Matt Stone, one half the "South Park" writing duo, is not now, nor has he ever been a Mormon. Neither is his creative partner, Trey Parker. They don't have Mormons in their family trees, despite rumors to the contrary circulating madly online and in Mormon circles.
"If we did have that," Stone said in a phone interview Monday, "we would never hide it."
What they do have is affection for and fascination with Mormons, said Stone, explaining why the pair joined Broadway musician Robert Lopez to write and direct a musical, "The Book of Mormon," opening March 24 on Broadway.
In a wide-ranging exchange, Stone reflected on why they chose to write the play about Mormonism, the story they hope to tell and its universal themes.
Here are Stone's responses, edited for length and clarity:
How did you become interested in Mormonism?
We both knew Mormons growing up in the Denver area. It's not Salt Lake City, but there's a lot of seepage into Colorado of Mormon people and culture. We found the whole story fascinating. There's just not another thing like that in America, where a whole state or region was settled by this group of people with their own religion.
The creation myths of Mormonism and what the Book of Mormon purports is so outlandishly silly to outsiders, yet all three of us have had tons of Mormon friends ... and to a person, they've always been nice. I need to square that with the goofy stories. That doesn't mean we're not going to make fun of a lot of the stuff in it, but it really comes from a loving place.
What did you think about Joseph Smith?
He had impact, whether he was a genius con man or was inspired or talked to by God. The stories of a religion like Christianity are all based in the Old World, Jerusalem. [Smith's] idea is taking America and Americans and putting them as central characters in this cosmic narrative … There's something really powerful about that.
We are storytellers. When you come up with something that just makes sense, sometimes you wonder, where does that come from? It does seem kind of inspired.
We'd like to feel even though we are atheists from outside the faith, these stories have even touched us and now we are going to do our own version.
How did you research Mormonism?
I've read several dusty old books [on Mormonism]. Now we just go online really quick. Trey and I have been to Temple Square a half-dozen times over the years and taken the tour. Bobby [Lopez] had never been to Temple Square, so a few years ago we took him on a field trip [to Salt Lake City].
We spent time hanging out in downtown Salt Lake, eating at random restaurants. We'd always ask the waiters, who were usually about 25, post-college kind of people: "Do you know any [Mormon] missionaries?" Every single one was like, "Yes, me. Or that guy right there." Then we'd ask if they knew anyone who was gay in the church and they'd say, "Yes, me."
One guy went to Cambodia and had a really awful experience there, not what the church did but with the locals. It was really moving. Then we met a gay who was a Mormon out of the closet and he got kicked out of the church. His story was incredibly moving, too.
A couple of summers ago, we went to the Palmyra pageant. We went to where the Book of Mormon was printed.
There's some artistic license, but we tried to stay true to the fact that these two boys are paired together, and sent to the other side of the world for two years, with a support structure and each other, but that's got to be pretty tough. Real life has got to hit you upside the head when you get there for sure. When they come back from their mission, they're a greatly improved person. I know if you sent me at 19 to Cambodia or rural Brazil, Mexico or France, it would have blown my head off. That's a real story that has nothing to do with religion. It's just a good story.
The missionary companionship was a strong aspect of the play. Like Neil Simon's "Odd Couple."
That's right. In this system, you don't get to choose your friends. You have to work with the person you are assigned, get to know them. Something inspired about that idea.
Is there an audience for this play beyond "South Park" fans?
I think so. We knew there'd be a lot of interest by "South Park" fans, especially at the first previews. But now that it's settled into a more traditional audience, we are seeing a lot of new people who don't normally go to the theater, which is awesome. There are a lot of gray heads in the theater, too. They love it because it's a traditional big, original musical. That's something that is unfortunately a rarity on Broadway these days.
Do you think people might stay away because it's too Mormon in its approach?
Maybe. But people who know nothing about Mormons will walk out learning something for real, like, this is kind of what their major tenets are. A lot of people know just enough to feel smug. "Oh, I got that joke. I know how it is, like how they God changed his mind about blacks in 1978." Hopefully, there's just enough [universal appeal.] Two Mormon missionaries who get paired together has to work on its own and has got to move you outside of any religious theme. The story is working.
One Mormon viewer said some anti-Mormons wouldn't like it because it isn't mean enough.
That's a criticism we can take because we never wanted to be mean. You don't go to the theater to watch something mean. That's no fun.
Mormon viewers also said you couldn't get to the sweet ending without the irreverence. Today's audiences wouldn't accept it.
Sending two kids to Africa, what are you going to do? It's Africa, sub-Suharan Africa in a war zone. Bad s- happens. It's a really tough place to live and something they've never experienced.
We wanted to end the musical with people looking to the sky and saying, "Thank you, God." A great place to start if you want to tell that story is "F- you, God." That's the story. The whole point is that one man's blasphemy is another man's religion. The point we are trying to make is that once you tell people stories, they make them their own. We think you should celebrate that.
'The Book of Mormon'
The Broadway musical follows two white Mormon missionaries from Salt Lake City to their assignment in Uganda, where the pair try to convert a population ravaged by AIDS, malaria and a warlord threatening to attack the village and circumcise all the women.
The missionaries sing about being tempted to sin, about turning off feelings of sexuality, guilt and fear and about believing sometimes-ludicrous doctrines. They learn to get along with each other and the Africans.
For a full exploration of the show, visit • http://bit.ly/dXtEDK.