BE­YOND BE­LIEF

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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

ROBERT LOPEZ

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

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