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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new hit Broadway musical comedy "The Book of Mormon" is nominated for 14 Tonys, just one shy of the record number for any show. My guests are the co-writers of the show's book and music, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who are also the creators of "South Park." Their writing partner was Robert Lopez, who co-wrote the music for "Avenue Q."

If you know anything about "South Park," you would expect that a musical written by Parker and Stone would be irreverent, and you'd be right. But as Frank Rich writes in the liner notes for the soon-to-be-released cast recording: However skeptical the show may be of the Church of Latter-day Saints in particular and religion in general, its faith in the Broadway brand of tuneful, funny, well-told and uplifting musicals is unshakable.

The story is about two young Mormons who are sent on their first mission to Uganda, where they learn Africa is not like "The Lion King." Let's start with the opening song, set at a mission training center in Salt Lake City, where young Mormons are learning to missionize door-to-door.

(Soundbite of song, "Hello")

(Soundbite of doorbell)

Unidentified Actor: Hello, my name is Elder Price, and I would like to share with you the most amazing book.

(Soundbite of doorbell)

Unidentified People: (as characters) Hello, my name is Elder Grant. It's a book about America a long, long time ago. It has so many awesome parts. You simply won't believe how much this book can change your life. Hello, my name is Elder Green. I would like to share with you this book of Jesus Christ. Hello, my name is Elder Young. Did you know that Jesus lived here in the USA? You can read all about it now in this nifty book. It's free. No, you don't have to pay.

Hello, hello, my name is Elder Smith. And can I leave this book with you for you to just peruse? Hello, hello, I'll just leave it here. It has a lot of information you can really use.

Hello, hi, my name is - Jesus Christ - you have a lovely home. Hello, it's an amazing book. Bonjour, hola (unintelligible) Are these your kids? - This book gives you the secret to eternal life. Sound fun?

Eternal life - Jesus Christ - is super-fun, hello - ding-dong! - and if you let us in, we'll show you how it can be done. No, thanks. - You sure? Oh well, that's fine. Good-bye. Have fun in hell. Hey now! You simply won't believe how much this book can change - this book will change - this book will change your life...

(Speaking) Hello, would you like to change religions? I have a free book written by Jesus.

(Speaking) No, no, Elder Cunningham, that's not how we do it. You're making things up again. Just stick to the approved dialogue.

(Singing) Hello, my name is Elder Cunningham, and we would like to share with you this book of Jesus Christ. Hello! Hello! Ding-dong! Just take this book, it's free - for you from me. You simply won't believe how much this book will change, this book will change, this book will change your life. So you won't burn in - Hello! You're going to die someday, but if you read this book you'll see that there's another way...

GROSS: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on "The Book of Mormon" and on all the success it's been having and the many Tony nominations.

Mr. MATT STONE (Co-writer, "The Book of Mormon"): Thank you.

Mr. TREY PARKER (Co-writer, "The Book of Mormon"): Cool. Thank you.

GROSS: Before we talk about why and how you wrote the musical, let's talk about the opening song that we just heard. The ringing doorbells, as part of the song, that works so well musically and in terms of the narrative. How did you decide to work that in? How did that come to you?

Mr. STONE: It was actually the first song we wrote for the entire show. Once we knew that we wanted to start with missionaries, and we knew we wanted to start with missionaries at the missionary training center, and let's start the way that most people, your average person, their interaction with Mormons, which is those guys in white shirts that come to your door.

You know, so before we get into anything else about Mormonism, we just wanted to start there, and then it was - pretty quickly we came up with the hook of, like, let's use the doorbell as actually part of the music and start layering things on top of each other.

And so we were just in a space at the time where we just had a laptop and a little, you know, sequencer that we could - we just started layering vocals on top of each other and just started putting it down as a song.

GROSS: So did Mormons come to your door, and did your family let them in when you were growing up?

Mr. STONE: They never came to my door, I don't think. I don't know if my dad would have let them in either.

Mr. PARKER: We lived in - we grew up in Colorado. So we actually, we were around a lot of Mormons. And we went to school with Mormons and things like that. But I think that the first time I actually saw them come to the door was in college, actually. I had some Mormons come to where I was staying in college, when they actually came in that way.

But then since then we've had a few, and we always try to - I always tried to start kind of a dialogue with them. But you learn pretty quickly that they are trained impeccably to be able to handle anything. And so it's pretty cool to try to mess with them.

Mr. STONE: Knock them off their game.

Mr. PARKER: You can't do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: But then, you know, with "Hello," the idea was that you'd reveal that you were at the missionary training center, which is in Provo, Utah, which is where they get - they learn all their language skills and they learn their - you know, what to do when you do get invited into a house.

And we found out later, at the missionary training center they actually have, like, prop living rooms, like fake living rooms with actors that, you know, it's like one of your tests is to go and, like, go into this fake living room and sit down and do your spiel, and have to deal with this in a real situation.

Mr. PARKER: It's like the holodeck. It's like the holodeck on "Star Trek."

Mr. STONE: It's like a driving simulator, yeah.

GROSS: So did you go to a missionary training center as part of your research for the show?

Mr. STONE: No, we didn't go there, but we went to - we did take a field trip to Salt Lake City with Bobby Lopez, our co-writer, who had never been to Salt Lake City. And we interviewed a bunch of missionaries or ex-missionaries, people who'd been on mission, which really for us was pretty easy to find. We just talked to waiters, you know, in downtown Salt Lake City.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: You know, most, like, post-collegiate, kind of like 25- to 30-year-old guys, and almost every single waiter we asked if they'd been on a mission, they had. Right? It was like every single one. So that was where we got a lot of our research done about missionaries, was actually in Salt Lake City.

GROSS: So maybe this is a good time to hear the song in which the missionaries are getting paired, and they're finding out what mission they're going to be sent on. And the song is called "Two By Two." And would you talk about writing this song and maybe talk about how it changed your relationship to be writing songs with a third person, with Robert Lopez, who wrote the song, co-wrote the songs for "Avenue Q"?

Mr. PARKER: It was - it was like being in a band. I mean, it was just -we would just hang out in a room, and again, we'd kick around the idea of what's the hook of the song.

And you'd come up with the hook, and you'd sort of talk about that first. And we're like, okay, well, what is it? You know, they're sent two guys at a time. They're being paired off here. Of course, you know, the idea of two by two came out really quick.

We thought it would be a really militant - I remember it started being much more...

Mr. STONE: It was a much more (humming). It was much more snare drum and a militaristic kind of beat, like two by two we go from door - it's supposed to be this joke of they're the army. And we had this kind of metaphor going that they were sent along - they're soldiers of God and they're going around the world to sell their stuff.

And I remember what a big - the joke - and it kind of comes at the end of this song is, is just how funny we'd find that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be kind of grammatically weird with two of's in there. And so we made the of kind of this running joke of, like, we're the army of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And you can start stacking these of's in this crazy way, and that was kind of a central joke too.

Mr. PARKER: And I remember at one point we were, like, yeah, it's a good song, but it's just - it's a little dry. And we realized it was because of the military thing. I remember Bobby being, like, you know, we could put this different feel to it that's a bit more just cheesy, and then that's when - one of my prouder moments - where I remembered a thing from high school, when I was in choir in high school, we actually had a song where we sang ooh-wa-hey-ah shout out wow.

GROSS: Oh, I love that stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: And it was like shout out wow. And I remember - and so we actually just recorded that, singing it, you know, shout out wow. And it just, the rest of the song fell into place after that.

GROSS: And you've got clapping in it too.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, lots of clapping.

Mr. STONE: We went from militaristic to "Up With People"...

GROSS: Exactly!

Mr. STONE: And the "Up With People" vibe really seemed to be a funnier, fun, more true kind of feel.

GROSS: So it's a great song. So here it is, "Two By Two," as the young missionaries are paired off and assigned their mission. And this is from "The Book of Mormon."

(Soundbite of song, "Two By Two")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Shout out wow. Two by two we're marching door to door 'cause God loves Mormons, and he wants some more. A two-year mission is our sacrifice. We are the army of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Two by two, and today we'll know who we'll make the journey with and where we'll go. We're fighting for a cause, but we're really, really nice. We are the army of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Elder White and Elder Smith.

Oh, I knew we'd get paired together.

Your location will be France.

France, land of pastries and turtlenecks.

Two by two, I guess it's you and me. We're off to reach across land and sea. Satan has a hold of France. We need to knock him off his perch. We are the soldiers of the army of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Elder Cross and Elder Green, you will be serving in Japan.

Oh, Japan, land of soy sauce. And Mothra!

Elder Harris and Elder Brown...

Heavenly father, where will I go on my mission? Will it be China or old Mexico on my mission? It could be San Fran by the bay, Australia where they say g'day, but I pray I'm sent to my favorite place, Orlando. I love you, Orlando, Sea World and Disney and putt-putt golfing.

Elder Price...

Yes, sir.

Your brother will be Elder Cunningham.

That's me, that's me. Hello. Oh, hi.

And your mission location is Uganda.

Uganda? Uganda? Cool. Where is that?

Africa.

Oh, boy, like "Lion King."

Two by two and now it's time to go. Our paths have been revealed...

GROSS: That's a song from "The Book of Mormon," which was co-written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of "South Park," and "The Book of Mormon" is nominated for 14 Tonys.

So as we heard in that song, the two stars of the show, the two lead missionaries from the show, are assigned what turns out to be Uganda. Why did you choose Uganda as being, like, the nightmare come true as opposed to the dream come true for them?

Mr. STONE: We just wanted it to be that place that you always read about where - and a lot of times it's sub-Saharan Africa, it seems like. I mean, lately it's been Haiti, where it's just that place you go, can this place get a break? You know, they have earthquakes and then cholera and then a warlord, you know, and then a famine and then, you know, no water. And you know, it was just supposed to be that place. And we settled on Uganda honestly because they speak English there. So that seemed one, like, less leap to make. And we settled on Northern Uganda, which has had a humanitarian crisis of its own, and it borders Congo and the Sudan.

So really it was kind of a bunch of different things that brought us to that. We didn't start with Uganda. It's supposed to be just generic, war-torn worst-place-on-Earth that where - if you are from Utah, nothing you've learned in Utah when you're 18 or 19 years old makes any sense when you get there.

GROSS: Let me stop you there. Is that part of what you were trying to kind of puzzle through in this musical, why 19-year-old white missionaries from Salt Lake City would feel like they could go to a place in Africa...

Mr. STONE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...where they didn't understand the culture, and have something to offer?

Mr. STONE: Yeah, I mean I think that like Trey said, we have this coming-of-age story, which is, you know, missionaries, you know, you're that perfect age. When I was 18, I thought I knew everything.

I think, you know, you're 18, you're told you've got all this information. Now go change the world. You're like - you know, I just think naturally when we're all about 17 or 18, we think we know everything, and then life, you know, you get - life slaps you upside the head.

And I think that happens for a lot of people just when they go an hour away to college, or they get - they move out of the house. But a lot of these kids go to another country, another culture, and a lot of them end up in Third World countries, and they're probably seeing things that they have never seen before.

So in addition to the coming-of-age story, we have a big fish-out-of-water story going, and it just seemed really funny to send these two, you know, kids who've grown up in this perfect place, you know, quote-unquote, to a place where nothing makes sense that they've learned. So definitely that was a big part of it.

GROSS: Now, a lot of musicals have magical places in them, you know, like somewhere over the rainbow, or Brigadoon. And the magical places in your musical are Salt Lake City and Orlando. Like, the lead missionary, he really thinks Orlando is this, like, magical place because of all the theme parks and Sea World. So why Orlando?

And I should mention here that your co-writer, Robert Lopez, wrote the musical version of "Finding Nemo," and it says in the playbill that it's been playing in Orlando for six years. So is that why Orlando is the magical place?

Mr. PARKER: Well, it's just such a - you know, to us there's so many things about Mormonism, even the way they present themselves, when you go to Salt Lake City, the temple, when you go to some of their other things, they present themselves in a very kind of Disney kind of way.

And we would have this running theme. We would always say when we're working on either the sets or the costumes or whatever, we'd say: No, make it more Rodgers and Hammerstein. Or make it more Disney. Or make it more Mormon. And they're like: Well, which one is it? And we're like: No, it's all the same - word for the same thing. You know, basically like make this brighter and happier and cheesier.

And that was, you know, to us, like, it's just that happy-go-lucky, you know, let's act like everything's awesome and super-beautiful and everything's okay. And that was just another, it just made perfect - and you can hear it in the audience when you get this kind of, our lead who's obviously a little bit of a cheesy happy-go-lucky Mormon, and he reveals that this favorite place in the world is Orlando, and everyone just immediately gets it. Like of course it is.

(Break)

GROSS: So I don't want people to get the wrong idea about how you present Mormonism in your show, because you kind of challenge the credibility of this, the literal credibility of the story of the Book of Mormon.

But you love your characters, and you think that eventually they do do good in the world, not in the way that they expected to, but you're not about being, like, really kind of cynical in this.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, no, and I - really what I grew up loving Broadway for was the fact that it, at least, you know, in all these classics, you know, they weren't cynical. They were very optimistic, and it offered this kind of - they always ended with a big happy number, and everything was okay. And as cheesy as that can seem, I loved it.

You know, and that's - you know, I don't think anyone would want to go see a two-hour-long Mormon-bashing, and that's not - we wouldn't want to see that either. It's just not - obviously you have to have characters that you love.

And even if you, in certain things, have characters that you love to hate, that's fine, but you know, everyone wants to see a little piece of themselves up there, and that's what makes a musical, draws people in.

And so, you know, like we were saying about the whole thing about this -even though this is about a very devout Mormon getting put with someone and getting shot around the world and trying to be very Mormon, people can relate to just that feeling of being in high school and getting out and thinking: Okay, well, now I'm ready to just go tell everyone what's up and make my mark in the world, and it's going to be really awesome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: And then you get slapped back down to reality. You know, and I think that everyone can relate to that part of it.

And also the reason we knew it would work great with Bobby right away was because we all shared this thing where it's like we love the goofiness of Mormon stories. We love the - you know, some of them are so incredulous, and yet we really liked most - almost all the Mormons we'd ever met.

GROSS: So have Mormons in the audience enjoyed the musical? Do you know? Have you gotten feedback?

Mr. PARKER: It's really funny. We can actually - when we were there for previews, and we were there that whole month, where we'd go and watch it every single night and try to change it, you could hear the pockets of Mormons. You could hear where they were because there are some certain things in the show that are very specifically Mormon and things you -you either - or at least ex-Mormons.

You know, like, you could hear these people, this little group of people laugh, and no one else really got the joke, and it would just be some reference to something that's very Mormon.

And you know, obviously it's a select group of Mormons that are going to come to the show - have kind of embraced it.

GROSS: And the official church response?

Mr. STONE: The official church response was something along the lines of: "The Book of Mormon," the musical, might entertain you for a night, but The Book of Mormon, the book as scripture, could change your - will change your life through Jesus, or something like that.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, which is a great response.

Mr. STONE: Which we actually completely agree with - it's a totally very big-hearted, American response. It's kind of like - the Mormon church's response to this musical is almost like our QED at the end of it. It's like: See, we told you, Mormons are - that's a cool, that's a cool American response to, like, a ribbing, you know, a big musical that's done in their name.

So it just - that was like - we were like, there, see? That's what we were talking about. Because before the church responded, a lot of, you know, people would ask us about, like, are you afraid of what the church is going to say? And Trey and I were like: They're going to be cool. Trust us. They're going to be cool.

And people in New York are like: No, they're not. There are going to be, you know, mad at you guys. There are going to be protests. We're like, nope, they're going to be cool. And I mean, I don't know if we totally knew, but we weren't that surprised by the church's response.

Mr. PARKER: We had faith in them.

Mr. STONE: Yes, we had faith.

GROSS: Trey Parker and Matt Stone will be back in the second half of the show. Here's another song from the cast recording of "The Book of Mormon." It's about the founder of the faith, Joseph Smith. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song "All American Prophet")

Unidentified People: (Singing) You all know the Bible is made of testaments old and new, you've been told it's just those two parts or only one if you're a Jew, but what if I were to tell you there's a fresh third part out there which was found by a hip new prophet who had a little Donny Osmond flair.

Have you heard of the all-American prophet, the blond-haired blue-eyed voice of God, he didn't come from the Middle East like those other holy men, no, God's favorite prophet was all-American.

I'm gonna take you back to biblical times, 1823, an American man named Joe living on a farm in the holy land of Rochester, New York. You mean the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith? That's right, that young man spoke to God. He spoke to God?

And God said, Joe, people really need to know that the Bible isn't two parts, there's a part three to the Bible, Joe, and I, God, have anointed you to dig up this part three that's buried by a tree on a hill in your backyard. Wow, God says go to your backyard and start digging, that makes perfect sense!

Joseph Smith went up on that hill and dug where he was told, and deep in the ground Joseph found shining plates of gold. What are these golden plates? Who buried them here and why? Then appeared an angel, his name was Moroni, I am Moroni, the all-American angel, my people lived here long long ago, see the history of my race, please read the words within, we were Jews who met with Christ but we were all-American.

But don't let anybody see these plates except for you, they are only for you to see, even if people ask you to show the plates to them, don't! Just copy them onto normal paper...

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the animated series "South Park." They've been working together for nearly 20 years. Now they have a Broadway hit, the musical comedy "The Book of Mormon," which they co-wrote with Robert Lopez, who also co-wrote "Avenue Q."

"The Book of Mormon" is nominated for 14 Tonys, more than any other show. It's about two young Mormon missionaries who are sent on their first mission to Uganda, where they're supposed to be converting people who are facing problems about which the young Mormons are totally clueless.

Now, you did an episode of "South Park" that was about Mormons and it was called "All about the Mormons." A new kid comes to the school in "South Park" who's a Mormon, and Stan attempts to, like, beat him up because he's the nerdy new kid. But the kid is so nice that Stan goes to his house for dinner and learns all about the Mormon faith. And then the kid's family goes to Stan's house for dinner, and then Stan's father wants to convert to Mormonism. But after hearing more about the Book of Mormon and the story of how Joseph Smith started the religion, Stan has this to say to Mormon family. Here's the clip.

(Soundbite of "South Park")

Mr. PARKER: (as Stan) Wait. Mormons actually know this story, and they still believe Joseph Smith was a prophet?

Mr. KYLE MCCULLOCH (Actor): (as Gary Sr.): Well, sure. The story proves it, doesn't it?

Mr. PARKER: (as Stan) No, it proves he did make it all up. Are you blind?

Mr. STONE: (as Mark) Well, Stan, it's all a matter of faith.

Mr. PARKER: (as Stan) No, it's a matter of logic. If you're gonna say things that have been proven wrong, like that the first man and woman lived in Missouri, and that Native Americans came from Jerusalem, then you'd better have something to back it up.

GROSS: Okay, so that...

Mr. STONE: That's Stan.

GROSS: That was Stan in "South Park."

Mr. STONE: Yeah, Stan sometimes says things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: He sure is a rascal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you ever share that point of view?

Mr. STONE: The musical holds both point of views, and it is, like -it's, like, a contradiction. To say, well, you've just got to believe this stuff, I guess that's where we landed in the musical. It's like, nothing makes me more insane than - I have religious friends. And they're like no, no, no, no. If you look it's proven, da, da, da. You're like, no. It's not proven. Don't try to tell me that you can prove this stuff. Just say I believe it, and I'm down with you, you know what I mean? But you can't - don't mix the two together, because you can't logically say well, we know that Jews came from Jerusalem and settled in America and turned into Native Americans. That just isn't - that just doesn't make any sense. You know, that doesn't match any proof that we have.

But at the same time, if you say I believe this and I just go, okay. Cool, man. If you want to believe that, that's cool. Because at the end of the day, we all have certain beliefs and we all have deeply held things that probably don't make much sense to anybody else.

And I think a lot of us kind of land in the middle - I know I do. I think a lot of reason why the show is connecting with people is that, you know, a lot of people are, if they're religious, they're kind of like cafeteria Christians, or they're lightly religious. And a lot of us who maybe aren't religious are like kind of lightly not-religious, you know. But we - but you end up living in the same world and being neighbors and, you know, interacting with each other just fine. And if you get too deep into, wait, you actually believe that stuff, you know, you will always hit something that doesn't make any sense, you know, to you.

GROSS: How would you describe yourselves in terms of religion: lightly not-religious?

Mr. PARKER: I grew up, and it's part of what ended up in the show, too. I grew up with the religion basically of "Star Wars," because we were...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: My father was a scientist and was very - he loved it when religious people would come to the door and knock and try to - you know, because he was very much into the science of the world. And when "Star Wars" came along, I just saw, oh, there is something bigger out there. There is this thing called The Force, and you want to be on the light side of it or the dark side of it? And, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: And it ended up being, to me, you know, those kind of stories, and stories trying to tell you what to do and what ways to choose and what's going to make you happy ultimately. And that's where, then, you get into all the other stories of every other religion besides "Star Wars."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: There's other religions, I suppose. Yeah.

GROSS: And - yeah.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, for me, I would call myself an atheist, because I live my life that way. I don't - whenever I'm going through a tough time I don't think there's God. I don't think he's going to answer me. I don't - I don't live my - I live my life as an atheist. On the other hand, I love biblical stories, and I find many of them inspiring and, like, kind of they do, a lot of times, point at some nut of some problem. You go: I know why this story's lasted through the ages, because this conundrum is always going to affect, you know, humans. So I'm kind of a religion-loving atheist. You know, I kind of like - I do. I dig the stories. I dig the aesthetic. I dig the ritual. I'm just not myself, I can't claim any religion.

GROSS: Okay. Time for another song. (Laughing) So I want to play "Turn it Off," which is this great production number. And, you know, in a lot of musicals, there's that big, inspiring number where you're told to, like, you know, be yourself and think great thoughts, whenever you're sad, like, put on a happy face. Or if you fall down, pick yourself up and start all over again. But this is called "Turn it Off." So, like, if you're feeling something unpleasant, just, like, turn it off. It's a song about repressing feelings. Tell us about writing this song and the kinds of songs that inspired this one.

Mr. PARKER: This was a little ditty - I wrote a first version of this, basically, because I just - we knew we had to have a big tap number. We've got a bunch of dudes in, you know, white shirts and ties.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: It's, like, we've got to have a tap number. So the first thing that came out - and this was actually before we even quite knew how it would fit into the show. But at one point, we thought that maybe one of the main Mormons, one of the main elders that we followed would be gay, or have gay thoughts. It ended up not in the show that way. We ended up putting it in a character on the side. But I just - this was a great example of a song that, like, I had just a little ditty for that was just this very repetitive...

(Singing) Turn it off, like a light switch. Just go click. Da, da, da, da, da.

And I remember Bobby right away saying yeah, it's cool. It kind of runs in place. You know, it's kind of, like, was the same thing musically, over and over and over. And this song expanded and expanded. And then we all would sit in the room together and say: Well, maybe it shouldn't just be there. It was all just the stuff about gay thoughts and all those jokes. And they were great jokes and it worked, but then we sat there going, well, what else? You know, maybe we should have other Mormons chime in on other things that aren't just gay thoughts, but other things. And we started writing the other verses, and then Bobby actually wrote the verse about the father, the abusive father. And then it grew and it grew. And then Casey came in and turned it from a little tap number...

GROSS: Your co-director and choreographer. Yeah.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, the co-director and choreographer, and turned it from a little tap song into a giant tap song and added all this other stuff. And so it was just this great song that you watched going from this little ditty to this big Broadway number, you know, kind of before your eyes.

GROSS: So let's hear it. This is "Turn it Off," from the new cast recording of "The Book of Mormon" which was co-written by my guests Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the co-creators of "South Park."

(Soundbite of song, "Turn it Off")

Mr. RORY O'MALLEY (Actor): (as Elder McKinley) (Singing) Turn it off, like a light switch. Just go click. It's a cool little Mormon trick. We do it all the time. When you're feeling certain feelings that just don't seem right, treat these pesky feelings like a reading light.

Unidentified Actors: (Singing) And turn them off, like a light switch. Just go back. Really, what's so hard about that? Turn it off. Turn it off. Right now.

When I was young, my dad would treat my mom real bad. Every time the Utah Jazz would lose, he started drinking and I started thinking: How am I going to keep my mom from getting abused? I'd see her all scared, and my soul was dying. My dad would say to me, now don't you dare start crying.

Turn it off like a light switch. Just go click. It's our nifty little Mormon trick. Turn it off. Turn it off.

My sister was a dancer, but she got cancer. The doctor said she still had two months more. I thought she had time, so I got in line for the new iPhone at the Apple store. She laid there dying with my father and mother. Her very last words were: Where is my brother?

Turn it off. Yeah. Bid those sad feelings adieu, the fear that I might get cancer, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'MALLEY: (as Elder McKinley) (Singing) When I was in fifth grade, I had a friend, Steve Blade. He and I were close as two friends could be. One thing led to another, and soon I would discover I was having really strange feelings for Steve. I thought about us on a deserted island. We'd swim naked in the sea and then he'd try and...

Unidentified Actors: (Singing) Whoa! Turn it off, like a light switch. There, it's gone.

Good for you.

Mr. O'MALLEY: (as Elder McKinley) (Singing) My hetero side just won...

(Soundbite of drums)

Mr. O'MALLEY: (as Elder McKinley) (Singing) I'm all better now. Boys should be with girls, as heavenly father's planned. So if you ever feel you rather be with a man, turn it off.

Unidentified Man: Well, Elder McKinley, I think it's okay that you're having...

GROSS: That's "Turn it Off" from the new cast recording of "The Book of Mormon," which is a new Broadway musical nominated for 14 Tonys, and the show was co-written by my guests Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who also created "South Park."

So every time I hear that song, I laugh, because it's ironic, but it's also - it's so upbeat and so catchy and so - I don't know. The...

Mr. STONE: Yeah, that song...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. STONE: That song for me is funny, because it's so happy, but it's about something that, like, we all...

GROSS: Exactly. It's about all these tragic things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: We all know it. It's kind of the most tragic thing, yeah. And, I mean, not just for, you know, like the character that sings is played by Rory O'Malley, who just kills it in that song. He's amazing. It's about a missionary, you know, who's overseas and obviously gay, and, like, the church has just said yeah, you're not. Just don't think about that - you know, which is like no solution at all.

And - but it's not even - even if you were just - they send these 19-year-old kids around the world, even if, you know, they're just -they're sexual beings, you know. They're sexual animals. And they just say, yeah. Just turn that off. And there's just nothing in that. You know, there's a point in the story when Price - now they've landed in Africa. They've seen some horrors. They're really questioning what the hell's going on. They go back to the mission. He says, wow, I'm having some confusing thoughts. And then this is the song that's given to them.

The point in the musical when it happens is a point when the characters are really looking to their religion as a safety net. You know, they're in this really uncomfortable situation. They don't know what to do. And their religion - at least the way that he's understood it, Elder Price -has no answers for him, has - is, like, no help. So the song is not supposed to really help you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: You know, he realizes it doesn't really get much. He doesn't get much out of it.

(Break)

GROSS: So this is your first Broadway musical. You've done musicals, but they've been animated. So now you're working with real people, real audiences in the theater. You have to worry about renting a theater, an orchestra, just, you know, all of this stuff. So what's one of the biggest nightmares that you had that you'd never have to face doing animation?

Mr. PARKER: Well, I'd say - I mean, what was crazy for us - and something we had to get used to fast was just the idea that if we want to rewrite something, if we want to change something, you know, it's like - especially in a song, then you got to get it re-orchestrated. Then you got to get it re-choreographed. Then you got to teach it to everybody. And meanwhile, you're doing a show that night.

You know, so it was just this crazy thing where we're so - especially with "South Park," you know. We can change things so last-minute, and especially because we do almost all the voices. We can, like, go in there. We can write it down, run into the booth and record it, slap it in, see how it looks, change it again if we need to. And with this, you know, pretty quickly, we had people telling us, like, guys, guys. You can't change this much right now.

And learning how to dish that out, you know, learning how to - all right, well, we can change these lines right now. We'll give them this because we want to change that. We'll try to see that in two night's performance. We're not going to see it tonight. You know, just a lot of things like that that was, for us, a big learning curve.

Mr. STONE: Yeah. It was tough. It was the most collaborative thing that we've ever done, you know, starting with, you know, meeting Bobby, who's done Broadway and knows a lot more about Broadway than we still do. Him kind of saying okay, now, this is going to happen. We've got to look forward to this. You know, you're going to - this. And then, you know, working with a cast of actors that - like Josh Gad, who plays Elder Cunningham, and Rory O'Malley we've already talked about. They were in the very first workshop - five years ago, maybe? And they became - you know, Nicky James and all these actors became a big part of the writing process and a big part of what these characters have turned into.

And then in the last year, we met Andrew Rannells, who's Elder Price, who just - the second he walked into the room for audition, like, I, we started laughing. Trey started kicking me under the table. It was like this is our guy. You know, he just - he kills it and, you know, it isn't, like it is, like Trey said, it's like that whole process makes for a longer - changes aren't quite like, oh, let's just do this, okay run in, do it real quick. It's a whole - it's like turning a bigger ship, you know, but that bigger ship and all those people really contributed to the whole thing.

GROSS: There's obviously some Disney in there. And one of the songs is kind of a parody of "Hakuna Matata." And in "The Lion King" "Hakuna Matata" is a song about the expression that describes our problem-free philosophy. It's a lighthearted song. And your version is "Hasa Diga Eebowai." And did you want to talk a little bit about this song?

Mr. STONE: Yeah. I mean, that's our, like, welcome to Vietnam song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: That's the song where, you know, you get off the plane and they just get off the plane like full of vigor like here we are, we're here to change the world and it's like, okay, you're in a new reality. And so it started kind of from an anti-"Lion King," you know, song, but write it in the same tone so it has that same kind of gallows humor. But, yeah, I mean that was a really fun song to write, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: That's where we really got to go for it, you know, that was the point of that song.

GROSS: Okay. So imagine the missionaries stepping off the plane meeting some actually very poor people from Uganda and hearing this song. This is from the cast recording of "The Book of Mormon."

(Soundbite of song, "Hasa Diga Eebowai")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) In this part of Africa we all have a saying: whenever something bad happens, we just throw our hands throw our hands to the sky and say Hasa Diga Eebowai.

Mr. O'MALLEY: (as Elder McKinley) Hasa Diga Eebowai?

Unidentified Man: (as character) It's the only way to get through all these troubled times. There's war. Poverty. Famine. But having a saying makes it all seem better.

(Singing) There isn't enough food to eat. Hasa Diga Eebowai. People are starving in the street. Hasa Diga Eebowai. Hasa Diga Eebowai. Hasa Diga Eebowai.

Mr. O'MALLEY: (as Elder McKinley) Well, that's pretty neat. Does that mean no worries for the rest of our days?

Unidentified Man: (as character) Kind of. (Singing) We've had no rain in several days. Hasa Diga Eebowai. And 80 percent of us have AIDS. Hasa Diga Eebowai.

GROSS: Okay, so we're fading out before all the expletives.

Mr. STONE: Before the good stuff.

GROSS: Before...

Mr. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. STONE: Before the meat and potatoes.

GROSS: After this part we just can't play it on the radio. And...

Mr. PARKER: Sure can't.

GROSS: It turns out that Hasa Diga Eebowai is the expression in the musical for cursing God, not blessing God or getting a blessing from God.

Mr. STONE: Right.

GROSS: It's quite a send-up of the "Hakuna Matata." Have you gotten interesting reactions to this one?

Mr. PARKER: Well, "Hasa Diga Eebowai" is that song in the show where you know people are in or they're out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Basically, you know, it's either the point where we lose you or we really get you on board, and we have a lot of that in a lot of the stuff we do. We have that moment in the show, which is either, you know, you're with us or you should get out now. And it really is sort of that song.

Mr. STONE: It's that song. We give them the opportunity.

GROSS: Do people ever literally get out?

Mr. STONE: No, we did - we did, one night during previews me and Trey were at the back of the theater with Bobby and we saw one bona fide walkout. A woman just threw her purse over her shoulder, looked around, right, and kind of looked around like who's with me.

Mr. PARKER: Like, come on everybody.

Mr. STONE: Let's go. And walked...

Mr. PARKER: But she was the only one.

Mr. STONE: She was the only one. She walked back. She angrily, in a big harrumph, threw her program in the trash and marched out and no one followed her. But we thought it was great. We loved it, me and Bobby and Trey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, Trey, you were actually in musicals when you were in high school, right?

Mr. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: And you directed the choir. Do I have that right? You played piano in the choir?

Mr. PARKER: I was president of choir council.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: So yes, but I also was the - I was the main student piano player too, so it was just like I was just like a total music and theater choir person, geek.

GROSS: Was that considered very un-cool at the time?

Mr. PARKER: You know, I dare to say I made it somewhat cool. I mean I don't think, I definitely was not among the coolest kids in school but I don't think, we actually had, we started to get really known. Our high school became really well known for its choir and its musical that they were really high quality. And not 'cause of me. It just happened that the teachers they had at the time and the students that were there at the time, and we had a choir that would like tour the country and was taken pretty seriously. So it was fairly, it was cooler than at most schools, at least I want to believe that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Twenty years later, looking back through, you go, yeah. See, that's what I mean, that's how time kind of like changes when you think of - of what you think of old stories.

GROSS: And Matt, you weren't much into musicals, were you?

Mr. STONE: No, no. Not at all. I didn't, I don't think I ever really knew what a musical was until I met Trey. I mean my experience with musicals, looking back, was there was always, you know, in every Monty Python movie there was one big musical number. And they're all awesome. You know, if you look back, they're just one awesome number per movie, and I think, I mean that kind of was my education in musicals before I met Trey. Now, since then I've seen a bunch and, you know, now I know them a little better, but not growing up.

GROSS: So Trey, when you were in choir, did you write satirical songs back then?

Mr. PARKER: I actually did. Yeah, I actually made, I actually wrote, I got into making funny songs and writing funny songs on the piano and actually made a whole album's worth of funny songs and sold them for like $4 a piece. And I even got Saran wrap stuff that you could hit with the hairdryer and shrink-wrap them.

Mr. STONE: Yeah, shrink-wrapped them.

Mr. PARKER: I actually shrink-wrapped them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: I actually shrink-wrapped them and sold them and actually made like $300 or something...

GROSS: You used the hairdryer to melt the shrink wrap?

Mr. PARKER: Well, that's how the stuff worked, yeah.

Mr. STONE: It wouldn't be a real album or cassette unless you had to unwrap it.

Mr. PARKER: And I remember, I went to Kinko's and like I took, we took pictures and we went to Kinko's and made a cover and sold the cassettes, shrink-wrapped the cassettes and sold them. And I was like I'm pretty cool. I'm a rock star. You know, but people bought them because they thought they were funny songs, which, you know, looking back now they're not that funny, but I thought they were funny.

GROSS: So you were on Jimmy Fallon pretty recently and he played one of the songs and then The Roots, the band who plays on his show...

Mr. STONE: That was awesome, by the way.

GROSS: ...performed it.

Mr. PARKER: That was crazy.

GROSS: And Trey, you seemed to be cringing the whole time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Well, I didn't know, they told me basically an hour before we got there, the producers said we got a hold of one of the songs and I was just like: oh no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Because I told them about it in the pre-interview but then they actually went and found it and I was just like, oh, no, no. And I really was dreading it and thought, you know, because, you know, I was what, I was like 15 or 16 years old. You know, it's not like my best work.

Mr. STONE: It's like showing a picture of an old haircut or something.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, exactly. So I was like sitting there kind of cringing. But then as I realized I'm like The Roots are playing this song and Bootsy Collins was playing bass. Like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: And then Bootsy started singing the song and I'm like, all right, this is kind of cool.

Mr. STONE: I thought it was awesome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: But it was me sitting next to you, I thought it was great. I thought it was really, really funny.

GROSS: So Trey, is there one of those songs still think is good that you'd still sing, that you would sing a few bars of?

Mr. PARKER: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: If you get Bootsy, he would do it.

Mr. PARKER: If you get Bootsy for me, I'll do it.

GROSS: Is that a hard no or a...

Mr. PARKER: Yeah, that's a hard no.

GROSS: That's a hard no.

Mr. PARKER: That's like "Will you do Cartman for me?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PARKER: Somehow Fallon did both of them. I don't know what happened. I was in a very - I was in a loose mood on that show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Break)

GROSS: Was it really amazing to hear your songs orchestrated in the way they were played by a live band in a theater?

Mr. PARKER: Amazing. And what's crazy, the really crazy part about it is they're all kind of rehearsing off on their own, in their own building, all the musicians, while you're still doing it there in the theater with a piano and drums, and then you finally, about four days before you're going to open, you go and listen to the actors sing it. What they call it, sitzprobe?

Mr. STONE: Sitzprobe.

Mr. PARKER: They call it sitzprobe, and they're like, oh, wait till sitzprobe. Wait till sitzprobe. And you go and you actually hear, and it's the first time even all these actors and actresses, which some of them have been doing workshops for five years, are sitting there hearing, like singing it and this whole orchestra is backing them up. And I remember Nicky, who sings "Salt Lake City," she did that song and the orchestra is backing her up and she just broke down. She just started crying and couldn't finish. It was really beautiful.

Mr. STONE: It was really cool. It was the first time hearing it with a nine-piece band instead of a two-piece band.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah.

GROSS: Just one more thing. I think that "The Book of Mormon" has something of the quality of "South Park" in the sense that "South Park" is just kind of stripped-down animation. It's down to the basics. And there is something so basic about the show. It's like great music, great performers, great orchestrations, really original concepts. But there's nothing fancy about the sets. There's nothing, like...

Mr. PARKER: Yeah. It was a...

GROSS: ...high-tech about the lighting. It's just like it's...

Mr. PARKER: It was a very conscious decision. And the reason that we did that is because we did so many workshops in New York in the sort of three years leading up to it. And we would do these workshops which were no costumes, no lights, just in a big room with fluorescent lights and, you know, 40 people sitting there, and it would kill. And we were just like, okay, all we can do now is ruin this.

You know, so even though we had to take this to the stage, let's be really aware of not, you know, let the songs and the acting and the music and the performances, let that all be center stage. Let's not surround it by a bunch of stuff. You know, and we knew it worked without any of it, so let's add just enough to make it a beautiful Broadway show but not step on any toes.

GROSS: So we're going to end with the song "I Believe" from "The Book of Mormon." Do you want to introduce it and say something about it?

Mr. STONE: Yeah. I mean this song to me - I think it's probably my favorite song in the show. And it - what's funny about this is it's actually, there's no jokes in this song. It's just facts. And he's just basically a guy who his faith has been tested, our Elder Price, and at a certain point in the show he goes, you know, the reason why my faith isn't working for me - the stuff that I believe - is because I'm not believing hard enough, and he decides to double down on his faith.

And he starts reciting all the things that he, you know, believes in his heart as a Mormon. And it's just, it's done on a rhythm of one, two, three, and three is always the joke when you're doing comedy. And so we just put the weirdest Mormon beliefs in the third slot and they become jokes even though they're just facts. And Andrew Rannells, who sings the song, just kills it. And I think it's one of the best parts of the show.

GROSS: Well, it's been great to talk with you again. Congratulations on all the success you've been having with "The Book of Mormon," and thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. PARKER: Thanks.

Mr. STONE: Thanks a lot.

(Soundbite of song, "I Believe")

Mr. ANDREW RANNELLS (Actor): (as Elder Price) (Singing) It's supposed to be all so exciting to be teaching of Christ across the sea. But I allowed my faith to be shaken. Oh what's the matter with me? I've always longed to help the needy, to do the things I never dared. This was the time for me to step up, so then why was I so scared?

A warlord who shoots people in the face. What's so scary about that? I must trust that my Lord is mightier and always has my back. Now I must be completely devout. I can't have even one shred of doubt.

I believe that the Lord God created the universe. I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sins. And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America. I am a Mormon and a Mormon just believes.

You cannot just believe partway...

GROSS: Trey Parker and Matt Stone co-wrote the new Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon." The cast recording is available online. The CD will be released June 7th.

You'll find a link to the interview I recorded last year with Trey Parker and Matt Stone about their show "South Park" on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "I Believe")

Mr. RANNELLS: (as Elder Price) (Singing) I believe that God has a plan for all of us. I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet. And I believe that the current president of the church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God. I am a Mormon, and dang it, a Mormon just believes...

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