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'Book Of Mormon' Creators On Their Broadway Smash

Trey Parker and Matt Stone talk about their blasphemous, hilarious and oddly endearing Broadway hit, which led the Tony nominations field this year — and will probably go down in history as the only Broadway musical ever to combine Mormons, Uganda, filthy language and a chorus line.

51:21

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20110519
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
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'Book of Mormon' Creators On Their Broadway Smash

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new hit Broadway musical comedy "The Book of Mormon" is nominated
for 14 Tonys, just one shy of the record number for any show. My guests
are the co-writers of the show's book and music, Trey Parker and Matt
Stone, who are also the creators of "South Park." Their writing partner
was Robert Lopez, who co-wrote the music for "Avenue Q."

If you know anything about "South Park," you would expect that a musical
written by Parker and Stone would be irreverent, and you'd be right. But
as Frank Rich writes in the liner notes for the soon-to-be-released cast
recording: However skeptical the show may be of the Church of Latter-day
Saints in particular and religion in general, its faith in the Broadway
brand of tuneful, funny, well-told and uplifting musicals is unshakable.

The story is about two young Mormons who are sent on their first mission
to Uganda, where they learn Africa is not like "The Lion King." Let's
start with the opening song, set at a mission training center in Salt
Lake City, where young Mormons are learning to missionize door-to-door.

(Soundbite of song, "Hello")

(Soundbite of doorbell)

Unidentified People (Actors): (as characters) Hello, my name is Elder
Price, and I would like to share with you the most amazing book.

(Soundbite of doorbell)

Unidentified People: (as characters) Hello, my name is Elder Grant. It's
a book about America a long, long time ago. It has so many awesome
parts. You simply won't believe how much this book can change your life.
Hello, my name is Elder Green. I would like to share with you this book
of Jesus Christ. Hello, my name is Elder Young. Did you know that Jesus
lived here in the USA? You can read all about it now in this nifty book.
It's free. No, you don't have to pay.

Hello, hello, my name is Elder Smith. And can I leave this book with you
for you to just peruse? Hello, hello, I'll just leave it here. It has a
lot of information you can really use.

Hello, hi, my name is Jesus Christ - you have a lovely home. Hello, it's
an amazing book. Bon jour, hola (unintelligible) this book gives you the
secret to eternal life.

Eternal life - Jesus Christ - is super-fun, hello, and if you let us in,
we'll show you how it can be done. No, thank you, sir. Oh well, that's
fine. Good-bye. (Unintelligible) hey now, you simply won't believe how
much this book can change your life (unintelligible) change your life...

(Speaking) Hello, would you like to change religions? I have a free book
written by Jesus.

(Speaking) No, no, Elder Cunningham, that's not how we do it. You're
making things up again. Just stick to the approved dialogue.

(Singing) Hello, my name is Elder Cunningham, and we would like to share
with you this book of Jesus Christ. Just take this book, it's free for
you from me. You simply won't believe how much this book can change your
life. So you won't burn in hell (unintelligible)...

GROSS: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and
congratulations on "The Book of Mormon" and on all the success it's been
having and the many Tony nominations.

Mr. MATT STONE (Co-writer, "The Book of Mormon"): Thank you.

Mr. TREY PARKER (Co-writer, "The Book of Mormon"): Thank you.

GROSS: Before we talk about why and how you wrote the musical, let's
talk about the opening song that we just heard. The ringing doorbells,
as part of the song, that works so well musically and in terms of the
narrative. How did you decide to work that in? How did that come to you?

Mr. STONE: It was actually the first song we wrote for the entire show.
Once we knew that we wanted to start with missionaries, and we knew we
wanted to start with missionaries at the missionary training center, and
let's start the way that most people, your average person, their
interaction with Mormons, which is those guys in white shirts that come
to your door.

You know, so before we get into anything else about Mormonism, we just
wanted to start there, and then it was - pretty quickly we came up with
the hook of, like, let's use the doorbell as actually part of the music
and start layering things on top of each other.

And so we were just in a space at the time where we just had a laptop
and a little, you know, sequencer that we could - we just started
layering vocals on top of each other and just started putting it down as
a song.

GROSS: So did Mormons come to your door, and did your family let them in
when you were growing up?

Mr. STONE: They never came to my door, I don't think. I don't know if my
dad would have let them in either.

Mr. PARKER: We live in - we grew up in Colorado. So we actually, we were
around a lot of Mormons. And we went to school with Mormons and things
like that. But I think that the first time I actually saw them come to
the door was in college, actually. I had some Mormons come to where I
was staying in college, when they actually came in that way.

But then since then we've had a few, and we always try to - I always
tried to start kind of a dialogue with them. But you learn pretty
quickly that they are trained impeccably to be able to handle anything.
And so it's pretty cool to try to mess with them.

Mr. STONE: Knock them off their game.

Mr. PARKER: You can't do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: But then, you know, with "Hello," the idea of it, that you'd
reveal that you were at the missionary training center, which is in
Provo, Utah, which is where they get - they learn all their language
skills and they learn their - you know, what to do when you do get
invited into a house.

And we found out later, at the missionary training center they actually
have, like, prop living rooms, like fake living rooms with actors that,
you know, it's like one of your tests is to go and, like, go into this
fake living room and do your spiel, and you have to deal with this in a
real situation.

Mr. PARKER: It's like the holodeck. It's like the holodeck on "Star
Trek."

Mr. STONE: It's like a driving simulator, yeah.

GROSS: So did you go to a missionary training center as part of your
research for the show?

Mr. STONE: No, we didn't go there, but we went to - we did take a field
trip to Salt Lake City with Bobby Lopez, our co-writer, who had never
been to Salt Lake City. And we interviewed a bunch of missionaries or
ex-missionaries, people who'd been on mission, which really for us was
pretty easy to find. We just talked to waiters, you know, in downtown
Salt Lake City.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: You know, most, like, post-collegiate, kind of like 25- to
30-year-old guys, and almost every single waiter we asked if they'd been
on a mission, they had. Right? It was like every single one. So that was
where we got a lot of our research done about missionaries, was actually
in Salt Lake City.

GROSS: So maybe this is a good time to hear the song in which the
missionaries are getting paired, and they're finding out what mission
they're going to be sent on. And the song is called "Two By Two." And
would you talk about writing this song and maybe talk about how it
changed your relationship to be writing songs with a third person, with
Robert Lopez, who wrote the song, co-wrote the songs for "Avenue Q"?

Mr. PARKER: It was - it was like being in a band. I mean, it was just -
we would just hang out in a room, and again, we'd kick around the idea
of what's the hook of the song.

And you'd come up with the hook, and you'd sort of talk about that
first. And we're like, okay, well, what is it? You know, they're sent
two guys at a time. They're being paired off here. Of course, you know,
the idea of two by two came out really quick.

We thought it would be a really militant - I remember it started being
much more...

Mr. STONE: It was a much more (humming). It was much more snare drum and
a militaristic kind of beat, like two by two we go from door - it's
supposed to be this joke of they're the army. And we had this kind of
metaphor going that they were sent along - they're soldiers of God and
they're going around the world to sell their stuff.

And I remember what a big - the joke – and it kind of comes at the end
of this song is, is just how funny we'd find that the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints to be kind of grammatically weird with two
of's in there. And so we made the of kind of this running joke of, like,
we're the army of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And you can start stacking these of's in this crazy way, and that was
kind of a central joke too.

Mr. PARKER: And I remember at one point we were, like, yeah, it's a good
song, but it's just – it's a little dry. And we realized it was because
of the military thing. I remember Bobby being, like, you know, we could
put this different feel to it that's a bit more just cheesy, and then
that's when - one of my prouder moments - where I remembered a thing
from high school, when I was in choir in high school, we actually had a
song where we sang ooh-wa-hey-ah shout out(ph) wow.

GROSS: Oh, I love that stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: And it was like shout out wow. And I remember - and so we
actually just recorded that, singing it, you know, shout out wow. And it
just, the rest of the song fell into place after that.

GROSS: And you've got clapping in it too.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, lots of clapping.

Mr. STONE: We went from militaristic to "Up With People," and the "Up
With People" vibe really seemed to be a funnier, fun, more true kind of
feel.

GROSS: So it's a great song. So here it is, "Two By Two," as the young
missionaries are paired off and assigned their mission. And this is from
"The Book of Mormon."

(Soundbite of song, "Two By Two")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Shout out wow(ph). Two by two we're
marching door to door 'cause God loves Mormons, and he wants some more.
A two-year mission is our sacrifice. We are the army of the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Two by two, and today we'll know who we'll make the journey with and
where we'll go. We're fighting for a cause, but we're really, really
nice. We are the army of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints.

Elder White and Elder Smith.

Oh, I knew we'd be paired together.

Your location will be France.

France, land of pastries and turtlenecks.

Two by two, I guess it's you and me. We're off to reach across land and
sea. Satan has a hold of France. We need to knock him off his perch. We
are the soldiers of the army of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints.

Elder Cross and Elder Green, you will be serving in Japan.

Oh, Japan, land of soy sauce and Mothra.

Elder Harris and Elder Brown...

Heavenly father, where will I go on my mission? Will it be China or old
Mexico on my mission? It could be San Fran by the Bay, Australia where
they say g'day, but I pray I'm sent to my favorite place, Orlando. I
love you, Orlando, Sea World and Disney and putt-putt golfing.

Elder Price...

Yes, sir.

Your brother will be Elder Cunningham.

That's me, that's me. Hello. Oh, hi.

And your mission location is Uganda.

Uganda? Uganda? Cool. Where is that?

Africa.

Oh, boy, like "Lion King."

Two by two and now it's time to go. Our paths have been revealed...

GROSS: That's a song from "The Book of Mormon," which was co-written by
Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of "South Park," and "The Book
of Mormon" is nominated for 14 Tonys.

So as we heard in that song, the two stars of the show, the two lead
missionaries from the show, are assigned what turns out to be Uganda.
Why did you choose Uganda as being, like, the nightmare come true as
opposed to the dream come true for them?

Mr. STONE: We just wanted it to be that place where you always read
about where - and a lot of times it's sub-Saharan Africa, it seems like.
I mean, lately it's been Haiti, where it's just that place you go, can
this place get a break? You know, they have earthquakes and then cholera
and then a warlord, you know, and then a famine and then, you know, no
water. And you know, it was just supposed to be that place. And we
settled on Uganda honestly because they speak English there. So that
seemed one like less leap to make. And we settled on Northern Uganda,
which had a humanitarian crisis of its own, and it borders Congo and the
Sudan.

So really it was kind of a bunch of different things that brought us to
that. We didn't start with Uganda. It's supposed to be just generic,
war-torn worst-place-on-Earth that where - if you are from Utah, nothing
you've learned in Utah when you're 18 or 19 years old makes any sense
when you get there.

GROSS: Let me stop you there. Is that part of what you were trying to
kind of puzzle through in this musical, why 19-year-old white
missionaries from Salt Lake City would feel like they could go to a
place in Africa...

Mr. STONE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that didn't understand the culture and have something to
offer?

Mr. STONE: Yeah, I mean I think that like Trey said, we have this
coming-of-age story, which is, you know, missionaries, you know, you're
that perfect age. When I was 18, I thought I knew everything.

And I think, you know, you're 18, you're told you've got all this
information. Now go change the world. You're like - you know, I just
think naturally when we're all about 17 or 18, we think we know
everything, and then life, you know, you get - life slaps you upside the
head.

And I think that happens for a lot of people just when they go an hour
away to college, or they - you know, they move out of the house. But a
lot of these kids go to another country, another culture, and a lot of
them end up in Third World countries, and they're probably seeing things
that they have never seen before.

So in addition to the coming-of-age story, we have a big fish-out-of-
water story going, and it just seemed really funny to send these two,
you know, kids who've grown up in this perfect place, you know, quote-
unquote, to a place where nothing makes sense that they've learned. But
definitely that was a big part of it.

GROSS: Now, a lot of musicals have magical places in them, you know,
like somewhere over the rainbow, or Brigadoon. And the magical places in
your musical are Salt Lake City and Orlando. Like, the lead missionary,
he really thinks Orlando is this, like, magical place because of the
theme parks and Sea World. So why Orlando?

And I should mention here that your co-writer, Robert Lopez, wrote the
musical version of "Finding Nemo," and it says in the Playbill that it's
been playing in Orlando for six years. So is that why Orlando is the
magical place?

Mr. PARKER: Well, it's just such a - you know, to us there's so many
things about Mormonism, even the way they present themselves, when you
go to Salt Lake City, the temple, when you go to some of their other
things, they present themselves in a very kind of Disney kind of way.

And we would have this running theme. We would always say when we're
working on either the sets or the costumes or whatever, we'd say: No,
make it more Rodgers and Hammerstein. Or make it more Disney. Or make it
more Mormon. And they're like: Well, which one is it? And we're like:
No, it's all the same word for the same thing. You know, basically like
make this brighter and happier and cheesier.

And that was, you know, to us, like, it's just that happy-go-lucky, you
know, let's act like everything's awesome and super-beautiful and
everything's okay. And that was just another, it just made perfect - and
you can hear it in the audience when you get this kind of lead who's
obviously a little bit of a cheesy happy-go-lucky Mormon, and he reveals
that this favorite place in the world is Orlando, and everyone just
immediately gets it. Like of course it is.

GROSS: My guests are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the co-writers of the
new hit Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon." They also created the
animated series "South Park." We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Trey Parker and Matt
Stone, the creators of "South Park," who now have this huge hit musical
on Broadway called "The Book of Mormon."

So I don't want people to get the wrong idea about how you present
Mormonism in your show, because you kind of challenge the credibility of
this, the literal credibility of the story of the Book of Mormon.

But you love your characters, and you think that eventually they do do
good in the world, not in the way that they expected to, but you're not
about being, like, really kind of cynical in this.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, no, and I - really what I grew up loving Broadway for
was the fact that it, at least, you know, in all these classics, you
know, they weren't cynical. They were very optimistic, and it offered
this kind of - they always ended with a big happy number, and everything
was okay. And as cheesy as that can seem, I loved it.

You know, and that's - you know, I don't think anyone would want to go
see a two-hour-long Mormon-bashing, and that's not - we wouldn't want to
see that either. It's just not - obviously you have to have characters
that you love.

And even if you, in certain things, have characters that you love to
hate, that's fine, but you know, everyone wants to see a little piece of
themselves up there, and that's what makes a musical, draws people in.

And so, you know, like we were saying about the whole thing about this -
even though this is about a very devout Mormon getting put with someone
and getting shot around the world and trying to be very Mormon, people
can relate to just that feeling of being in high school and getting out
and thinking: Okay, well, now I'm ready to just go tell everyone what's
up and make my mark in the world, and it's going to be really awesome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: And then you get slapped back down to reality. You know, and
I think that everyone can relate to that part of it.

And also the reason we knew it would work great with Bobby right away
was because we all shared this thing where it's like we love the
goofiness of Mormon stories. We love the - you know, some of them are so
incredulous, and yet we really liked most - almost all the Mormons we'd
ever met.

GROSS: So have Mormons in the audience enjoyed the musical? Do you know?
Have you gotten feedback?

Mr. PARKER: It's really funny. We can actually - when we were there for
previews, and we were there that whole month, where we'd go and watch it
every single night and try to change it, you could hear the pockets of
Mormons. You could hear where they were because there are some certain
things in the show that are very specifically Mormon and things you -
you either - or at least ex-Mormons.

You know, like, you could hear these people, this little group of people
laugh, and no one else really got the joke, and it would just be some
reference to something that's very Mormon.

And you know, obviously it's a select group of Mormons that are going to
come to the show - have kind of embraced it.

GROSS: And the official church response?

Mr. STONE: The official church response was something along the lines
of: "The Book of Mormon," the musical, might entertain you for a night,
but The Book of Mormon, the book as scripture, could change your - will
change your life through Jesus, or something like that.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, which is a great response.

Mr. STONE: Which we actually completely agree with - totally very big-
hearted American response. It's kind of like their - the Mormon church's
response to this musical is almost like our QED at the end of it. It's
like: See, we told you, Mormons are - that's a cool, that's a cool
American response to, like, a ribbing, you know, a big musical that's
done in their name.

So it just - that was like - we were like, there, see? That's what we
were talking about. Because before the church responded, a lot of, you
know, people would ask us about, like, are you afraid of what the church
is going to say? And Trey and I were like: They're going to be cool.
Trust us. They're going to be cool.

And people in New York are like: No, they're not. There are going to be,
you know, mad at you guys. There are going to be protests. We're like,
nope, they're going to be cool. And I mean, I don't know if we totally
knew, but we weren't that surprised by the church's response.

Mr. PARKER: We had faith in them.

Mr. STONE: Yes, we had faith.

GROSS: Trey Parker and Matt Stone will be back in the second half of the
show. Here's another song from the cast recording of "The Book of
Mormon." It's about the founder of the faith, Joseph Smith. I'm Terry
Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song

Unidentified People: (Singing) You all know the Bible is made of
testaments old and new, you've been told it's just those two parts or
only one if you're a Jew, but what if I were to tell you there's a fresh
third part out there which was found by a hip new prophet who had a
little Donny Osmond flair...

Have you heard of the all-American prophet, the blond haired blue-eyed
boys of god, he didn't come from the Middle East like those other holy
men, no, God's favorite prophet was all-American...

I'm gonna take you back to biblical times, 1823, an American man named
Joe living on a farm in the holy land of Rochester, New York, you mean
the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith? That's right, that young man spoke to
God. He spoke to god?

And God said, Joe, people really need to know that the Bible isn't two
parts, there's a part three to the Bible, Joe, and I, God, have anointed
you to dig up this part three that's buried by a tree on a hill in your
backyard, wow, God says go to your backyard and start digging, that
makes perfect sense...

Joseph Smith went up on that hill and dug where he was told, and deep in
the ground Joseph found shining plates of gold, what are these golden
plates who buried them here and why, then appeared an angel his name was
Moronai, I am Moronai, the all-American angel, my people lived here long
long ago, see my history of my race, please read the words within, we
were Jews who met with Christ but we were all-American...

But don't let anybody see these plates except for you, they are only for
you to see, even if people ask you to show the plates to them, don't
just copy them onto normal paper...

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Trey Parker and
Matt Stone, the creators of the animated series "South Park." They've
been working together for nearly 20 years. Now they have a Broadway hit,
the musical comedy "The Book of Mormon," which they co-wrote with Robert
Lopez, who also co-wrote "Avenue Q."

"The Book of Mormon" is nominated for 14 Tonys, more than any other
show. It's about two young Mormon missionaries who are sent on their
first mission to Uganda, where they're supposed to be converting people
who are facing problems about which the young Mormons are totally
clueless.

Now, you did an episode of "South Park" that was about Mormons and it
was called "All about the Mormons." A new kid comes to the school in
"South Park" who's a Mormon, and Stan attempts to, like, beat him up
because he's the nerdy new kid. But the kid is so nice that Stan goes to
his house for dinner and learns all about the Mormon faith. And then the
kid's family goes to Stan's house for dinner, and then Stan's father
wants to convert to Mormonism. But after hearing more about the Book of
Mormon and the story of how Joseph Smith started the religion, Stan has
this to say to Mormon family. Here's the clip.

(Soundbite of "South Park")

Mr. PARKER: (as Stan) Wait. Mormons actually know this story, and they
still believe Joseph Smith was a prophet?

Mr. KYLE MCCULLOCH (Actor): (as Gary Sr.): Well, sure. The story proves
it, doesn't it?

Mr. PARKER: (as Stan) No, it proves he did make it all up. Are you
blind?

Mr. STONE: Mark: Well, Stan, it's all a matter of faith.

Mr. PARKER: (as Stan) No, it's a matter of logic. If you're gonna say
things that have been proven wrong, like that the first man and woman
lived in Missouri, and that Native Americans came from Jerusalem, then
you'd better have something to back it up.

GROSS: Okay, so that...

Mr. STONE: That's Stan.

GROSS: That was Stan in "South Park."

Mr. STONE: Yeah, Stan sometimes says things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: He sure is a rascal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you ever share that point of view?

Mr. STONE: The musical holds both point of views, and it is, like -
it's, like, a contradiction. To say, well, you've just got to believe
this stuff, I guess that's where we landed in the musical. It's like,
nothing makes me more insane than - I have religious friends. And
they're like no, no, no, no. If you look it's proven, da, da, da. You're
like, no. It's not proven. Don't try to tell me that you can prove this
stuff. Just say I believe it, and I'm down with you, you know what I
mean? But you can't - don't mix the two together, because you can't
logically say well, we know that Jews came from Jerusalem and settled in
America and turned into Native Americans. That just isn't - that just
doesn't make any sense. You know, that doesn't match any proof that we
have.

But at the same time, if you say I believe this and I just go, okay.
Cool, man. If you want to believe that, that's cool. Because at the end
of the day, we all have certain beliefs and we all have deeply held
things that probably don't make much sense to anybody else.

And I think a lot us kind of land in the middle - I know I do. I think a
lot of reason why the show is connecting with people is that, you know,
a lot of people are, if they're religious, they're kind of like
cafeteria Christians, or they're lightly religious. And a lot of us who
maybe aren't religious are like kind of lightly not-religious, you know.
But we - but you end up living in the same world and being neighbors
and, you know, interacting with each other just fine. And if you get too
deep in the way you actually believe that stuff, you know, you will
always hit something that doesn't make any sense, you know, to you.

GROSS: How would you describe yourselves in terms of religion: lightly
not-religious?

Mr. PARKER: I grew up, and it was part of what ended up in the show,
too. I grew up with the religion basically of "Star Wars," because we
were...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: My father was a scientist and was very – he loved it when
religious people would come to the door and knock and try to - you know,
because he was very much into the science of the world. And when "Star
Wars" came along, I just saw, oh, there is something bigger out there.
There is this thing called The Force, and you want to be on the light
side of it or the dark side of it. And, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: And it ended up being, to me, you know, those kind of
stories, and stories trying to tell you what to do and what ways to
choose and what's going to make you happy ultimately. And that's where,
then, you get into all the other stories of every other religion besides
"Star Wars."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: There's other religions, I'm told. Yeah.

GROSS: And – yeah.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, for me, I would call myself an atheist, because I live
my life that way. I don't - whenever I'm going through a tough time I
don't think there's God. I don't think he's going to answer me. I don't
- I don't live my - I live my life as an atheist. On the other hand, I
love biblical stories, and I find many of them inspiring and, like, kind
of they do, a lot of times, point at some nut of some problem. You go: I
know why this story's lasted through the ages, because this conundrum is
always going to affect, you know, humans. So I'm kind of a religion-
loving atheist. You know, I kind of like - I do. I dig the stories. I
dig the aesthetic. I dig the ritual. I'm just not myself. I can't claim
any religion.

GROSS: Okay. Time for another song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I want to play "Turn it Off," which is this great production
number. And, you know, in a lot of musicals, there's that big, inspiring
number where you're told to, like, you know, be yourself and think great
thoughts, whenever you're sad, like, put on a happy face. Or if you fall
down, pick yourself up and start all over again. But this is called
"Turn it Off."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, like, if you're feeling something unpleasant, just, like,
turn it off. It's a song about repressing feelings. Tell us about
writing this song and the kinds of songs that inspired this one.

Mr. PARKER: This was a little ditty - I wrote a first version of this,
basically, because I just – we knew we had to have a big tap number.
We've got a bunch of dudes in, you know, white shirts and ties.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: It's, like, we've got to have a tap number. So the first
thing that came out - and this was actually before we even quite knew
how it would fit into the show. But at one point, we thought that maybe
one of the main Mormons, one of the main elders that we followed would
be gay, or have gay thoughts. It ended up not even in the show that way.
We ended up putting it in the character on the side. But I just - this
was a great example of a song that, like, I had just a little ditty for
that was just this very repetitive...

(Singing) Turn it off, like a light switch. Go click. Da, da, da, da,
da.

And I remember Bobby right away saying yeah, it's cool. It kind of runs
in place. You know, it's kind of, like, was the same thing musically,
over and over and over. And this song expanded and expanded. And then we
all would sit in the room together and say: Well, maybe it shouldn't
just be there. It was all just the stuff about gay thoughts and all
those jokes. And they were great jokes and it worked, but then we sat
there going, well, what else? You know, maybe we should have other
Mormons chime in on other things that aren't just gay thoughts, but
other things. And we started writing the other verses, and then Bobby
actually wrote the verse about the father, the abusive father. And then
it grew and it grew. And then Casey came in and turned it to a little
tap number.

GROSS: Your co-director and choreographer. Yeah.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, the co-director and choreographer, and turned it from
a little tap song into a giant tap song and added all this other stuff.
And so it was just this great song that you watched going from this
little ditty to this big Broadway number, you know, kind of before your
eyes.

GROSS: So let's hear it. This is "Turn it Off," from the new cast
recording of "The Book of Mormon" which was co-written by my guests Trey
Parker and Matt Stone, the co-creators of "South Park."

(Soundbite of song, "Turn it Off")

Mr. RORY O'MALLEY (Actor): (as Elder McKinley) (Singing) Turn it off,
like a light switch. Just go click. It's a cool little Mormon trick. We
do it all the time. When you're feeling certain feelings that just don't
seem right, treat these pesky feelings like a reading light and turn
them off like a light switch. Just go back. Really, what's so hard about
that? Turn it off. Turn it off. Right now.

When I was young, my dad would treat my mom real bad. Every time the
Utah Jazz would lose, he started drinking and I started thinking: How am
I point to keep my mom from getting abused? I'd see her all scared, and
my soul was dying. My dad would say to me, now don't you dare start
crying.

Turn it off like a light switch. Just go click. It's our nifty little
Mormon trick. Turn it off. Turn it off.

My sister was a dancer, but she got cancer. The doctor said she still
had two months more. I thought she had time, so I got in line for the
new iPhone at the Apple store. She laid there dying with my father and
mother. Her very last words were: Where is my brother?

Turn it off. Yeah. Bid those bad feelings adieu, the fear that I might
get cancer, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'MALLEY: (as Elder McKinley) (Singing) When I was in fifth grade, I
had a friend, Steve Blade. He and I were close as two friends could be.
One thing led to another, and soon I would discover I was having really
strange feelings for Steve. I thought about us on a deserted island. We
were naked at sea and then he'd try and – whoa.

Turn it off, like a light switch. There, he's gone.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Good for you.

Mr. O'MALLEY: (as Elder McKinley) (Singing) My hetero side. Just one...

(Soundbite of drums)

Mr. O'MALLEY: (as Elder McKinley) (Singing) I'm all better now. Boys
should be with girls, like heavenly father's planned. So if you ever
feel you rather be with the man, turn it off.

Unidentified Man: Well, Elder McKinley, I think it's okay that you're
having...

GROSS: That's "Turn it Off" from the new cast recording of "The Book of
Mormon," which is a new Broadway musical nominated for 14 Tonys, and the
show was co-written by my guests Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who also
created "South Park."

So every time I hear that song, I laugh, because it's ironic, but it's
also - it's so upbeat and so catchy and so - I don't know. The...

Mr. STONE: Yeah, that song...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. STONE: That song for me is funny, because it's so happy, but it's
about something that, like, we all...

GROSS: Exactly. It's about all these tragic things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: We all know it. It's kind of the most tragic thing, yeah.
And, I mean, not just for, you know, like the character that sings is
played by Rory O'Malley, who just kills it in that song. He's amazing.
It's about a missionary, you know, who's overseas and obviously gay,
and, like, the church has just said yeah, you're not. Just don't think
about that - you know, which is like no solution at all.

And - but it's not even - even if you were just - they send these 19-
year-old kids around the world, even if, you know, they're just -
they're sexual beings, you know. They're sexual animals. And they just
say, yeah. Just turn that off. And there's just nothing in that. You
know, there's a point in the story when Price - now they've landed in
Africa. They've seen some horrors. They're really questioning what the
hell's going on. They go back to the mission. He says, wow, I'm having
some confusing thoughts. And then this is the song that's given to them.

The point in the musical when it happens is a point when the characters
are really looking to their religion as a safety net. You know, they're
in this really uncomfortable situation. They don't know what to do. And
their religion - at least the way that he's understood it, Elder Price -
has no answers for him, has - is, like, no help. So the song is not
supposed to really help you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: You know, he realizes it doesn't really get much. He doesn't
get much out of it.

GROSS: My guests are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the co-writers of the
new hit Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon." They also created the
animated series "South Park."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Trey Parker and Matt Stone. They created the
animated series "South Park." Now they have a new hit Broadway musical
comedy, "The Book of Mormon," which is nominated for 14 Tonys. They co-
wrote the book, as well as the music and lyrics, along with Robert
Lopez, who also co-wrote the musical "Avenue Q."

So this is your first Broadway musical. You've done musicals, but they
been animated. So now you're working with real people, real audiences in
the theater. You have to worry about renting a theater, an orchestra,
just, you know, all of this stuff. So what's one of the biggest
nightmares that you had that you'd never have to face doing animation?

Mr. PARKER: Well, I'd say - I mean, what was crazy for us - and
something we had to get used to fast was just the idea that if we want
to rewrite something, if we want to change something, you know, it's
like - especially in a song, then you got to get it re-orchestrated.
Then you got to get it re-choreographed. Then you got to teach it to
everybody. And meanwhile, you're doing a show that night.

You know, so it was just this crazy thing where we're so – especially
with "South Park," you know. We can change things so last-minute, and
especially because we do almost all the voices. We can, like, go in
there. We can write it down, run into the booth and record it, slap it
in, see how it looks, change it again if we need to. And with this, you
know, pretty quickly, we had people telling us, like, guys, guys. You
can't change this much right now.

And learning how to dish that out, you know, learning how to - all
right, well, we can change these lines right now. We'll give them this
because we want to change that. We'll try to see that in two night's
performance. We're not going to see it tonight. You know, just a lot of
things like that that was, for us, a big learning curve.

Mr. STONE: Yeah. It was tough. It was the most collaborative thing that
we've ever done, you know, starting with, you know, meeting Bobby, who's
done Broadway and knows a lot more about Broadway than we still do. Him
kind of saying okay, now, this is going to happen. We've got to look
forward to this. You know, you're going to - this. And then, you know,
working with a cast of actors that - like Josh Gad, who plays Elder
Cunningham, and Rory O'Malley we've already talked about. They were in
the very first workshop - five years ago, maybe? And they became - you
know, Nicky James and all these actors became a big part of the writing
process and a big part of what these characters have turned into.

And then in the last year, we met Andrew Rannells who's Elder Price who
just - the second he walked into the room for audition, like, I, we
started laughing. Trey started kicking me under the table. It was like
this is our guy. You know, he just - he kills it and, you know, it
isn't, like it is, like Trey said, it's like that whole process makes
for a longer - changes aren't quite like, oh, let's just do this, okay
run in, do it real quick. It's a whole - it's like turning a bigger
ship, you know, but that bigger ship and all those people really
contributed to the whole thing.

GROSS: There's obviously some Disney in there. And one of the songs is
kind of a parody of "Hakuna Matata." And in "The Lion King" "Hakuna
Matata" is a song about the expression that describes our problem-free
philosophy. It's a lighthearted song. And your version is "Hasa Diga
Eebowai." And did you want to talk with a bit about this song?

Mr. STONE: Yeah. I mean, that's our, like, welcome to Vietnam song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: That's the song where, you know, you get off the plane and
they just get off the plane like full of vigor like here we are, we're
here to change the world and it's like, okay, you're in a new reality.
And so it started kind of from anti-"Lion King," you know, song, but
write it in the same tone so it has that same kind of gallows humor.
But, yeah, I mean that was a really fun song to write, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: That's where we really got to go for it, you know, that was
the point of that song.

GROSS: Okay. So imagine the missionary stepping off the plane meeting
some actually very poor people from Uganda and hearing this song. This
is from the cast recording of "The Book of Mormon.

(Soundbite of song, "Hasa Diga Eebowai")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) In this part of Africa we all
have a say whenever something bad happens we just throw our hands throw
our hands to the sky and say Hasa Diga Eebowai.

Mr. O'MALLEY: (as Elder McKinley) Hasa Diga Eebowai?

Unidentified Man: (as character) It's the only way to get through all
these troubled times. There's war. Poverty. Famine. But having a saying
makes it all seem better.

(Singing) There isn't enough food to eat. Hasa Diga Eebowai. People are
starving in the street. Hasa Diga Eebowai. Hasa Diga Eebowai. Hasa Diga
Eebowai.

Mr. O'MALLEY: (as Elder McKinley) Well, that's pretty neat. Does that
mean no worries for the rest of our days?

Unidentified Man: (as character) Kind of. (Singing) We've had no rain in
several days. Hasa Diga Eebowai. And 80 percent of us have AIDS. Hasa
Diga Eebowai.

GROSS: Okay, so we're fading out before all the expletives.

Mr. STONE: Before the good stuff.

GROSS: Before...

Mr. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. STONE: Before the meat and potatoes.

GROSS: After this part we just can't play it on the radio. And...

Mr. PARKER: Sure can't.

GROSS: It turns out that Hasa Diga Eebowai is the expression in the
musical for a cursing god, not blessing god or getting a blessing from
God.

Mr. STONE: Right.

GROSS: It's quite a send up of the "Hakuna Matata." Have you gotten
interesting reactions to this one?

Mr. PARKER: Well, "Hasa Diga Eebowai" is that song in the show where you
know people are in or they're out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Basically, you know, it's either the point where we lose you
or we really get you on board and we have a lot of that in a lot of the
stuff we do. We have that moment in the show, which is either, you know,
you're with us or you should get out now. And it really is sort of that
song.

Mr. STONE: It's that song.

GROSS: Do people ever literally get out?

Mr. STONE: No, we did – we did, one night during previews me and Trey
were at the back of the theater with Bobby and we saw one bona fide
walkout. A woman just threw her purse over her shoulder, looked around,
right, and kind of looked around like who's with me.

Mr. PARKER: Like, come on everybody.

Mr. STONE: Let's go. And walked...

Mr. PARKER: But she was the only one.

Mr. STONE: She was the only one. She walked back. She angrily in a big
harrumph threw her program in the trash and marched out and no one
followed her. But we thought it was great. We loved it, me and Bobby and
Trey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, Trey, you were actually in musicals when you are in high
school, right?

Mr. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: And you directed the choir. Do I have that right? You played
piano in the choir?

Mr. PARKER: I was president of choir council.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: So yes, but I also was the – I was the main student piano
player too, so it was just like I was just like a total music and
theater choir person geek.

GROSS: Was that considered very un-cool at the time?

Mr. PARKER: You know, I dare to say I made it somewhat cool. I mean I
don't think, I definitely was not among the coolest kids in school but I
don't think, we actually had, we started to get really known. Our high
school became really well known for its choir and its musical that they
were really high quality. And not 'cause of me. It just happened that
the teachers they had at the time and the students that were there at
the time, and we had a choir that would like tour the country and was
taken pretty seriously. So it was fairly, it was cooler than at most
once, at least I want to believe that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Twenty years later, looking back through, you go, yeah.
(Unintelligible) how time kind of like changes when you think of – of
what you think of old stories.

GROSS: And Matt, you weren't much into musicals, were you?

Mr. STONE: No, no. Not at all. I didn't, I don't think I ever really
knew what a musical was until I met Trey. I mean my experience with
musicals looking back was there was always, you know, in every Monty
Python movie there was one big musical number. And they're all awesome.
You know, if you look back, they're just one awesome number per movie,
and I think, I mean that kind of was my education in musicals before I
met Trey. Now, since then I've seen a bunch and, you know, now I know
them a little better, but not growing up.

GROSS: So Trey, when you were in choir, did you write satirical songs
back then?

Mr. PARKER: I actually did. Yeah, I actually made, I actually wrote, I
got into making funny songs and writing funny songs on the piano and
actually made a whole album's worth of funny songs and sold them for
like $4 a piece. And I even got Saran wrap stuff that you could hit with
the hairdryer and shrink wrap them.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, shrink wrapped them.

Mr. PARKER: I actually shrink wrapped them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: I actually shrink wrapped them and sold them and actually
made like $300.

GROSS: You used the hairdryer to melt the shrink wrap?

Mr. PARKER: Well, that's how the stuff worked, yeah.

Mr. STONE: It wouldn't be a real album or cassette unless you had to
unwrap it.

Mr. STONE: And I remember, I went to Kinko's and like I took, we took
pictures and we went to Kinko's and made a cover and sold the cassettes,
shrink wrapped the cassettes and sold them. And I was like I'm pretty
cool. I'm a rock star. You know, but people bought them because they
thought they were funny songs, which, you know, looking back now they're
not that funny, but I thought they were funny.

GROSS: So you were on Jimmy Fallon recently and he played one of the
songs and then The Roots, the band that plays on his show...

Mr. STONE: That was awesome, by the way.

GROSS: ...performed it.

Mr. STONE: That was crazy.

GROSS: And Trey, you seemed to be cringing the whole time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Well, I didn't know, they told me basically an hour before
we got there, the producers said we got a hold of one of the songs and I
was just like: oh no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Because I told them about it in a pre-interview but then
they actually went and found it and I was just like, oh, no, no. And I
really was dreading it and thought, you know, because, you know, I was
what, I was like 15 or 16 years old. You know, it's not like my best
work.

Mr. STONE: It's like showing a picture of an old haircut.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, exactly. So I was like sitting there kind of cringing.
But then as I realized I'm like The Roots are playing this song and
Bootsy Collins was playing bass. Like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: And then Bootsy started singing the song and I'm like, all
right, this is kind of cool.

Mr. STONE: I thought it was awesome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: But it was me sitting next to you, I thought it was great. I
thought it was really, really funny.

GROSS: So Trey, is there one of those songs still think is good that
you'd still sing, that you would sing a few bars of?

Mr. PARKER: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: If you get Bootsy, he would do it.

Mr. PARKER: If you get Bootsy for me, I'll do it.

GROSS: Is that a hard no or a...

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, that's a hard no.

GROSS: That's a hard no.

Mr. PARKER: (Unintelligible) for me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Somehow Fallon did both of them. I don't know what happened.
I was in a very - I was in a loose mood on that show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guests are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the co-writers of the
new hit Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon." They also created the
animated series "South Park."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Trey Parker and Matt
Stone, the creators of "South Park," who now have this huge hit musical
on Broadway called "The Book of Mormon."

Was it really amazing to hear your songs orchestrated in the way they
were played by a live band in a theater?

Mr. PARKER: Amazing. And what's crazy, the really crazy part about it is
they're all kind of rehearsing off on their own, in their own building,
all the musicians, while you're still doing it there in the theater with
a piano and drums, and then you finally about four days before you're
going to open, you go and listen to the actors sing it. What they call
it, sitzprobe?

Mr. STONE: Sitzprobe.

Mr. PARKER: They call it sitzprobe, and they're like, oh, wait till
sitzprobe. Wait till sitzprobe. And do you go when you actually hear,
and it's the first time even all these actors and actresses, which some
of them have been doing workshops for five years, are sitting there
hearing, like singing it and this whole orchestra is backing them up.
And I remembered Nicky, who sings "Salt Lake City," she did that song
and the orchestra is backing her up and she just broke down. She just
started crying and couldn't finish. It was really cool.

Mr. STONE: It was really cool. The first time hearing it with a nine
piece band instead of a two piece band.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: Just one more thing. I think that "The Book of Mormon" has
something of the quality of "South Park" in the sense that "South Park"
is just kind of stripped-down animation. It's down to the basics. And
there is something so basic about the show. It's like great music, great
performers, great orchestrations, really original concepts. But there's
nothing fancy about the sets. Nothing like...

Mr. PARKER: Yeah. It was a...

GROSS: ...high technology about the lighting. It's just like it's...

Mr. PARKER: It was a very conscious decision. And the reason that we did
that is because we did so many workshops in New York in the sort of
three years leading up to it. And we would do these workshops which were
no costumes, no lights, just in a big room with florescent lights and,
you know, 40 people sitting there, and it would kill. And we were just
like, okay, all we can do now is ruin this.

You know, so even though we had to take this to the stage, let's be
really aware of not, you know, let the songs and the acting and the
music and the performances, let that all be center stage. Let's not
surrounded it by a bunch of stuff. You know, and we knew it worked
without any of it, so let's add just enough to make it a beautiful
Broadway show but not step on any toes.

GROSS: So we're going to end with the song "I Believe" from "The Book of
Mormon." Do you want to introduce it and say something about it?

Mr. STONE: Yeah. I mean this song to me - I think it's probably my
favorite song in the show. And it – what's funny about this is it's
actually, there's no jokes in this song. It's just facts. And it's just
basically a guy who his faith has been tested, our Elder Price, and at a
certain point in the show he goes, you know, the reason why my faith
isn't working for me – the stuff that I believe - is because I'm not
believing hard enough, and he decides to double down on his faith.

And he starts reciting all the things that he, you know, believes in his
heart as a Mormon. And it's just, it's done on a rhythm of one, two,
three, and three is always the joke when you're doing comedy. And so we
just put the weirdest Mormon beliefs in the third slot and they become
jokes even though they're just facts. And Andrew Rannells, who sings the
song, just kills it. And I think it's one of the best parts of the show.

GROSS: Well, it's been great to talk with you. Again, congratulations on
all the success you've been having with "The Book of Mormon," and thank
you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. PARKER: Thanks.

Mr. STONE: Thanks a lot.

(Soundbite of song, "I Believe")

Mr. ANDREW RANNELLS (Actor): (as Elder Price) (Singing) It's supposed to
be all so exciting to be teaching of Christ across the sea. I allowed my
faith to be shaken. Oh what's the matter with me? I've always longed to
help the needy, to do the things I never dared. This was the time for me
to step up, so then why was I so scared?

A warlord who shoots people in the face. What's so scary about that? I
must trust that my Lord is mightier and always has my back. Now I must
be completely devout. I can't have even one shred of doubt.

I believe that the Lord God created the universe. I believe that he sent
his only son to die for my sins. And I believe that ancient Jews filled
boats and sailed to America. I am a Mormon and a Mormon must believe.

I cannot...

GROSS: Trey Parker and Matt Stone co-wrote the new Broadway musical "The
Book of Mormon." The cast recording is available online. The CD will be
released June 7th.

You'll find a link to the interview I recorded last year with Trey
Parker and Matt Stone about their show "South Park" on our website,
freshair.npr.org, where you can download podcasts of our show.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "I Believe")

Mr. RANNELLS: (as Elder Price) (Singing) I believe that God has a plan
for all of us. I believe (unintelligible) my own planet. And I believe
that the current president of (unintelligible) speaks directly to God. I
am a Mormon, a Mormon...
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
136142322

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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