The cheerful, naughty extravaganza by “South Park” masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with songs by Parker and “Avenue Q” composer Robert Lopez, was lavished with nine Tony Awards (best musical, book, score, etc.) and hosannas from the New York Times as “the best new musical (so far, anyway) of the 21st century.” This spring the show got iffy reviews from British critics but set a single-day London sales record anyway, with its top regular prices (72.50 pounds, or about $110) and premium tickets (125 pounds/$190) the highest in the West End
When “Mormon” tickets went on sale here last winter, the Kennedy Center Web site crashed, swamped by a wave of would-be buyers that was “beyond unprecedented,” a Kennedy Center spokesman said. “Mormon's” six-week Opera House run starts Tuesday, and it’s nearly sold out. Most remaining tickets are going for $200-$250.
So it’s pretty big, this jolly show with foulmouthed singing and absurdly sunny dancing as young Mormon missionaries recruit in bloody Uganda. But why? Simply swaggering onto Broadway with the “South Park” brand can’t explain it.
“I am mystified to a degree that people would like it at all,” Lopez says from Brooklyn. “I didn’t expect anything near this size. I never thought I’d get to replicate the success of ‘Avenue Q.’ ”
“In a way, Bobby is the one with the Midas touch,” Stone, on the phone from Los Angeles, says of the now two-time Tony winner Lopez. “And Trey knows musical theater pretty damn well. We expected ‘South Park’ fans, but we didn’t expect traditional musical theater fans to embrace it so positively.”
They have, wherever this unholy showbiz lampoon hath alighted. Take Cleveland, the tour stop immediately before Washington: in front of the Palace Theatrer on a recent weekday, about a hundred people sign up for a chance to snag a handful of $20 front row seats that “Mormon” sets aside most nights. Names are drawn to cheers and groans as a mere 16 tickets get claimed by the lottery’s winners. When a man named Tim wins, he buys only one ticket, not his allotted two.
“Tim should take me!” a woman says at full volume.
The Palace is part of a 10-stage complex in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square district, which dates back to the turn of the 20th century. It’s a true vaudeville-era palace, built by impresario Edward F. Albee (adoptive grandfather of the famous playwright). Think D.C.’s Warner Theatre, only 1,000 seats bigger: the Palace holds 2,800. When the Palace opened in 1922, it boasted the world’s largest electric sign; its grand marble columns and glowing chandeliers are in first-rate shape.
On a sold-out Wednesday night, it feels as if there are more people in the lobby of the Palace than on the streets of Cleveland.They’re all ages, skewing older, conservatively dressed. Tonight, this slice of Middle America doesn’t bat an eye at the f-bombs, sex gags and doctrinal skepticism.