Book of Mormon: South Park Creators Hit Broadway

The South Park guys take their act to Broadway

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Jake Chessum for TIME

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Parker and Stone have long been fascinated with Mormonism, which they first took on in their 1998 movie Orgazmo, about a Mormon missionary who becomes a porn star, and later in a 2003 South Park episode in which a Mormon family moves into the neighborhood and disarms everyone with its sheer niceness. Then, while making their 2004 puppet movie Team America: World Police, Parker and Stone went to see the musical Avenue Q and met the show's co-creator Lopez — who not only was a big South Park fan (he credited the show in his Playbill bio) but also had been toying with his own idea of a musical about Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith. The three got together and began developing the musical in spurts, in between the six or seven months a year that Parker and Stone were absorbed in South Park.

As a creative team, Parker and Stone (dressed in complementary black and white T-shirts, respectively) seem perfectly in sync — though Stone is the more intense and voluble, Parker the more laid-back and contemplative. (He writes most of the music, and he co-directs The Book of Mormon with Broadway vet Casey Nicholaw.) "Matt is fierce. He just goes for it," says Garefino, their longtime South Park producer. "Trey goes for it too but does it in a sweeter way."

But neither comes off as a Broadway insurrectionist. "The highest thing we were going for, and this sounds kind of corny, but we wanted to do a traditional Broadway musical," says Stone. "Not some new take — Oh, we're going to do a musical for people who don't like musicals, none of that. We wanted to do the biggest version of a Broadway musical, with this kind of crazy, unconventional material. And that seemed like the hardest challenge and the craziest and the most subversive thing to do."

In truth, The Book of Mormon is less incendiary than an average episode of South Park. It focuses on a team of fresh-faced Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda to try to convert a band of villagers beset by poverty and pestilence. Though the show makes mild fun of the wackier elements of the Mormon creation story — Smith's discovery of holy golden tablets in upstate New York — it steers clear of more hot-button issues associated with the religion, like polygamy. (A joke on the topic was once in the show, says Lopez, but it was cut after "it didn't get a laugh.")

Two weeks before the show's opening, Parker and Stone were still tinkering — moving scenes around and adding song lyrics. They've had to adjust their seat-of-the-pants working method from South Park — where most episodes are conceived, written, animated and edited in the space of a week — to the demands of dealing with real live actors. "In South Park we can say, Let's try this. We'll go in and look at it, and then we can change it in half an hour. It's not a big deal," says Parker. "But I've had to learn that, Oh, you can't give the actor a new line too many times. He's going to start getting confused. So you have to make sure you've thought about it."

The Los Angeles — based pair has had fewer problems adapting to living in New York City. Stone and his wife bought an apartment in Chelsea, and even Parker, who is more comfortable in open spaces, is thinking of keeping the midtown apartment he and his girlfriend rented for the duration. But first, just a week after The Book of Mormon's March 24 opening, they'll be heading back to L.A. to face the usual scramble as they churn out the final episodes for South Park's 15th season.

"Every season, we run out of ideas about two shows in," says Parker. "I hope some funny things happen." They've already rejected one ripe target: "Charlie Sheen went from, like, funny for me last week to just sad this week," says Stone. On the other hand, their new Broadway excursion just might have opened up new territory. In November they went to see the third preview of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the high-flying, trouble-plagued musical that has just postponed its opening for the sixth time. Says Parker, charitably: "Our third preview didn't go so great either." Remember, he's the sweet one.

This article originally appeared in the March 28, 2011 issue of TIME.

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