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‘The Book of Mormon’ has converted Broadway already: since it opened two years ago, ‘South Park’ creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s blockbuster has taken more than $150 million and played to consistently sold-out houses. It’s the biggest new musical since ‘Wicked’, and in terms of sheer hype and adulation, it’s the biggest bona fide musical phenomenon since the heady first year of Mel Brooks’s ‘The Producers’. To illustrate the point: it’s sold out so far ahead in New York, that when it went on tour to Toronto – a ten-hour drive from the Big Apple – the promoters had to put a temporary ban on ticket sales to non- Canadian residents to stop Americans snaffling all the seats.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ confesses Gavin Creel, a veteran of the US tour and co-star of its currently previewing West End run. ‘There was mayhem outside theatres for the daily ticket lottery, hundreds of people waiting to get 21 seats, because it’s the only chance to get in. It’s in St Louis now, in a house that’s 4,400 seats, and nobody can get a ticket. It sold out in 20 minutes. That doesn’t happen with musicals.’ Not bad for a rude production about a semiobscure form of restorationist Christianity centred in the salt flats of Utah. However, as Time Out New York Theater editor David Cote points out, ‘South Park’ creators Parker and Stone were hardly unknown quantities.
‘Unlike other shows that go through the usual out-of-town agonies and tinker with the production before transferring, “Mormon” opened cold on Broadway,’ says Cote. ‘So it was a risk, but clearly you had professionals putting it together. Two-thirds of the creative team [Parker and Stone] made “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut”, which was a smashing musical movie in its own right. And Robert Lopez [co-lyricist and composer] created “Avenue Q”, which was also a long-running Tony winner. They had a track record.’
With two song-filled hit films (‘Bigger, Longer & Uncut’ and ‘Team America: World Police’) and the long-running cult cartoon ‘South Park’ under their belts, Parker and Stone brought a fanbase with them (indeed, this theatrical debut was somewhat foreshadowed by the 2003 ‘South Park’ episode ‘All About Mormons’). That fanbase was not disappointed: it’s pretty safe to say that if you like the satirical animated antics of Cartman, Kyle et al, you’ll love the tuneful adventures of young missionaries Elder Kevin Price (Creel) and Elder Arnold Cunningham (co-star and fellow US tour veteran Jared Gertner) as they journey to Africa, attempt to convert the poverty-stricken locals to Mormonism, and cross swords with insane General Butt-Fucking-Naked. ‘Mormon’ was always going to be a hit. What made it into the Mormania phenomenon is the fact that non-‘South Park’ fans love it too. ‘After the rave reviews came out, “Mormon” tickets were gold,’ notes Cote. ‘Not even press were let back in. After the Tony win in June, “Mormon” entered the million-dollars-a-week club of consistently record-breaking box office receipts.’
So what’s the secret of the show’s success? The songs – and you can give them a whirl on Spotify – are excellent. Filthy, witty and outrageous, but also sumptuous and noteperfect, they nod to the golden age of the American musical. ‘It’s a homage to classic Broadway,’ observes Gertner. ‘It then totally turns it on its head and drops a few F-bombs.’ But the key to the sheer scale of its success is how inoffensive it’s proved. It’s cool enough for the stoner crowd, sure; but it probably won’t upset your mum too much – despite the swearwords.
‘When we opened on Broadway we had all these talks about safety at the theatre and the prospect of picketers,’ recollects Gertner, who understudied the original production. ‘And it never happened. Every now and then you get a person who storms out, but they’re the ones who look like assholes.’ ‘People come along expecting to laugh and be offended,’ says Creel. ‘But they come out feeling good about the world. Really, it’s a buddy comedy which uses the construct of all these large ideas about religion and the Third World versus the First World to tell a story about two 19-year-old boys, one who thinks he knows everything about everything, and one who just wants a friend.’
The post-‘Lion King’ depiction of the luckless Ugandan tribesfolk has barely caused a ripple, largely accepted as ironic comment on Western perceptions of Africa. The Mormon community has responded to the whole thing with slightly forced good humour, even taking out some rather optimistic recruitment adverts in the programme for the US tour. Creel and Gertner attribute this to the show’s benign depiction of Mormonism.
‘The Mormons that have come to the show and come to say hello to us have loved it,’ says Creel. ‘I think they’re just excited that people are talking more about Mormonism.’ David Cote isn’t quite so sure: ‘The Mormon church has tried to chuckle along with the show, which is probably a smart tactic. But what you have to understand is that Mormons are a tiny minority of the American population, regarded as religious outliers by mainstream Christians. If you mock them, no one is going to mind. If anything, atheists should picket the show for not having the courage of its blasphemous convictions.’ The final ingredient for Mormania has been some incredibly savvy marketing which has created a huge buzz and ensured demand for tickets vastly outstripped supply. Like New York before it, London is currently flooded with adverts for ‘Mormon’, despite the fact that it’s practically sold out for its current booking period. As with its Broadway base the Eugene O’Neill Theater, it’s been deliberately put in a mid-sized venue, the thousand-seat Prince of Wales Theatre. There’s a short-term loss in sales, but the increased desirability of the tickets – and quality of the viewing experience – is priceless.
So now the West End has Mormania too. Last month, tickets to the first preview performance (the ‘settling in’ period before official opening night) were released on a first-come, first-served basis. The queue stretched from Coventry Street next to Piccadilly Circus down to the National Portrait Gallery. It really doesn’t matter what the critics make of it when they’re finally allowed in on March 21; ‘Mormon’ is already the biggest West End hit since ‘Jerusalem’, and with no reliance on big-name actors, it’ll have a longer life. ‘It’s not a musical any more,’ says Creel, ‘it’s an event.’ Mormania has arrived in London and it’s here to stay, thank the Lord.