by Spank the Monkey
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s animated TV series, South Park, first hit our screens in 1997, about the same time as domestic internet access was beginning to take off. It was the first TV show I can remember being widely, let’s say, distributed across the web, a factor that probably contributed towards its rapid worldwide success. (It certainly didn’t hurt that in those days of 28k modems, a South Park episode looked so rough already that it could be brutally squished into 30-odd Mb of Real Video without any visible degradation.)
Parker and Stone apparently appeared out of nowhere, but the technology of the web also gave fans like me a method of tracking down their earlier work. There were a couple of crude South Park prototypes, Jesus v Frosty and The Spirit Of Christmas: a curious in-house short for Universal called Your Studio And You: and further back than those was their first proper film, the unholy marriage of Rodgers and Hammerstein with Lucio Fulci that was Cannibal! The Musical.
Cannibal! was made in 1993, which means that Trey and Matt have been getting away with this shit for nearly two decades now. And their 2011 smash hit Broadway musical, The Book Of Mormon, is the perfect synthesis of everything they’ve done over those two decades.
Religion is pretty much grist to the mill for a 21st century satirist. Parker and Stone have tackled all the big ones in their time – the common complaint of passive-aggressive Christian racists that “you wouldn’t dare pick on Islam like this” certainly doesn’t hold true here. But there are two religions that they keep on coming back to: Scientology and Mormonism. The things they have in common are the things that make them prime targets for comedy: they’re modern, uniquely American, and both have a dodgy visionary as their leader.
With Scientology, there’s the bonus appeal of the hilarious noise that Tom Cruise’s lawyers make when you start dropping too many hints. But Parker and Stone’s fascination with Mormons seems to go much deeper than that. From Parker’s 1997 film Orgazmo, through to the South Park episode All About Mormons, there’s a common thread of benign amusement at how Joseph Smith’s ridiculous story grew into a full-blown faith. Well, I say benign. There is that song in the South Park episode that features the word ‘dumb’ 31 times in a row, I suppose.
Songs are the other common thread in Trey Parker’s work (and he tends to take solo music credit, so let’s put Matt Stone to one side for a second). Cannibal! was obviously full of them: South Park used them to expand its movie version into something very special: and even Team America: World Police is probably best known these days for its alternative US national anthem, America Fuck Yeah. Parker’s got a decent ear for a melody, and a gift for pastiching musical styles – but he knows where his limitations lie. That’s presumably where The Book Of Mormon’s co-creator Robert Lopez comes in: as one of the creative team behind the profane puppetfest Avenue Q, I suspect he’s the one who’s made sure that Mormon’s outrageousness is supported on a bed of rock-solid old-fashioned show tunes. And I think that may well be the key to its success.
The story of how Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is so gloriously daft, it was initially assumed that The Book Of Mormon would simply retell it for laughs (which is precisely what All About Mormons did). That’s not quite what happens, though it’s still an irresistible tale and pops up in several very different forms throughout the show. Instead, we follow two trainee Mormon missionaries, Elder Price (played by Andrew Rannells in the opening run) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad). Price is wildly ambitious, and determined to be the best Mormon he can be, Cunningham is a nerd and a bit of a loser. Inevitably, they’re paired up with each other for their first mission. Less inevitably, that mission is in Uganda.
Everyone remembers the best bit of South Park: Bigger Longer And Uncut. After a fairly restrained opening 15 minutes, there’s an instigating incident so spectacular that, to quote Eric Cartman, it “warped my fragile little mind”. The Book Of Mormon pivots on something similar, and it’s entirely justified in dramatic terms. Price and Cunningham’s arrival in Africa is meant to be a huge culture shock for them, and the show needs to find a way of getting that shock over to us too. Let’s just say it manages that. The impact on the missionaries goes against expectations: Cunningham mans up to the challenge of bringing the word of Mormon to Uganda, while Price undergoes a major crisis of faith. This is Broadway, though, so that crisis can always be resolved with a song.
After 14 years of being a South Park fanboy, I’m not sure what I was expecting from the team’s first stage show. I don’t think I was expecting something so traditional. Parker has shown in his previous work that he knows the structure of musicals inside out: how to give each character their moment, how to use songs to drive the story rather than interrupt it. Lopez – I’m guessing – has used his previous Broadway experience to ensure it all looks and feels authentic, until you listen to the lyrics.
And that’s the most surprising thing, isn’t it? A show capable of using the phrase ‘magical AIDS frog’ should be an off-Broadway production at best. Instead, it’s selling out a real Broadway theatre for months in advance and has nine Tony awards under its belt. I suspect it’s because audiences respect the fact that it’s a musical in the old tradition of the Great White Way, just a tad more offensive with it. Unlike its approximate contemporary, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark – a show so riddled with technical screwups and cast injuries that it looked like it was going to become Broadway’s first snuff musical – Mormon has no gimmicky effects to speak of, and gets by on the sheer song ‘n’ dance ‘n’ comedy talents involved.
Sure, I could list the atrocities line by line, as some of the more tedious negative reviews have done. But they’re balanced out by the warmth that frequently appears in the creative team’s best work and it’s most notable in the ending. After two hours of teasing and mocking its characters, the show has to reach some sort of conclusion – but what will it be? If you think about how many times a South Park episode has climaxed in a way that allows Parker and Stone to have their cake and eat it, the final scenes come as no real surprise at all. And they play fair with the audience – the ending is subtly telegraphed by a tiny little running gag that slowly expands until it becomes the entire show.
Currently, you can only see The Book Of Mormon on Broadway. That will change: there’s a US tour lined up for 2012, and producer Sonia Friedman is reported to be very keen to open in London by the end of that year. Given Parker and Stone’s well-known love of British comedy, I’m sure they’d love to bring the show over to us. My only fear is that someone will look at the character of Elder Cunningham, look at the box office figures of One Man Two Guvnors, and ask the question we’re all dreading: “can James Corden sing?”
Top ten lists? Nah, I don’t do that. But for several years now, I’ve put together an 80 minute compilation CD every Christmas, featuring my favourite tracks from the past twelve months’ releases. My choice of the best songs of 2011 includes a tune from The Book Of Mormon, so I feel justified in giving you the track listing here. For full analysis, videos, and the chance to win your own copy of the CD, you’ll have to look somewhere else.
- AMIINA – Asiin [from Puzzle]
- BJORK – Crystalline [from Biophilia]
- LAMB – Wise Enough [from 5]
- HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT – Joy In Leeuwarden (We Are Ready) [from 90 Bisodol (Crimond)]
- PETER GABRIEL – Darkness [from New Blood]
- ELBOW – Open Arms [from Build A Rocket Boys!]
- TOKYOJIHEN – Sora Ga Natteiru [from Dai Hakken]
- BILLY BRAGG – Never Buy The Sun [from Fight Songs]
- ANDREW RANNELLS & JOSH GAD – You And Me (But Mostly Me) [from The Book Of Mormon]
- KATE BUSH – Snowflakes [from 50 Words For Snow]
- PJ HARVEY – The Glorious Land [from Let England Shake]
- THE GO! TEAM – T.O.R.N.A.D.O. [from Rolling Blackouts]
- ZOEY VAN GOEY – You Told The Drunks I Knew Karate [from Propeller Versus Wings]
- THE WATERBOYS – Politics [from An Appointment With Mr Yeats]
- TOM WAITS – Hell Broke Luce [from Bad As Me]
- THE LONELY ISLAND– I Just Had Sex [from Turtleneck And Chain]
- THE UNTHANKS – Close The Coalhouse Door [from Last]
- IMAGINARY FLYING MACHINES – Tonari No Totoro [from Princess Ghibli]
The Book Of Mormon is now playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street, New York, NY 10019.
Spank The Monkey has been getting away with this shit for nearly 14 years now.