It is with a heavy heart that we have learned of the passing of our good friend Kay Mellor. Leeds born and bred, Kay was a pioneer of northern drama and real-life stories, going where no other female writer, director, or actor had gone before. We’re deeply proud and humbled to have been chosen as the home venue for her two stage premieres, Fat Friends The Musical (2017) and Band of Gold (2019) – both of which were huge success stories, as was everything that Kay turned her hand to. The hearts and thoughts of our theatre family are with her family, who we are also blessed to call friends of our theatres.

Kevin Clay in a white shirt and black tie holds hands in the air with Kevin Clay dressed in camouflage

Trey Parker and Matt Stone Interview

From South Park to stage shows – the writers of the astonishing, and controversial, hit, The Book of Mormon explain how they “…find the fun in everything”.

Written by Louis Wise.

Ever since it premiered on Broadway in 2011, The Book of Mormon has been an astonishing hit. Astonishing because of the sheer number of people who have seen it, and also its subject matter. The musical, after all, follows a pair of mismatched teen Mormon missionaries who attempt to spread the word in Africa… Who’d think that would make for a great night out?

It’s a funny old world where The Book of Mormon can mean two things: on one hand, the founding text of one of America’s most entrenched religions; on the other, a shiny, naughty, potty-mouthed and big-hearted musical, sending up said text and other absurdities of faith. Ever since its premiere at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York it has been a critical and commercial hit, conquering cities across America, Canada and Australia as well as Broadway and London’s West End. The musical is now about to tackle cities in the UK and continental Europe.

“We thought we really wanted to just open up a Broadway show, have it be successful, and we thought we could do that,” explains Trey Parker, sat in the studio where he makes the satirical cartoon South Park with his work partner Matt Stone. “But we didn’t think it would be this. We did have some confidence in it, but we didn’t think it would be this.”

In many ways, The Book of Mormon’s kinship to the South Park oeuvre is quite clear. There are few musicals on the main stage which make eye-popping jokes about cannibalism, rape, AIDS and FGM and the medicinal virtues of having sex with frogs. Yet it’s also a classic coming-of-age tale, even a (platonic) love story, which pays tribute to many of the musical greats — no surprise when you consider that Parker has been a musicals nut since childhood (he eventually converted Stone). They co-wrote The Book of Mormon with Robert Lopez, who was making a name for himself in musical theatre as the co-creator of Avenue Q.

Aficionados of the genre will easily spot tributes to The Music Man, The Sound of Music, King and I and to The Lion King. However, The Lion King this is not: The Africa which Price and Cunningham arrive in, two perky 19-year-olds from Salt Lake City, is more a sun-drenched Armageddon. Reaching an understanding with it – and with their faith, and with each other – is the crux of the show.

“It’s really two kids coming out of high school, basically going out into the world, and thinking they’ve kind of got it and they know it all,” spells out Parker. “And getting their asses handed to them. And I think anyone around the world can relate to that a little bit.” Indeed for most viewers, the most shocking thing about The Book of Mormon won’t be its humour, but its heart. The show thrives on a kind of bromance as the two Elders – bustling, bright-eyed, all-achieving Price, and the schlubby, eccentric, prone-to-lying Cunningham – are lumped together and make the most of it.

Kevin Clay wearing white shirt and black tie holding The Book of Mormon with his left hand

Kevin Clay in The Book of Mormon credit Paul Coltas

In 2003 Parker and Stone went to see the musical Avenue Q. The pair, who loved it, were surprised to see a thank you note to them in the programme, from a man they had never met: Lopez. The New Yorker, who had co-written the show, and has since gone on to write the music for Frozen, and become the rare recipient of an EGOT (winner of an Emmy Award, Grammy Award, Oscar, and Tony Award), was expressing gratitude to them for their South Park movie, the musical film (for which Parker got an Oscar nomination for Best Song in 1999), had been a major inspiration to him. The three met afterwards and had a casual chat about the projects they’d like to do next. What Lopez admitted floored them: “I’d love to do something on Joseph Smith, and Mormons…?”

“We grew up with Mormons,” shrugs Parker, “we had Mormon friends, my first girlfriend was Mormon. I mean, it’s weirder that Bobby had a fascination.” “For us it was next door, but he grew up in New York City,” laughs Stone. Yet Lopez, like them, was drawn to the outlandishness of the Smith story too. In short, the trio had a shared sensibility.

What followed was a long, protracted bouncing about of ideas covering several years.

An African woman dressed in traditional dress stands next to two men dressed in white shirts and black ties, carrying suitcases

M Jae Cleopatra Isaac, Kevin Clay, Conner Peirson. Credit Paul Coltas

10 white men in white shirts and black ties stand in a line smiling

Credit Paul Coltas

The company of Book of Mormon, Elder Cunningham explaining The Book of Mormon to the village residents

Credit Paul Coltas

Conner Peirson wearing white shirt and black tie holding the Book of Mormon in his right hand

Conner Peirson in The Book of Mormon credit Paul Coltas

The first six or seven songs – deeply melodic, wickedly funny – arrived very quickly. And so the next question became, what is the story here? And how should it be told? For Parker and Stone, who’d only worked on screen, a film seemed the obvious conclusion. But as the group began to workshop the songs with singers and performers, its identity as a live show became clearer. Stranger yet, it was not some quirky off-Broadway venture, but a big gleaming mainstream show, despite its bracing subversiveness.

The rest is already a kind of showbiz history. The team premiered the show on Broadway, where it soon gained rapturous acclaim. And here’s the surprising thing – there was barely any outrage of any sort. No picketing, no protests inside the theatre, no performances cancelled to allow for shocked sensibilities. Surprising to outsiders – but not to Parker and Stone. “Me and Trey called it,” shrugs Stone.

“Everyone beforehand was like, ‘are you worried?’,” relays Parker. The general assumption is that when you expose a global religion to ridicule, someone somewhere may kick off. “And we were like, no. Because we know Mormons. Mormons are nice people and they’re smart people. We didn’t think they’d go so far as to take out ads in our programme…” It’s true: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints respected the musical’s right to say what it wanted about them, and they even decided to piggyback on the show’s success, pointing punters to the actual, original Book of Mormon in the show’s official literature. Parker and Stone can only admire the move. “They trumped us, really,” shrugs Parker.

“There is an element to comedy that is ‘laugh at these people’”, admits Stone. “The Book of Mormon uses that mockability of the Mormons – and then tries to tell you a larger story, and rope you in and open it up. Laughter breaks down your defences, you know? And then you’re open to a different story.” It’s a story which seems set to keep on spreading, like the faith that inspired it in the first place.

The Book of Mormon is at Leeds Grand Theatre from Tue 19 April to Sat 7 May 2022. Book tickets here.