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Opening 'The Book of Mormon' on Broadway

A scene from "The Book of Mormon," a

A scene from "The Book of Mormon," a new musical from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in Credit: Joan Marcus Photo/

Talk about déjà vu. For weeks now, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been hunkered down in the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, watching their new Broadway musical, "The Book of Mormon," come to life in previews night after night. After night.

"We're not used to this process," says Parker, sitting at a midtown restaurant on a dinner break with Stone. They've been working on the project for seven years. And now opening night -- Thursday -- can't come soon enough.

As the creators of "South Park," the popular Comedy Central cartoon series, the two are used to researching, writing, recording and editing a new episode in a week. So the Broadway tradition of watching previews and making changes for nearly a month . . . seems a bit like hell on Earth.

"You're not only second-guessing yourself," says Parker, "but third- and fourth-guessing. It really makes you psychotic," he says, laughing.

"It's 'Groundhog Day,' " Stone adds, consuming a forkful of pasta. "We watch the same show every day."

Put aside any preconceptions you may have of the dudes who dreamed up those four potty-mouthed "South Park" tykes who wage battle against Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Paris Hilton, politicians (of all stripes) -- anyone and anything they feel deserves a smackdown.

For it's a touching, perhaps unexpected testament to their sincere love of the art form that these two Hollywood transplants are willing to attempt a new original musical -- and work hard at it. Especially when Broadway is inundated with vehicles swiped from film ("Sister Act," "Catch Me If You Can," "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"), jukebox ("Baby It's You," about The Shirelles) and comic books (you know).

Parker and Stone joined forces in 2003 with "Avenue Q" co-writer Robert Lopez and, together, came up with their basic premise: Take two Mormons, unfurl their wholesome, wide-eyed worldview, add a primer on Mormon history (quirky Joseph Smith, Jesus hanging out in North America, the Utah trek), sprinkle a few pop-culture cameos (Darth Vader, Frodo) and then plunk the Mormons down in poverty- and AIDS-stricken Uganda.

Along the way, the show insults . . . well, everyone. But by the end, the audience should have a renewed appreciation for these devout souls. Or for anyone who lives by principles that help them serve as a force for good.

"We wanted to do what people wouldn't expect -- a big-hearted, not cynical, take," says Stone.

The songwriting also was a team effort. They usually started with a song's comic hook or payoff, then searched for lyrics and melody, with Parker and Lopez on piano, Stone on drums. "It was like a jam session," Parker says.

"I revere them the way I revere Sondheim," Lopez says.

Stone calls Lopez "a kindred spirit," stating flatly that if Lopez hadn't signed on, "we wouldn't be here. We would've given up a long time ago."

Instead, they're taking on Broadway. As outsiders.

They're used to that. After moving to Los Angeles from their native Colorado, the two frequently were hit with stares. Stone mimics the reception: "Really? Colorado? Did you ride horses to school?"

They see a similar cockiness among New Yorkers, too. When a woman onstage sings of Salt Lake City like it's paradise, says Stone, "you can see the crowd go, . . . 'Salt Lake City? As if.' "

Their goal: to change that reaction, by curtain call, to "Oh . . . I get it now."

They've done it before. For all the fart jokes and cursing that pepper each "South Park" episode, there is, at heart, a sincere effort by the kids to make sense of the world.

"When I first took this job I thought, 'Ohhh, I don't know if my mom can come see this,' " says Casey Nicholaw, who choreographed "Mormon" and codirected with Parker. "But people are telling me, 'I knew I'd be offended, but I had no idea it would feel so sweet.' "

It helps that the two are self-proclaimed lovers of musicals. Parker, a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein as a kid, emphasizes that writing for Broadway has been a lifelong dream. And the TV series and films he has created with Stone are littered with musical numbers.

Still, they were wary of Broadway.

"People warned us -- Broadway would be really snobby," Stone says. He disagrees. Unlike Hollywood, "they root for each other here," he says. And the talent pool, albeit smaller, seems to have less filler.

"There are many talented people in L.A.," Stone explains, "but there are a lot of people who are like, 'I'm hot . . . so I'm an actor.' Like that's a qualification. Here, cast members remember two hours' worth of story, lyrics, harmonies, dance steps, and they learn changes by day and perform them at night."

Parker nods in agreement.

"To see raw, unbridled talent 20 feet away from you -- live," says Stone. "That's cool."

 

Stone and Parker's road from 'South Park'

 

BY JOSEPH V. AMODIO, Special to Newsday


CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL (1993) -- Parker's first feature film (about infamously hungry prospector Alfred Packer), which he wrote, directed, starred in and helped compose music for while at the University of Colorado; classmate Stone produced and co-starred.


ORGAZMO (1997) -- Parker wrote, directed and, with Stone, co-starred in this film of Mormon missionaries confronting the porn industry.


SOUTH PARK (1997-present) -- The animated Comedy Central series has won four Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award.


SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT (1999) -- Parker directed and, with Stone, co-wrote and starred in this animated musical film about a U.S.-Canadian war; the song "Blame Canada" earned an Oscar nomination.


TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004) -- Parker directed and, with Stone, co-wrote this action flick featuring marionettes.

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