From left: Monica L. Patton, Kevin Clay and Conner Peirson from ‘The Book of Mormon,’ returning to Denver starting June 13. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
You know about Colorado’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Meet the third mad mind behind the returning Broadway hit.
By Rob Weinert-Kendt
For The DCPA NewsCenter
Songwriter Robert Lopez doesn’t mind that The Book of Mormon, the Broadway juggernaut he co-authored with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, is popularly thought of as the “South Park” musical because of Stone and Parker’s involvement. He knows full well, having co-authored the puppet sensation Avenue Q, what it’s like to introduce a form-breaking original show that’s not a jukebox musical or an adaptation of a movie.
“When we did Avenue Q, it was really hard to convey to people what it was supposed to be, and why people should go see it,” said Lopez. “So I understand why the producers used the ‘South Park’ hook to promote this show. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to see a show called The Book of Mormon if it wasn’t by them.”
But Lopez isn’t shy about setting the record straight.
“It was a show that was my idea,” he said, adding crucially, “and when we met I discovered they happened to have the same idea.”
Indeed, the initial Lopez/Stone/Parker summit is by now the stuff of musical theatre legend. When Stone and Parker went to see Avenue Q on Broadway in 2003, they were flattered, if a little puzzled, to see themselves thanked in Lopez’s Playbill bio, since they didn’t know him. That in turn led to an informal post-show meeting and eventually to a collaboration around their shared fascination with Mormonism.
The Playbill tribute was there, Lopez recalled, because Parker and Stone’s 1999 musical film — South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut — had been an inspiration for Lopez and his Avenue Q co-writer, Jeff Marx.
“Well, it was a pretty barren 10 years,” Lopez joked, before explaining his own admiration for the film. “It shows an understanding not only of how musicals are structured and how they work but of the meaning of the form.” It’s important, Lopez continued, that a musical not be simply a play with songs as garnish; form and content should harmonize.
“When you’re writing one of these shows, you have to figure out what the music means to the story,” said Lopez. With Book of Mormon it’s a) the naïveté of the missionaries, and b) their beliefs. And music embodies those feelings.”
The Mormon-missionaries-abroad premise that gives the musical its shape wasn’t among the initial ideas of any of the authors, said Lopez. “My idea was to read the Book of Mormon and find the epic story that, in telling it, would make fun of itself,” said Lopez. “Their idea was to do the story of Joseph Smith as a musical. Then they suggested we all do it together, which I thought was a great idea.”
But in October of that year, that notion seemed to be moot when “South Park” aired the episode “All About Mormons,” which irreverently recounted the story of Smith, Mormonism’s founding prophet. Lopez wasn’t crestfallen, exactly, but he figured that Parker and Stone had taken the idea and run with it. So he and Marx were pleasantly surprised to get an email from the “South Park” provocateurs, revisiting the idea of their collaboration. “We were like, ‘Oh, we thought you had done that idea already,’” Lopez said.
The writers found that not only was there much more to say about Mormons than could be conveyed in a 22-minute TV episode, but that the story of this relatively new religion was an ideal way to treat larger satirical themes.
“We discovered that we all had the same feelings about religion and God — that God doesn’t exist and yet somehow he does,” said Lopez. “And that even though the stories are made up, the leap of faith that people make makes them better people.”
While Lopez’s interest in Mormonism was secondhand, his own interest in religion is more personal.
“I went through my own crisis of faith,” he said. “I went to church; I grew up Catholic-ish. I did believe when I was young.” His beliefs faded in college though not quite for the usual reasons. In fact, it was up-close exposure to religious practice that soured Lopez.
“In college I sang in choirs and I started to see the mechanics behind the Mass,” he said. “There is quite literally a backstage, and the Mass is quite literally stagecraft. Where I went they had incense, and there was an organ that had something called a zimbalstern — a wheel that tinkles when you push the key and makes it feel like there are angels in the church. There are stories, there’s a throughline, there’s a snack. It’s everything that theatre does; it’s basically a proto-musical.”
He even recalled one priest saying to another, with a knowing sigh worthy of a Broadway hoofer, “Two shows today.” For a while, like many freshly minted non-believers, Lopez said, his attitude was, “Forget about that stuff. It wasn’t until later that I started to think: What is real about it? Science is a kind of religion itself; we don’t all check out every experiment for ourselves. We take a lot on faith.”
Though he now stops short of fully re-upping on his childhood faith, Lopez clearly feels, as The Book of Mormon demonstrates, that religion is a part of human experience and that, on balance, it may be a net good.
“God, whether he does or doesn’t actually exist, does exist as part of the human experience,” said Lopez. “That’s undeniable.”
(Pictured: ‘The Book of Mormon’ writers, from left, Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez at the 2011 Tony Awards. Photo by CBS.)
And if his glimpses behind the curtain of the Catholic Mass first made him question the objective truth of the narrative behind the ritual, Lopez harbors no doubts about the value of stage storytelling.
“Any kind of literature, any kind of art that tells a story is a form of religious experience — it’s a consciousness-changing endeavor,” said Lopez.
“It transmits spirit through it. In musical theatre, we’re lifting people up, giving them stories and arming them for experiences they encounter in life.”
He almost makes it sound like a mission.
Rob Weinert-Kendt is Editor-in-Chief at American Theatre Magazine.
Photo gallery: The Book of Mormon national touring production
Production photos for the national touring production of ‘The Book of Mormon’ To see more, click on the image above to be taken to the full photo gallery. Photos by Julieta Cervantes.
The Book of Mormon: Ticket information
Back by popular demand, The Book of Mormon, the nine-time Tony Award-winning Best Musical returns to Denver. This outrageous musical comedy follows the misadventures of a mismatched pair of missionaries, sent halfway across the world to spread the Good Word.
- National touring production
- Performances June 13-July 7
- Ellie Caulkins Opera House
- Tickets start at $25
- Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
- Sales to groups of 10 or more click here
- Visit the official The Book of Mormon website at BookofMormonTheMusical.com
- Follow The Book of Mormon on Twitter and on Facebook
- Follow the DCPA on social media @DenverCenter and through the DCPA News Center
Please be advised that the Denver Center for the Performing Arts – denvercenter.org – is the ONLY authorized ticket provider for The Book of Mormon in Denver. Ticket buyers who purchase tickets from a ticket broker or any third party run the risk of overpaying, purchasing illegitimate tickets and should be aware that the DCPA is unable to reprint or replace lost or stolen tickets and is unable to contact patrons with information regarding time changes or other pertinent updates regarding the performance. Patrons found in violation of the DCPA Ticket Purchase and Sale Terms and Policies may have all of their tickets canceled.
Recent NewsCenter coverage of The Book of Mormon:
The Book of Mormon lottery details announced for Denver
More, more Mormon: The Book of Mormon extended through July 7
From 2015: A Q&A with the show’s creators