As I’ve already shared here, I loved the new “Book of Mormon” musical on Broadway, which officially opens tonight on Broadway. As I was discussing it last week with my amazing college roommate, she dropped the bombshell that she’s friends with co-creator Bobby Lopez, who lives in her artsy building in Brooklyn. Only in New York, right? So Susan put us in touch and Bobby graciously agreed to an exclusive email interview about his fascination with Mormonism. –JKR
On the Daily Show a couple of weeks ago, your co-writers said that when they first met you after Avenue Q and asked you what you were interested in working on next, you said “Mormonism.” They were blown away because they were thinking the same thing. That’s an odd coincidence. When and why did you first start getting interested in Mormons?
Matt and Trey became fascinated with the church through Mormon culture, growing up in Colorado and having lots of Mormon friends. I grew up in New York City, so I had the opposite experience. I don’t think I met an actual Mormon until college, and by that time I was wary of them. I knew about the church through school, and secondhand, through non-Mormon friends. I was always amazed by everything I heard about the religion, in the column of, “people actually believe this?” I just thought so much of it was preposterously goofy — the golden plates, ancient Jews crossing the Atlantic, special underwear, polygamy, one thing after another.
I had that skeptical view of them until I had my own crisis of faith and basically threw out my whole childish understanding of the Bible. Once you strip away the need for scripture to be logical and accurate, stop wondering whether God actually exists, and look at religion for what it is and how it works, a truly amazing miracle reveals itself. And at that moment, I guess, I started realizing the absolute insane sacred genius of Joseph Smith.
By the way, speaking of Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, were you completely overwhelmed when he gushed so effusively about the new musical? And did ticket sales hit the roof after that?
He’s one of my heroes, and I met him for the first time at intermission when he came to see it, and he was literally yelling at me about how much he liked the show. So yes, disconcerting and overwhelming. Still haven’t formed a response. And ticket sales did spike the next day!
My favorite song from the show was undoubtedly “I Believe,” which pairs the musical genre of the uplifting, inspirational ballad with satirical assertions of some of the wackiest Mormon beliefs — that God lives on a planet called Kolob, for example. Granted, plenty of contemporary Mormons don’t subscribe to those more esoteric tenets, but the song is absolutely hilarious. What for you is the strangest Mormon belief — one you can’t believe people actually adhere to?
Matt and Trey and I all went up to the Hill Cumorah pageant two summers ago, and found this little gift shop in Palmyra. For me, the two strangest things they were selling were this placemat that had the sort of LDS flow-chart of salvation. It was just impossible to follow, and so incredibly detailed and specific. There must be a simpler system! The other thing I thought was funny was the map of what ancient America must have looked like. It just bore no resemblance to any place on earth. It looked like an 8 bit videogame world.
On the other hand, are there any Mormon beliefs or practices that you really admire?
I think Family Home Evening is such a great one. I don’t know any Mormon that doesn’t have warm memories of their family. I try to turn off the TV and play with my kids as much as I can, and I always hope they’re having as good a time as Mormon kids.
I’ve never served a mission, but from what I know of it your portrayal seemed really accurate. How did you guys research Mormon missionary life?
We began by taking a trip in 2005 to Salt Lake City, where I’d never been. We interviewed lots of former missionaries there — mostly by asking the wait staff in restaurants if anyone had been on a mission. So many of them had, and ended up being gay, too. It was probably there that the seeds for our gay elder, McKinley, were first planted.
Other than that, it’s been a lot of reading, watching Mormon movies about missionaries (God’s Army was my favorite) and Googling. YouTube has a lot of homemade videos from missions too.
When we were getting close to our final version of the script, my friend Ira Glass put me in touch with the writer Elna Baker, who came to see a workshop and gave me some helpful notes on the piece, a lot of which we put in.
The only serious theological complaint I had about the show was the song about the “Spooky Mormon Hell,” when Elder Price has a guilt-induced nightmare after leaving his companion high and dry. Mormons don’t actually believe in the fiery hell depicted in the song, with a pitchfork-wielding Lucifer and all the rest. That’s more of an evangelical Christian perspective. Have any Mormons complained about that song?
We know about Outer Darkness and how Mormons don’t really have a Hell in their cosmology. We knew we were bending things a little with that song. That said, you are the first I’ve heard complain! Maybe that’s because the song is really less about Hell and more about guilt, which everyone feels, regardless of creed — I think!
Well, I still really enjoyed the song. I completely lost it in the part of Elder Price’s nightmare when two enormous cups of Starbucks coffee come dancing on the stage. My sides were splitting. Whose idea was that about the coffee cups?
That was the director, Casey Nicholaw. It’s funny, because he knew the least about Mormons of any of us, but he ended up landing the biggest Mormon joke in the whole thing.
Based on the show’s title, some Mormons early on were worried that the musical was going to mock the Book of Mormon itself. But actually, other than a couple of quick framing scenes from the Book of Mormon, the show focuses wholly on contemporary Mormon missionaries. Was it originally going to be about the Book of Mormon itself? Or did you guys just like that title?
That was my original idea for the title, before I’d even met Matt and Trey — and yes, I was hoping to write a musical version of the LDS scripture, with Nephi and Laban and all those characters. I really wanted to write an epic adventure, with music influenced by film scores. Our show didn’t end up being that, obviously. I think the Hill Cumorah pageant does it better than we could have, anyway.
But the plot with the missionaries really does center around the book, if you think about it, and the title still very much fit with our story, so we kept it.
Thanks for writing another funny and smart musical. I hope you get a second Tony. What’s next for you?
My wife Kristen and I are writing a musical romantic comedy about consciousness, called Up Here. We also have a Disney movie coming out this summer, Winnie The Pooh, which we wrote the songs for.