What is it about those Latter-day Saints that’s so funny? Just about everything, say Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the South Park masterminds whose new musical, The Book of Mormon, debuts on Broadway March 24. They have a perverse fondness for what they call the religion’s inexplicable “anachronisms,” like the belief that Jews settled in America thousands of years before Christopher Columbus, the historical practice of polygamy, and that magical long-john underwear. Mostly, they love the tale of a guy named Joseph Smith who is inspired by an angel to dig up some golden plates containing God’s word, then gives them back. “If God gave me golden plates, I’d keep them. I’d want people to see them,” Stone says.
So Parker and Stone dreamed up their own tale: about two 19-year-old Salt Lake City boys sent to Uganda as missionaries. It’s a coming-of-stage story dripping in dirty jokes, with irreverent, offensive showstoppers such as a “Hakuna Matata”–esque number with the chorus “F--k You, God.” Sample lyrics: “80 percent of us have AIDS” and “there are maggots in my scrotum.” To realize their twisted musical vision, Parker and Stone teamed with Robert Lopez, creator of Avenue Q. Even by that musical’s foul-mouthed standards, The Book of Mormon may be the most obscene show ever brought to a Broadway stage (think Springtime for Hitler writ large). But their musical also has an uplifting message: the Mormons save the African villagers and come to realize that the moral of the story is more important than whether it’s true. “We may laugh at [Mormons’] silly beliefs,” Stone says, “but at the end of the day, we really liked them. We wanted it to be a feel-good musical. And one that inspires people as well.”
Audiences are lapping it up. Previews have been packed, and the standing ovations rapturous. Not that this should surprise anyone who’s watched South Park. Parker and Stone have a flair for tackling divisive issues while staying surprisingly optimistic and nondogmatic. They tell one gay joke after another, then suggest that opposition to gay marriage is ridiculous. They poke endless fun at Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Scientologists, then come out with “We Are the World”–type songs of peace and togetherness. The Book of Mormon features one of those, too: it’s called “I Am Africa.”