was an even bigger fan of the musical film “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” The Broadway veteran — who had garnered numerous plaudits and Tony Award nominations for his work as a choreographer and director on projects such as “Spamalot” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” — had faith that the men who regularly juggled social satire, talking poo, and musical numbers could write something great, but he was unsure how “co-directing” with Parker would work.
A boatload of Tony Awards (and a whole lot of tickets sold) later, it turns out it worked like a charm.
THE BOOK OF MORMON
“I had never done that, but it worked out perfectly because I was choreographing and directing and he was writing and directing, and we really just sort of met in the right places,” says Nicholaw, who was mightily impressed by Parker and Stone. “The thing I love about them is even though the day-to-day of it was not their world to start with, they were completely game and they got it quickly.”
That getting it netted the show nine Tonys, including best musical, a shared best-directing trophy for Parker and Nicholaw, and a shared best-book prize awarded to Parker, Stone, and co-creator Robert Lopez (“Avenue Q”). The nearly sold-out national touring production of “The Book of Mormon” comes to the Boston Opera House for a three-week run that begins April 9.
We recently chatted with Parker and Stone by phone while they were preparing for opening night in London, where the show earned the highest one-day gross in the city’s theater history.
Q. I asked Dave Bryan from Bon Jovi about this recently, since he won the Tony for “Memphis.” You guys understand that, even though you worked on it a long time, this type of boffo success right out of the gate isn’t typical, right?
Stone: Just us and Bon Jovi members. [Parker laughs.]
Parker: Maybe we should write a show with Bon Jovi.
Stone: Maybe part of it was because it really was our “other” thing. We have our day job, which is “South Park,” and Bobby [Lopez] was really busy doing things. It was this great four or five years where it was just Trey and I and Bobby, and we would work whenever we had time, and we would put it down for six months. It certainly wasn’t rushed, and maybe that’s why it got to marinate a little longer. Whereas I think if you said, “You guys have to write a musical in two years and launch it,” that would be pretty tough. It was just nice that we weren’t under the gun, until we made ourselves go under the gun, and then it started to suck and was work, but that was only the last year and a half or so.
Q. It’s pretty amazing that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has bought three full-page ads in the Playbill, including one that says, “You’ve seen the play . . . now read the book.”
Parker: I think it’s awesome. The only one I don’t like is the one that says, “The book is better.” That one I totally don’t agree with. I think our version is way better, especially the second act.
Stone: If you like “The Book of Mormon” musical and it makes you pick up the [actual] book and start reading it, you’re going to be bummed out.
Parker: Yeah, the book is not better. The musical is way better.
Stone: Yeah, their book didn’t win any Tonys.
Q. Are you surprised that the church’s response has been so good-natured? [The official response from the church’s website: “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.”]
Parker: We knew they would be. That’s the Mormons’ MO. This just sums them up perfectly. If you ever go to Temple Square in Salt Lake City, if you stay there long enough, you’ll see a homeless person standing in the middle of their nice, beautiful square, holding out a cup for change. And the Mormons don’t ever ask him to leave. They just come out and stick a sign right in front of him that says, “If you want to support the homeless, we suggest you give to these charities.” So the homeless guy moves away from the sign and they just come, with a big smile, and take the sign and move it to wherever he moves to until he finally leaves Temple Square.
Stone: That’s what they’re doing to us. That’s their version of their little sign.
Q. Has a Mormon ever come up to you saying the show has made them question their faith?
Stone: No, not that. At one of the first previews there were some Mormons there, and the ones we talked to, they loved the show. Maybe it’s happened, but no one’s told us that. What’s actually really cool, and I’m not kidding, is the Mormons who come up to us who’ve been on a mission and they say, “Yeah, there are parts of that that really captured the feelings that I had, the confusion.” They’re still Mormons; it’s not like they gave up their faith. But they’re like, “I showed up in this foreign country and it was like, what the [expletive] am I doing here?” Which is part of why they send them. They send them to proselytize, but they also send them to toughen them up. It’s really smart of the church to send kids to foreign countries and let them struggle for a little bit.
Parker: It’s interesting. There’s a lot of Mormons that I think feel validated by this in a way because they love their church and they love their family, but they’ve always kind of felt inside that “Maybe this is all a bunch of [expletive] but I still love it.’’ And I think there’s a lot of Mormons who come to the show and say, “That’s exactly how I feel,” and come out of it actually feeling better about being Mormon. And that’s why a lot of Mormons see this as their “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Q. But I’ve seen many complaints from Mormons in comment threads on stories about the show and about that comparison. People who didn’t like it saying, “They haven’t talked to me,” and noting that Jewish people wrote “Fiddler on the Roof,” so it’s different.
Parker: We’re talking about the Mormons that will actually come to the show in the first place, first of all, which is a pretty select group of Mormons.
Stone: We’re dealing with pretty cool Mormons. The reason I don’t think it’s totally fair — it’s true that we’re not Mormons — but we had a Mormon story line in [the movie] “Orgazmo,” which was in the ’90s. We’ve been on the Mormon thing for a long time, since before Mitt Romney showed up on the scene and people started getting interested in it. We grew up in Colorado, and we grew up with Mormons. Mormons lived on my street. So, we have some personal experience, not just book experience with them. We’ve spent way too much time going to Salt Lake City to Temple Square. We’ve been to Palmyra [N.Y., childhood home of church founder Joseph Smith]. We’ve been to Rochester and the festival up there. We’re not on the inside, but we are white Americans from the western part of the United States, and we know that culture a little bit.
Parker: Most of the Mormons we know, we really like. We weren’t ever coming at this from [a place of] “Let’s take these people down. We hate these people.”
Q. There are also some topics that a portion of the consuming public are never going to be comfortable with having comedy around, like AIDS and female circumcision, even if the “jokes” aren’t specifically about those things.
Parker: If it was only meant to be a joke, then it would be a problem, but it’s actually important to the story to see where that goes and what that transforms into.
Stone: Our stuff has always been the sort of stuff that 20 percent of people really like it and 80 percent of people really don’t like it. [Laughs] So we’ve been comfortable with that. “Book of Mormon,” I think, is more than 20 percent. We’ve been edging up our percentages. “Book of Mormon” ’s [appeal] is much broader than we ever thought it would be. We thought there would be a group of people that really, really liked it and a bunch of people that just hated it, and it’s turned out to be the opposite of that.
Q. Trey, you performed in musicals when you were younger. Was there ever a moment during the process where you got the strong itch to go onstage yourself as opposed to staying behind the scenes?
Parker: It is really true, whenever you’re writing, you’re always imagining yourself as the lead, but I’m far too old and . . . I’d be too expensive.
Q. Is there part of you that secretly had a Broadway dream at some point, though?
Parker: Yeah, I think so, but that dream changed pretty quickly when I saw how much more lucrative writing was.
Q. Do you think you guys will EGOT? You’re so close, having won Emmys and Grammys for “South Park” and Tonys for “Book of Mormon,” and you were nominated for an Oscar for “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.”
Parker: I don’t think we’ll ever get the O.
Stone: I think we’re going to have an EGT. [Parker laughs.]
Q. Let’s talk about ticket prices. They’re high to begin with, and the scalping is insane. Recently, I watched someone pay a scalper in New York $600 apiece for two tickets.
Parker: That’s brutal. I’ve seen that happen before. I’ve actually taken a more active role in going and directing all the understudies. Because there are understudies going on that we’ve never even talked to, and the idea that people can be out there paying that much money and then, who knows, it’s a random Wednesday and maybe they see an understudy. That’s why it’s tough to think about how, on any given night, with four companies going, how much control do we really have over the entire thing?
Q. But even just the face-value prices are high. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but did you ever think you’d create something that would cost that much?
Stone: We talked about it a lot when we were writing it. There’s a different contract with the audience with a TV show. When we do “South Park,” it’s on for free and it’s on in the corner and maybe you’re doing something [else while watching]. And if you don’t like it for whatever reason, it’s like, “Well, [expletive] you, it’s free.” A musical is a big night out for people. Even at just face-value prices, it’s a hundred bucks a ticket; people get dressed up. You’ve got to deliver on that.
Q. Since the show is coming to Massachusetts, I’m curious if you know whether our former governor, Mitt Romney, ever took you up on your offer to see the show?
Stone: I don’t think so. I think we would’ve heard.
Parker: Maybe in Boston.
Q. So would you like to extend a personal invitation, maybe meet him for a cup of coffee after to have a discussion?
Parker: If he wants to go to the show and meet for a cup of coffee, we’ll do it. [Stone laughs.]
Stone: If he’ll drink coffee, or a Pepsi, or a beer with us, we will do it.
Q. Oh, right, he probably doesn’t drink caffeine. Maybe, he’ll have some nice caffeine-free tea?
Stone: He has to drink caffeine, damn it.
Q. What would Cartman think of “Book of Mormon”?
Parker: He wouldn’t go. It’s a hundred bucks a ticket.
Q. Plus he’s a little young. But then again, I saw very young kids at my show, like 8 or 9.
Stone: That’s [expletive] up.
Parker: Yeah, that’s basically child abuse.
Q. Fans must come up and quote “South Park” dialogue to you all the time. Has that grown tedious?
Stone: We love it so much. It’s one of the best things about our job. Please come up and quote “South Park” to us.