Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the perpetrators of the hit cartoon series South Park, have taken potshots at everything from Scientology to Barbra Streisand, packed more fart jokes and four-letter words into small spaces than any other filmmakers over the age of 10 and risked death threats for an episode last year in which they poked fun at the Prophet Muhammad. But only when they got to Broadway did they find something they hadn't experienced since their days as renegade student filmmakers at the University of Colorado: no adult supervision.
"On Comedy Central we have standards and practices," says Stone, sitting with Parker at the back table of a restaurant next door to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, where their new musical, The Book of Mormon, is in previews. "They have to answer to advertisers, and we have to answer to them. And then for the film stuff, we have the MPAA [ratings] that we have to deal with. But here, it's basically me and Trey and our friends in the theater next door putting on a show. Other than New York indecency laws or something, that's it."
The indecency police, if there are any left in New York City, might blanch at some of the cruder moments in The Book of Mormon: the flippant talk by Ugandan villagers about AIDS and baby rape or the fellow who keeps complaining about "maggots in my scrotum" or the upbeat "Hakuna Matata" style ditty that translates as "F--- You, God." But it's all packaged in such a buoyant, old-fashioned Broadway song-and-dance show that, once past the four-letter words, you just might mistake this for a revival of Oklahoma!
It seems like an epic mismatch: Parker and Stone, the bad boys behind TV's most notoriously potty-mouthed cartoon show, bringing their irreverent act to the family-friendly environs of Wicked and Jersey Boys. But it shouldn't be all that surprising. For one thing, Broadway has been fervently trying to attract younger, hipper audiences, with shows like Avenue Q, the profane puppet musical that swept the Tony Awards in 2004 and whose co-creator Robert Lopez is Parker and Stone's collaborator on The Book of Mormon. Broadway now opens its doors to rap musicals and raunchy stand-up concerts and drug-fueled punk-rock extravaganzas like last season's American Idiot. How freewheeling is it getting? Scheduled to open next month is a comedy called The Motherfu--er with the Hat. A few years ago there would have at least been more hyphens.
But the other reason not to be surprised is that Parker and Stone, for all their renegade street cred, are closet lovers of the classic Broadway musical. Parker, 41, grew up in a small Colorado town watching Rodgers and Hammerstein revivals by the local community theater, the Evergreen Players. He went on to star in high school musicals, majored in music at the University of Colorado and transferred his musical-theater passion to his college friend Stone (a math major, two years younger), initiating him by taking him to see Miss Saigon in London.
While still in college, they made a film together called Cannibal: The Musical, based on the true story of a prospector in the 1870s who survived his snowbound expedition by eating his comrades. Not long afterward, the pair was discovered by Hollywood. Signed to a script deal by producer Scott Rudin (who's now one of two lead producers of their Broadway show, along with Anne Garefino), Parker came up with another musical idea: Des Moines, about an insurance man in a small Iowa town who sings and dances in a Rodgers and Hammerstein idyll until he's transferred to the big, bad city of Des Moines and the music comes to a screeching halt. Rudin didn't like it.
In 1997, however, the two hit it big with South Park, the Comedy Central cartoon show about a quartet of profanity-spewing third-graders, which has provided a vehicle to satirize everything from self-important Hollywood stars to Facebook mania. It also spawned a 1999 feature film, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, a cheerily old-fashioned (if foulmouthed) musical that nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Song and a fan letter for its score (co-written by Marc Shaiman) from Stephen Sondheim.