By MARK KENNEDY
The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 2:31 PM
NEW YORK -- For years, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have lampooned everything, from Scientology to Tiger Woods, Prius drivers to Islam, Britney Spears to the great state of New Jersey.
They've even had the boldness to make fun of George Clooney.
Is nothing sacred?
"That is sacred," says Parker, looking suitably chastised during an interview in a Times Square restaurant after being reminded that he and Stone once dared to call Clooney smug. "We crossed the line there."
Now the twisted minds behind "South Park" are daring to cross another line: They're goofing on the Mormon church in a big, brassy Broadway musical that opens Thursday.
Together with "Avenue Q" writer Robert Lopez, the duo have left behind their foul-mouthed elementary students to tell a story about two young missionaries whose faith is rocked when they come face-to-face with famine, war and AIDS in Africa.
"The Book of Mormon," which stars Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, has foul language, some brilliantly sarcastic songs, references to genital mutilation, plenty of suppressed homosexuality, tap-dancing Mormons, war crimes threatened on an infant, Darth Vader and a character who repeatedly complains about having maggots in his scrotum.
While the show makes fun of several Broadway shows including "Fela!" and "The Lion King," audience members at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre may be surprised that Parker and Stone have maintained the structure and feel of a traditional musical.
"We thought from the very beginning that the biggest challenge was to write a real Broadway musical," says Stone. "With unconventional material, sure. But to do unconventional material conventionally."
They've largely succeeded: There's certainly more than a nod in the Mormon musical to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the great musical team - and a Parker childhood favorite - that also dealt with fresh-faced Americans confronting other cultures in shows such as "South Pacific" or "The King and I." Parker and Stone also say a show about Mormons isn't that strange when you consider other religious-themed musicals such as "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."
It's clear the team is banking on more than rabid "South Park" fans to keep the musical afloat.
"We're hoping it's a pretty broad group," says Parker.
To which Stone adds: "It better be."
Parker then turns hopeful: "We haven't had a lot of walkouts so far."
Parker, 41, and Stone, 39, have been working on the musical on and off for about seven years, putting the story and songs away each time they had to make another episode of "South Park" or finish their films "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" and "Team America: World Police."
"We're trying to do something really different. If we wanted to do `South Park: The Musical' we could have done that. It probably would have made a lot more money," Stone says. "We wanted to do something ... a little more sophisticated."
They've mulled the idea of a Mormon musical since college and found that their dream was shared by Lopez, whom they met after watching and loving "Avenue Q," a musical that featured foul-mouthed puppets and sassy songs. The three were determined not to waiver from their original mission: a musical.
"Even though there were a few times where we got tempted during the process to go, `Oh, let's just make this a movie' - because it would be already out on DVD by now - it's great we stuck through it and did it this way."
Picking on Mormons isn't new for the "South Park" dudes: In Season 7, they also went after The Church of Latter-day Saints, mostly by mocking participants as relentlessly cheery and by humming "dum, dum, dum" over the animated stories about founder Joseph Smith. It's not personal, they insist.
"Mormons are pretty darn good at turning the other cheek," says Parker.
"They're really good at being really nice," agrees Stone.
The two, both atheists, don't anticipate the same sort of backlash they got when a radical Muslim group was angered after they depicted the prophet Muhammad in a bear suit. Why not? For one thing, the Mormon church has been, in a word, polite.
"The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening," the church says in a statement, "but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."
To be sure, the musical is not terribly anti-Mormon or even very anti-religious. Both Stone and Parker say they consider themselves optimistic people who try to strip away cynicism and reveal humanity beneath.
"If you're going to satirize something - if you're going to make a point about something - you have an obligation to present the people as real people," says Parker. "If you want it to work, you have to have the heart there."
That means jokes about bodily functions or misbehaving celebrities have had to be cut if it doesn't fit the musical, something of which the new Broadway playwrights have had to remind themselves as they put the finishing touches on "The Book of Mormon." A two-hour musical, after all, is quite different from creating a 22-minute episode of their topical TV show.
"I think when we do it best - sometimes we hit it and sometimes we don't - is when the characters do something emotionally true to that story. Then it's a real story. "
Which brings us back to the original question: Is nothing sacred to these men?
No, they say. Nothing can be ruled out for ridicule.
"As long as it's done in the right way," says Parker.