ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has worked hard to get the Book of Mormon to all corners of the globe. But tonight, the book goes to a place it has never been before, at least not like this.
It's the Broadway premiere of the new musical, "The Book of Mormon." The show was not written or endorsed by the church. It is a searing comedy from the team behind "South Park."
NPR's Robert Smith reports that the production is probably the most offensive, yet sweetest, show on Broadway.
ROBERT SMITH: As any "South Park" fan can tell you, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have an obsession with Mormons.
Mr. TREY PARKER (Co-Creator, "South Park"): Mormonism has sort of just been the little thing that's fascinated us the most.
(Soundbite of "South Park")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi, Hi, welcome to heaven, brother. You followed the Mormon faith, and so you've been let in. We've got cookies and punch, and we're just about to start playing charades.
Mr. PARKER: Since it is an example of a religion that we have that's American and that's young, and that we can kind of look at and say, why did this catch on, you know.
(Soundbite of "South Park")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There goes that kooky Joseph Smith.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You know he claims he spoke with God and Jesus.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, how do you know he didn't?
SMITH: On "South Park" and in their movies, the Mormon bit characters always come off as super nice and a little gullible. And as Parker and Stone were trying to create a Broadway musical, they realized that the stage was the perfect place to give their Mormon characters a star turn.
Mr. PARKER: Mormons give you such an excuse to be cheesy and Rogers and Hammerstein again, you know, because you can have Mormons dancing around and doing things and being super optimistic, and people don't just go, well, that's not real. Because it's like, yeah, it's real. We're talking about Mormons.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: Perhaps you could tell by the laughter that Parker and Stone are not Mormon. Neither is their collaborator, Bobby Lopez. When people found out that three of the wickedest, funniest minds in the business were working an adaptation of the Book of Mormon, there was definitely a sense of foreboding. Were they really going to take a sacred text and mock it on stage for a hundred dollars a ticket?
Mr. PARKER: We don't hate Mormons. So we weren't ever going to set out to make this two-hour-long Mormon-bashing. We really set out to create a traditional musical in a lot of ways.
SMITH: "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway is a classic odd-couple/fish-out-of-water story. Two Utah missionaries are sent to a remote village in Uganda. One is the perfect Mormon, convinced that with charm and faith he can convert a whole continent. The other missionary is a screw-up who hasn't even made it all the way through the Scriptures.
Now, this is normally the point in the NPR story where I would play you a little bit of music from "The Book of Mormon," but that's not gonna happen. The producers of the musical have taken the unusual step of not releasing any sound from the show. They think that the jokes would be too vulgar out of context.
But I kind of want to give you the flavor of the show. You know how in "The Lion King" there is that big jungle number?
(Soundbite of song, "Hakuna Matata")
UNKNOWN MAN and WOMAN: (singing) Hakuna Matata.
SMITH: In "The Book of Mormon" musical, there's a similar song. It's called "Hassa Deega Eebow Wai."
The missionaries dance along with the Ugandans until they discover what the words mean. The villagers are actually telling God what he can go do to himself in graphic terms.
We've had no rain in several days. Hassa Deega Eebow Wai. 80 percent of us have AIDS. Hassa Deega Eebow Wai.
Yeah. Maybe the producers were right. There's so much in this musical to be offended by. There are jokes about cancer, domestic violence, child abuse. There is a running gag about female circumcision. There's a big dance number set in hell with Jeffrey Dahmer, Johnnie Cochran and two forbidden cups of Starbucks coffee.
And yet - and yet, there is this innocent Mormon streak that runs through the whole musical. Do you remember how in "The Little Mermaid," Ariel dreams of going up onto land?
(Soundbite of "The Little Mermaid")
ARIEL: (singing) I wish I could be part of that world.
SMITH: In "The Book of Mormon" there's a similar song with a young Ugandan girl, only she dreams of her own version of Utopia - Salt Lake City. She sings, I bet the people are open-minded, accepting and free of sin, and all I hope is that when I find it, I'm able to fit in.
And the audience just melts.
In the end, the least offensive part of this musical might just be the way they treat the Mormon faith. I even brought a member of the LDS church to a preview just to make sure I wasn't imagining it.
Ms. ELNA BAKER (Writer and Comedian): Hi. My name is Elna Baker, the token Mormon.
SMITH: She's also a writer and a comedian living in New York City. Baker laughed along through the entire show, especially at the insider jokes about Mormon doctrine.
Ms. BAKER: Like it was a checklist of all these things that are very particular to Mormon beliefs, and they nailed every single one of them.
SMITH: They skewer the story of Joseph Smith digging up the golden plates. They take a couple of potshots at the Mormon doctrine that kept blacks out of the priesthood until 1978.
Ms. BAKER: There's a line where they say, I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob. That is an actual Mormon belief. We do believe that, but taken out of context, or even in context, you do not want anyone to know that you actually believe it.
SMITH: But here's where the sweetness comes in. The Mormons in the musical embrace every quirk of their faith. It makes them stronger and, in the end, the audience who laughed at them, is actually won over.
Ms. BAKER: I think it teaches you about how if the whole world is sort of against you or against your ideas, what it requires of you to still believe those things.
SMITH: Now, Elna Baker wants to make this clear. Many Mormons, including her mom, would never make it to the end of this musical. They'd walk out after the first few F words. And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is not protesting the show. They released a simple statement. "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening," it says. "But the Book of Mormon, as a volume of scripture will change peoples' lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."
Matt Stone and Trey Parker thought that was just brilliant.
Mr. MATT STONE (Co-Creator, "South Park"): Every time we do something on Mormons, their response makes us like them more.
SMITH: Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.