Though it may come as a surprise, the satirical, scatological creators of Comedy Central’s South Park ─ Matt Stone and Trey Parker ─ are big fans of musical theater.
Stone, the Jewish half of this comedy duo, grew up listening to Fiddler on the Roof, thanks to a Jewish mother who was always playing the LP in their house. Parker was hooked at an early age on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music and The King and I, two classic musicals that serve as inspiration for their first foray into the genre, The Book of Mormon, now playing at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Mormon, winner of nine Tony Awards in 2011, may be the pair’s first Broadway production, but it is not their first musical. Their 1999 movie South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, contained 12 original songs, and it was so successful a parody of Les Misérables that Stephen Sondheim (Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) sent them a letter declaring it the best musical he’d seen in years.
Mormon is an even bigger triumph, though, because in addition to many hummable tunes (“Hello,” “Baptize Me”), and even some slick choreography (“Turn it Off,” “Joseph Smith American Moses”), it has heart ─ the result of Stone and Parker’s collaboration with Robert Lopez, creator of his own hit Broadway musical, Avenue Q. (Paradoxically, Lopez was inspired to write Avenue Q after seeing the South Park movie.) Mormon is, as Stone told a New York Post theater critic, a “love letter to religion,” in this case Mormonism, a religion Stone and Parker heard a lot about growing up in Colorado. True, it pokes fun at Mormon doctrine (“I believe that Jesus lives on his own planet, and I believe that God’s plan for me includes me having my own planet, too;” “I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri”), and the cockeyed optimism of its young missionaries ─ the ones who knock on your door in their white, short-sleeve shirts, black ties and name tags, offering to change your life with a new testament to an “all-American Jesus” who appeared in upstate New York after the crucifixion and preached to the Native Americans.
But it is Mormonism, or at least Elder Cunningham’s (Cody Jamison Strand, fresh from the Broadway company of the show) liberal interpretation of it, that saves the day in this musical, uniting a despairing, destitute, disease-ridden group of Ugandan villagers to rise up against a tyrannical warlord with an unprintable name.
“Paradise is a metaphor,” one the villagers says after hearing Cunningham’s preaching ─ a way of seeing the best in yourself, and in others.
Teaching these reluctant villagers is the difficult task that falls on Cunningham and his mission companion Elder Price (David Larsen), who, together, embody the Maria/Anna roles from The Sound of Music and The King and I. In the absence of a traditional Broadway love story, their friendship becomes the show’s romance, or bromance. When, halfway through the play, they “break up,” you root for them to get back together, just like you do Maria and Captain Von Trapp.
But herein lies the musical’s flaw, one that has been glossed over by critics, including The New York Times‘ Ben Brantley. Unlike the musicals Mormon emulates, this one has a potty mouth, and for no reason. I’m no prude, dear reader. David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross is one of my favorite plays, and it has been dubbed Death of a F-ing Salesman for its litany of f-bombs. But in Mamet’s play, about the dog-eat-dog world of real estate sales, the swearing heightens the play’s reality instead of serving as a distraction from it. Here, the salty language is senseless. When the Ugandans sing about their scrotums and show off X-rays of their arses, you are taken out of the story. Suddenly, you’re watching a live-action version of South Park.
And that’s a shame.
The creators have worked hard to write otherwise witty lyrics and compose memorable melodies. Their vision is brought to life at the Kennedy Center by some of the best singers and most agile dancers working in musical theater today. The lighting and set design is inspired. (“It looks just like the view from 495,” marveled a theatergoer at the sight of a Mormon temple on stage ─ an alabaster spire reaching skyward beneath a field of bright stars). What a shame the creators do not fully trust in their own vision. There is a certain kind of person who is entertained by shock value, such as hearing Golden Girl Betty White swear.
But, in 2015, to do a Broadway show in the spirit of classic musicals like The Sound of Music, by the creators of South Park, no less? That would be the biggest shock of all.
The Book of Mormon, through Aug. 16, Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (202)467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.