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Remember the first time that ‘South Park’ creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker made you gasp with horror and delight? Was it when they killed eight-year-old Kenny McCormick (and then did it again and again and again)? Perhaps it was their bouncy lyrics, ‘The gays and the straights and the whites and the spades, everyone has Aids’ from ‘Team America’? The Tom Cruise ‘Trapped in the closet’ episode of ‘South Park’? The one where Jesus watches porn with Buddha? Or simply the childish joy of a talking human stool called Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo?
In truth, it could have been one of hundreds of ‘they-can’t-do-that’ moments since the pair met at the University of Colorado in the early ’90s and created the animated short ‘Jesus vs Frosty’ that led directly to ‘South Park’. Sixteen ‘South Park’ seasons later, and with a pair of hugely successful big-screen musicals behind them, Parker, 43, and Stone, 41, have finally taken on live theatre, with the story of two Mormons, Elders Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham, on a mission in Uganda. Co-written with ‘Avenue Q’ creator Robert Lopez, ‘The Book of Mormon’ has blown away Broadway, picking up nine Tonys and delivering a soundtrack album that won a Grammy. It’s gross, bizarre, of questionable taste throughout and the songs are an absolute sensation. But let them tell you about that.
Animators, songwriters, moviemakers and outragers of public decency… Who are the real Matt Stone and Trey Parker?
Trey Parker ‘Firstly, we consider ourselves a rock band because that’s the coolest thing. Then we like to say that we’re writers and we’re storytellers because there definitely is a power to that: “Star Wars” has done just about as much for mythology as a lot of the religions have.’
Matt Stone ‘We would rather be Van Halen, but what can you do? We’re not that cool.’
Nonetheless, are you disappointed to have gone from being the people who were going to destroy America to being the toast of Broadway?
MS ‘It can seem that way. But also we’re just getting older.’
TP ‘Yeah, we’re more disappointed at that. We used to wear dresses and go to the Oscars and I still think it was totally fucking cool, but we’re just sleepy and tired now, we can’t be fucked any more. We’re old.’
Or reaching creative maturity, perhaps, after a decade of highly enjoyable childishness?
TP ‘Well, doing this musical thing really is like having a kid. It’s just out there in the world, it does what it wants to do, you try to keep it under control. That’s why I think we really want to get back to making movies now. A movie is kind of nice because there comes one point when you’re done with it.’
Is it harder to write funny musical theatre than to write ‘South Park’?
MS ‘Usually Trey and I are doing the voices, but in theatre, it was the actors who did the workshops and ultimately it was the actors who were on Broadway originally who really helped us find these characters. But that’s the cool part about the theatre.’
‘The Book of Mormon’ features famine, war, clitoral mutilation and more. Don’t you ever think, ‘Maybe we should tread lightly here’?
TP ‘Yes we do, every day. You’ve got to be careful with that stuff.’
MS ‘We chose northern Uganda because it’s one of those places that has every bad thing that you could read about in the paper: it has warlords, famine, Aids. We send two Mormon boys to a place where none of their lessons that they learned growing up in Provo, Utah, apply. But Africa in 'The Book of Mormon' is really a kind of a fable, not a particular place. It’s supposed to be somewhere where all these bad things are happening to people and it’s not their fault.’
Still, it’s dangerous territory – what’s the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at them?
TP ‘We don’t know that yet. We’re still trying to figure that out and we think we’re really close to figuring that out. We just need a few more years.’
Are you amused by Mormons or intrigued by them?
TP ‘We knew a lot about Mormonism: we grew up around a lot of them. They were kind of lost in time. They are a very Disney religion. So just looking at Mormons you think: Wow, watching a bunch of them on stage singing a song would really be nice! They really have that kind of charisma. I think if it was about crappy people and people who were just kind of really fundamentalist and serious and angry then it wouldn’t be a very fun musical to go and see.’
MS ‘And we’ve liked all the Mormons we’ve met. They seem like really happy, good people, but we also always have this problem with them: we think what they believe and the stories they tell are really silly and goofy.’
Most religions can sound silly and goofy to unbelievers – a dead man will rise up, a prophet will go to heaven on a horse, the sea will part…
TP ‘Exactly, and that’s really what the point of the musical is. We kind of use the fact that Mormons are easy to laugh at to make that point. We use that to talk about all religions. It really is “Islam the Musical”: we just called it “The Book of Mormon” because Islamic characters weren’t fun enough.’
You’ve been in trouble for that before when you put Mohammed in a bear suit in ‘South Park’.
TP ‘Yeah, we’ve been down that road in “South Park”. But people have the misconception that we start our projects by sitting down and saying, “All right, who can we rip on?” and we don’t ever come at it that way, it’s always, “Oh, here’s a good story, here’s something interesting, here’s something fun and happy and silly.” A musical is like a massage, it has to have to have a happy ending.’