What Happens When Bad Boys Grow Up?

6:16 PM PST 03/22/2011 by Stephen Galloway
Danielle Levitt

Days before their opening night on broadway, “South Park’s” Matt Stone and Trey Parker, experts in offensiveness, explain how their “Book of Mormon” is more heartwarming than heretical — and how they’ve stumbled into maturity.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone sit slumped at a table, exhausted.

Their sense of humor has almost vanished, their energy disappeared, their anarchists’ willingness to say “f--- you” to anything that smacks of the establishment has utterly drained away. All they can think of is sleep.

“The schedule throws you off so much,” says Parker, referring to their new Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, about two young missionaries who are sent to Uganda. “We’ve been going to previews every night then staying up till 2 or 3. I’m worn out.”

Who can blame him? In the nine weeks since South Park’s creators decamped from Los Angeles for New York, they’ve plunged into a frenetic world of rehearsals, rewrites and directing their show — all with, between them, a wife, a girlfriend and two kids in tow. The sheer volume of work, and the lightning speed at which it has raced by, has caught them unawares.

“It’s crazy how fast it is,” says Parker, wolfing down dinner at Serafina restaurant. “We did four weeks of rehearsals, then two weeks of ‘tech,’ then went into previews. Seriously, this is what blew my mind: We only heard the thing with a full orchestra six days before the first paying audience.”

On March 24, a far higher-profile audience is scheduled to attend Mormon’s opening night, when New York will be counting on the production to sustain Broadway’s momentum — with more than $1 billion in grosses last year — and restore some of the luster tarnished by Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

But at this point, with just eight days left before the premiere, that’s the last thing on the writers’ minds. Parker dreams of taking a vacation “somewhere in the Caribbean,” while Stone just wants to “go look at a wall and check out.”

He won’t have long to do so. A week after they leave New York around March 28, the pair hurtles into the 15th season of South Park, part of a new pact with Comedy Central that keeps the show on the air through 2013 and is said to be even richer than their previous $75 million deal. They’ll have just one week to create each episode, with no time to prep.

“Every show, we’re down to the wire,” says Parker, running his hand through his hair in exasperation. “I don’t know how we’re going to do it. It’s a nightmare.”

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This nightmare, a good problem to have, might have been averted if not for a chance meeting with Robert Lopez in 2004.

On producer Scott Rudin’s advice, Parker and Stone went to see the writer-composer’s Tony-winning Avenue Q, then took him for a drink.

“Bobby said, ‘I want to do something about Joseph Smith,’ ” recalls Stone, the younger and more extroverted of the South Park duo, referrring to the founder of the Mormon religion. “And we were like: ‘Wait! We want to do something about Joseph Smith!’ ”

Growing up in Colorado, next door to Utah, Parker and Stone had long been familiar with the Mormon church and its members; Parker even dated a Mormon girl and was badly hurt when she ditched him.

They had first thought of a fictionalized Smith while working on an aborted Fox TV series about historical characters. Now, with Lopez, they started bandying about more concrete ideas — though they weren’t sure if their work would lead to a play or a film or something else altogether — only to realize Smith didn’t provide a strong enough hook.

“Within a few days, we were like, ‘Nah!’ ” Parker says. “We pretty quickly got to a modern story.”

This new version revolved around two young men who would go into the world on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a missionary task that’s obligatory for all Mormons. Precisely who they would be and where they would go remained undetermined.

In an effort to hone the tale, the three creators — who jointly wrote the book, music and lyrics — took a research trip to Salt Lake City.

“Bobby had never been there,” Stone remembers, “so we ended up doing all the visitor stuff and museums but mostly talking to a lot of people.”

As their ideas evolved, the principal characters crystallized into a bright-eyed zealot and his wacky, comedic companion. But developing them further proved a challenge. Lopez was based in New York, the South Park guys in Los Angeles — and they were working ceaselessly. How would they ever find the time to create an entire musical?

In 2006, Parker and Stone flew to London, where they spent three weeks with Lopez while he was working on the West End production of Avenue Q. “We wrote four or five songs and came up with the basic germ of the idea there — that they would go somewhere not Salt Lake City-like,” Parker recalls.

During the next few years, the trio met frequently to develop what they initially called The Book of Mormon: The Musical of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“There was a lot of hopping back and forth between L.A. and New York,” Parker says. “That probably helped the project because there would be, ‘Oh f---, the guy flew out; we should probably work.’ ” All the while, the format itself remained uncertain. “We were thinking, ‘Let’s make an album; let’s just write another song,’ ” Parker says.

It was Lopez who pushed for the stage, and as his partners concurred, he prodded them to take the vehicle a step further and “workshop” it. Coming from TV and film, Parker and Stone were clueless about what he meant.

“We didn’t understand the whole workshop process,” Parker admits. “Bobby had to explain, ‘We need to cast it and have people there with music stands in a little theater, reading the script and singing the songs.’ ”

The group embarked on the first of a half-dozen workshops that would take place during the next four years, ranging from 30-minute mini-performances for family and friends to much larger-scale renderings of the embryonic show. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money, still unconvinced they’d take it any further.

The workshop process was thrilling but posed its own challenges.

“In animation, we would simply have people do an ‘animatic’ [in which storyboards are designed to accompany prerecorded dialogue], something we could look at on an Avid,” Stone says. “But for Broadway, you need 20 actors and auditions — and that means dealing with Equity, the actors union. They have a pay scale just for workshops.”

A final five-week workshop took place in August, when Casey Nicholaw came on board as choreographer and co-director with Parker. By that time, several of the cast members who’d been with them all the way — like Josh Gad, the plump sidekick whose confused mangling of Mormonism with Star Wars provides some of the show’s biggest laughs — were starting to get antsy.

“August was our ‘shit-or-get-off-the-pot,’ ” Parker says. But the response they received was enough to make them commit. “Then we opened a corporation and did the whole investment thing.”

Financing Mormon proved easy and modest by Hollywood standards. “It’s more than $2 million-$3 million but less than Spider-Man,” quips Stone. An insider estimates the budget at about $10 million, low for a big musical.

With Rudin in charge, the creators had one of Broadway’s leading producers at their side, who had also worked with them on the films South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut and Team America: World Police. It was Rudin who now booked a theater and hired key players while sets were designed and built, hundreds of actors auditioned and some 28 cast. Finally, a rehearsal space was found, tape laid on the ground to mark key spots, and the actual work of producing a full-blown musical got under way.

On Jan. 10, Parker and Stone flew to New York, ready to give Mormon their all.

♦♦♦♦♦

It’s mid-afternoon on a Thursday, precisely a week before the show premieres, and their all just doesn’t seem to be enough.

They’re huddled with Rudin in the stalls of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, locked in intense discussion as Nicholaw pivots across the stage, a whirlwind of energy, putting his cast through one of the show’s bouncier numbers. The number may be bouncy, but the cast isn’t. Like the dozen or so technicians and stagehands sprinkled throughout the auditorium, they look wiped out.

Nicholaw shakes his whole head and body as two of the cast fail to get a movement quite right. “No, no, no!” he says, maintaining a remarkable ebullience despite his frustration. Across the stage, an actress who plays one of the Ugandan villagers rolls her eyes.

Parker glances up at her somberly.

At 41, he is no longer the enfant terrible who became notorious for lampooning everyone and everything — from Tom Cruise to Paris Hilton to Muhammad — and, along with Stone, even appearing in a dress at the Oscars. Rather, there’s a high seriousness to him that might surprise South Park aficionados.

He treats the series as more than a job; it’s a cause.

South Park is way bigger than either of us,” he says. “And it’s this curse, and when we are doing it, I hate it. I’m pissed off and I’m tired, and every single Tuesday I say, ‘This is the worst show we’ve ever done!’ It’s brutal. But it’s something I am a part of that’s bigger than I am. That’s what most important.”

Says Rudin: “It’s this thing that happens rarely in the culture, where something very subversive is also very affirmative. It has affirmative values but also tears down every possible institution.”

That combination has resulted in an enterprise worth hundreds of millions of dollars. South Park T-shirts alone generated some $30 million in sales in the late ’90s.

And yet its success comes at a price: When they return to Los Angeles, Parker and Stone will have just two months to produce a batch of seven new episodes, followed by seven more after a brief hiatus. Without their usual two weeks of prep before the season begins — and without their habitual five-day writers retreat — they’ll be scribbling ideas on Thursdays and working nonstop till the early hours of the following Wednesday morning, the very day each episode airs, when it is finally locked.

Both write, but their chores are slightly different. Parker, the more introspective of the two, also directs, while the effervescent Stone, 39, interfaces with the world at large.

“He’s genuinely a true artist,” Stone says of his colleague. “I’m more mercurial. I have a temper more than Trey; I’m not proud of it, but I have that edge. Trey avoids conflict like the plague.”

Raised in Conifer, Colo., the son of a geologist father and an insurance-salesman mother, Parker spent a semester at the Berklee College of Music before meeting Stone at the University of Colorado, where the latter — from suburban Littleton — was a math major. Both shared a uniquely provocative, anti-authoritarian humor, which they quickly applied to their first movie, Cannibal! The Musical.

Cannibal sold to schlock purveyor Troma Entertainment and got them a writing deal with Rudin while they were still in their early 20s.           

But it wasn’t until they made a much-talked-about video greeting card for Fox executive Brian Graden that they were commissioned to make South Park some 15 years ago. Other than the two forays into film and a TV misfire, That’s My Bush, they’ve remained exclusively with South Park ever since.

Parker says they’ve had it “pretty good.” He doesn’t voice the familiar complaints about interference from Standards and Practices — in fact, he says Comedy Central’s lawyers have helped the series.

“The Scientology episode, for instance, started with the idea that Tom Cruise is going to show up and he’s just flamboyantly gay, and we were going to say, ‘There’s that gay guy!’ ” he explains. “And the lawyers said, ‘You just can’t do that.’ So we went, ‘What if we say, “There’s that guy, and he’s in a closet?” ’ And they said, ‘Can’t do it.’ So we said, ‘What if he’s literally in a closet?’ And they said, ‘That you can do!’ ” He smiles. “Bargaining makes you come up with the best ideas.”

The Cruise episode was one of many that defined South Park as among the most cutting-edge shows of its era, a creation that made fun of individuals and institutions alike. Which makes it surprising to discover there’s a gentleness and even a kindness about Parker and Stone that’s far from the flipness one might expect.

“They’ve matured,” says fellow South Park executive producer Anne Garefino. “I’m very proud of the men they’ve become.”

It’s easy to forget that the guys who started South Park as twentysomethings are now on the brink of middle age.

“We care about different things today,” Parker admits. “First, we were friends f---ing around, trying to get laid, breaking into Hollywood, sleeping on couches. Now Matt is married, and I’ve got a little family.”

Two years ago, Stone wed his longtime girlfriend, with whom he has a 1-year-old boy. As for Parker, after a failed earlier marriage, he says he’s found contentment with his girlfriend of the past two years, who has a 10-year-old son.

Both have become more sedate: Stone, who’s been with the same woman for 10 years, believes he’s born to be a family man, and Parker says most of his spare time is now spent at home.

“For better or worse, we’ve gotten older,” he acknowledges.

In his down time, the Cruise/Muhammad/Mormon satirist is obsessed with Food Network, and his hobby is designing houses. “I got into this little habit of architecture and building,” he says. “I designed a house in Colorado and one in Hawaii. The idea is supposed to be build and sell — but then I can never bring myself to sell them.”

He laughs easily, appreciating the brief respite from all the pressure. Like Stone, he’s almost shockingly normal and decent.

Even at their most sacrilegious, Parker says, they never plan to inflict pain. He seems relieved at the Mormon response to his satire.

“The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening,” the LDS website notes, “but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

“When someone goes, ‘Oh, this group is really pissed off at what you said,’ there’s not a piece of my body that goes, ‘Sweet!’ ” Parker asserts. “That means I did it wrong. I’m just trying to make people laugh.”

Which is precisely what he says he’s trying to do with Mormon.

And yet the amount of effort the writers have expended, the perfectionism they’ve brought to bear, seems designed for something far grander.

The result might have lyrics like “F--- you, God, in the ass, mouth and c---,” but that shouldn’t dispel its underlying humanity. If anything, the shock element seems a distraction, as if Stone and Parker were reminding us they’re still the South Park creators of old when in truth they’re reaching for something new.

But can they succeed?

♦♦♦♦♦

Night. Ad the 1,102-seat theater fills to capacity, a rapid-fire prologue introduces us to the history of Mormonism, then we meet the show’s leads. Minutes later, we’re whisked to Africa, where we encounter cheery locals who sing with an abandon that the rehearsals simply don’t convey:

There isn’t enough food to eat/Hasa diga eebowai!/People are starving in the street/Hasa diga eebowai!

Gad’s Elder Cunningham squeals with an infectious giggle, unaware that Hasa diga eebowai will turn out to be blasphemous. Then we’re on a roller-coaster ride of comedy and characters with names like General Butt F---ing Naked — all wild and anarchic and yet so fundamentally sweet it hurts.

As the curtain falls two hours later, the audience rises in a thunderous ovation. Mormon is very possibly about to become a phenomenon.

This isn’t South Park: It’s a deeper, more mature work, which is terrific and terrifying at the same time.

“Once you get yourselves into things that are working on a deeper level, you just have to keep going,” Stone reflects. “When you reach that deeper level, you can’t go back.”              

 

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