On the eve of its arrival in Melbourne, The Book of Mormon’s co-creator Robert Lopez discusses the genesis of the hugely successful musical with Darryn King
In 2011, a new musical opened in New York’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre, unleashing a blitzkrieg of F-bombs and C-bombs and seeming bad taste the likes of which Broadway had never experienced. The show featured a cameo by Jesus Christ, countless instances of blasphemy, and references to female genital mutilation, sexually transmitted disease, terminal illness, domestic abuse, rape and dysentery in scenes of Third World squalor.
The Book of Mormon went on to win nine Tony Awards, including for best musical, and a Grammy Award for best musical theatre album. It opened in London’s West End in 2013 and arrives in Melbourne in February. In musical theatre terms, it’s bigger than Jesus.
Composer, lyricist and librettist Robert Lopez has written some of the filthiest, wickedest musical numbers ever to make it to the Great White Way. Before The Book of Mormon, his collaboration with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, 2003’s Avenue Q, included numbers with titles such as The Internet is for Porn and Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.
On the other hand, with his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez he has written songs for Disney’s 2011 Winnie-the-Pooh feature film, a Finding Nemo stage musical for a Disney theme park and, most notably, for the 2014 Disney juggernaut Frozen, including its inexorable pop paean Let It Go.
“It’s just different parts of me,” says Lopez, who also became the world’s youngest EGOT (an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner) in 2014. At 41, he has a smile that seems to suggest rascally goings-on. “I think all adults have that dissonance of being a little bit subversive and wanting to say things they shouldn’t say and, at the same time, wanting to be a good citizen and teach the next generation the way.”
The Lopezes have been hard at work for the House of Mouse this year. Aside from the 2018 Jack and the Beanstalk feature film Gigantic, it’s Frozen all the way; the duo have written a batch of new songs for the stage musical, set to open on Broadway in 2017, and for the movie sequel.
They have two young daughters, Katie and Annie, and live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a few minutes’ walk from Prospect Park, where Let It Go came to life on a perambulatory brainstorming session. Frozen was very much a family affair. Both girls had speaking roles in the movie.
“Our younger daughter used to go around saying, ‘We wrote Frozen!’ There’s some truth to that. We would share every song with them first and get their thoughts on it. Actually, she did write a couple of lines. She had some instincts that were great.”
Lopez’s two previous Broadway projects aren’t quite as family-friendly. He took one of his daughters, aged four at the time, to see Avenue Q on Broadway, having to whisk her out of the theatre when any of its age-inappropriate sequences loomed.
“Everything went over her head, and I don’t know if it contributed anything to making her who she is, but she loved the music.”
The Book of Mormon, however, is definitely a no-go zone for the little ones.
“I’ll only let my kids hear the songs.” first three As a musical theatre-loving child growing up in New York’s Greenwich Village, Lopez auditioned for the lead role in Fiddler on the Roof. He was unsuccessful — “It was an early shock to the system,” he says — and turned his hand to composition instead.
Aged 11, he wrote a song for a show his drama club was putting together, called Gifted High School, which was part- Chorus Line, part- Fame. Lopez worked out an opening number with an agitated Sondheim-ian rhythm that evoked the jangly nerves of the characters in the story.
“I just fell in love with doing it. Everyone told me, ‘ That’s what you’re meant to do’, and I felt that way too.”
As a teenager, Lopez compiled his songs on cassette tape, including his Sondheim-inspired Gifted High School opening number, and dropped it into Sondheim’s mailbox. Receiving Sondheim’s response was like “getting a letter from God”. “He gave me some criticisms but he also gave me a lot of encouragement. It was all the validation I needed.”
Lopez went on study English and music at Yale, majoring in the former, and then em-
WHEN YOU SEE THE SHOW, THERE’S NO QUESTION IT’S A PRO-RELIGIOUS SHOW
barked on the three-year course at New York’s BMI musical theatre workshop. When it came to choosing a collaborator, he gravitated towards student Jeff Marx, who had impressed with a song called People Suck. In their second year, the pair created a full-length Muppet adaptation of Hamlet called Kermit, Prince of Denmark, which won them the Kleban award for young writers and $US100,000.
It was around this time that Lopez started wondering if there might be a way to marry his pure love of comedy with his serious obsession with musical theatre.
“People had written funny songs before and funny musicals, but no one had really written a modern, hilarious one that never stops being funny that also makes you feel something, with a story you actually care about. I thought, that’s a big unoccupied space that I could possibly fill. And then, of course, the South Park movie happened. And I said, shit — it’s been done.”
As well as 146 utterances of the word “f..k”, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut featured several songs by show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone co-written with Marc Shaiman, who would go on to co-create the musical Hairspray. As with the television series, the animation was intentionally crude, but there was nothing halfassed about the musical numbers, which were surprisingly tuneful and traditional. No less a luminary than Sondheim regarded it as one of the finest modern musicals. Lopez was especially taken by La Resistance — an ingenious, reprise-driven finaletto that nodded to One Day More from Les Miserables.
Seeing the film was nothing short of inspiring. “It got us off our asses,” he says.
Scanning a TV guide one night that summer, Lopez hit upon the concept of combining Friends and Sesame Street — the epiphany that led to the Muppet musical Avenue Q.
Another BMI student, Kristen Anderson, happened to be in the audience for a showcase presentation of Avenue Q, for which Lopez was wearing a red yarn wig. “And Kristen said, ‘That’s the guy I’m going to marry,’ ” Lopez says, laughing.
Avenue Q opened off-Broadway in early 2003, moving to Broadway proper within weeks. Lopez and Anderson married later in the year. Already, Lopez and Marx were talking about a sequel to the Bible as a potential followup show. “I realised that The Book of Mormon, the actual text, was like The Bible: Part 3. We thought, let’s just do that.”
Meanwhile, the South Park creators were working on a puppet project of their own — the all-marionette summer blockbuster spoof Team America: World Police. On a visit to New York, they went to see Avenue Q on the suggestion of a producer friend.
Lopez and Marx were also in the theatre that evening. The usher told them, “Your friends are here.” In fact, they had never met, but Lopez had thanked them in the playbill as one of his influences. “I can see now how that may have been creepy,” he says.
When the four of them met properly after
Composer, lyricist and librettist Robert Lopez is credited with some of the wickedest songs to have been sung on Broadway, but also contributes to Disney films and musicals