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on Mon, 16 Dec 2019
Smash-hit musical comedy The Book Of Mormon visits Birmingham for the very first time this spring. What’s On catches up with one of its creators, Robert Lopez, a man whose CV also includes hit Broadway show Avenue Q and both of Disney’s Frozen movies...
At first glance, not a huge amount would seem to connect the story of female empowerment that is Disney’s Frozen with the naughty, dirty, sweary phenomenon that is hit Broadway show The Book Of Mormon.
Sure, they’re both full of great tunes and both have a sense of humour, but one is definitely for the kids, the other definitely not. One is all about love, magical powers and sisterhood, the other showcases shocking AIDS jokes and features unseemly things being done with frogs. Yet a surprising, even slightly scary, revelation is that both came from the mind of the same man - songwriter Robert Lopez.
“I mean, it is weird,” chuckles the 43-year-old New Yorker, pondering how the guy who wrote Let It Go also gave us Mormon’s Hasa Diga Eebowai. “I’m still trying to figure it out. What’s wrong with me?!”
Little is wrong with Lopez - at least from a showbiz perspective. When you’ve already become, twice, a so-called EGOT - a winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony - you can only be doing things right. Robert’s CV includes not only The Book Of Mormon and Frozen (and now, of course, Frozen 2) but also his first great hit, Avenue Q, and the beautiful theme tune to Pixar’s film, Coco, entitled Remember Me.
Sitting in the comfortable Brooklyn studio he shares with his wife and fellow tunesmith, Kristen Anderson-Lopez (with whom he co-wrote the Frozen movies), Robert is gentle and unassuming. If he’s always believed in his abilities, ever since he settled on his vocation aged 13, he still manages to seem politely surprised about the huge success of his shows - not least The Book Of Mormon, which he co-composed with the dark geniuses behind South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Since opening on Broadway in 2011, the show has become one of the most successful theatre productions of the decade. “The truth is,” says Robert, “we’d imagined it would be controversial, and we hoped that it would manage to run maybe a year.” Nine years down the line, it’s clear that theatre-goers’ love for the show massively outweighs any minor controversies. And as it prepares to visit continental Europe and the UK, having already conquered not only America but also Australia and Canada, it’s fair to assume that it’s about to gain nearly as many new converts as the missionaries it so lovingly sends up.
The Book Of Mormon is a great marker of Robert’s work, combining classic song craft and a deep love of musicals with a fresh, contemporary, often irreverent tone. The story follows the journey of two bright-eyed Mormon teenagers, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who, as tradition requires, are sent out to spread the word as they reach the age of 19. When they reach Uganda, though, they are somewhat shocked by the reality of the situation - The Lion King it ain’t! The Ugandans don’t necessarily need saving in the Mormon sense of the word - but they could definitely do with being saved from the terrifying warlord next door, who is threatening all the female villagers with FGM...
Somehow, all of this is relayed amid uproarious laughter within the first 20 minutes.
The real shocker, though, is that by the end, the show reveals it has a huge heart too. And Robert, who, along with Parker and Stone, has always had a surprising soft spot for Mormonism, wouldn’t have it any other way: “It’s about what we talked about the very first day we met. People are so quick to laugh at Mormons - and we wanted, in the end, to be able to turn it around on them, because although any belief in anything impossible is sort of funny, it’s also very inspiring and empowering.”
To understand how Robert came to co-write the show, you have to rewind way back to before he even met Parker and Stone in 2003. You have to go back even beyond him seeing their film, South Park The Movie: Bigger, Longer And Uncut, and being dazzled by its pace and wit (“I was, like, this is the best musical of the last 10 years, for sure!”). You’d probably have to go back to when he was first taken to see a musical - A Chorus Line.
“It was way over my head,” he admits.
It clearly had an effect on him, though, because he started writing songs on the piano, encouraged by the teacher he was taking classes with at the time. “I wrote a song called Oy Vey, What A Day for some reason. I’m not Jewish, but I guess growing up in New York pushes you in that direction.”
The son of a journalist-turned-press officer for NYU and a stay-at-home mother, Robert’s new passion for theatre grew and grew. Watching West Side Story in 5th Grade is what sealed the deal. Then, from the age of 13, he started writing shows every term for an amateur group.
The eureka moment came when he decided, as he puts it, “to write a show that was funny all the way through”. For Robert, who had grown up in a raucously funny family, it seemed within his reach: “It was an area where Broadway had flagged behind in the culture. The humour in the shows was sort of a moderate chuckle, and I thought to myself, I bet I could do this.”
The result was Avenue Q, co-written with Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty. An immediate smash hit, it was an absolute game-changer for Robert. When Parker and Stone came to watch the show one night, they saw a note in the programme in which Robert thanked them for the influence they’d exerted on him, from the South Park musical onwards. When the three met for a drink after the show, they discovered a shared fascination for Mormonism.
Parker and Stone’s interest in the faith could be explained by the fact that they grew up near its heartland of Utah; they were one state away in Colorado. But Robert? A Filipino-American growing up in Brooklyn? “I was just a nerd, and a little bit of a class clown, I guess. I remember reading about Joseph Smith (the founding father of Mormonism, who discovered the original Book of Mormon) in an American history textbook in 8th Grade and just having to read it twice, because I couldn’t really believe what I was reading. The whole idea of him digging up the golden plates, and the lost tribe of Israel, and Jesus being here in America. I was fascinated by that.”
It must be said that the founding story of the faith - as with every faith - requires a leap of the imagination. The story of Smith being visited by the Angel Moroni in the early 19th century, and discovering said Book on said golden plates, has an outlandish quality to it. But Robert ultimately wanted to treat Mormonism with affection, as did Parker and Stone.
“We weren’t trying to get protesters. We were trying to make a show that was about the way we felt about the best parts of religion. We were writing a show about it that was sort of for atheists and believers at the same time, because it summed up how we felt about it - that whether or not the stories are true, they do something that’s good. Believing in something impossible makes you do impossible things.”
Ultimately, The Book Of Mormon is mostly an unlikely bromance between the mismatched pair of Price and Cunningham. Ask Robert with which of the two he most associates and he smiles. “I was a straight-A student, and you know, I’ve been accused of being a little too arrogant at times.” This is very Price, the all-American kid whose perceptions of the world - and of himself - are jolted by his visit to Africa. And yet, when it came down to actually working on the show, Robert went a bit more Cunningham, the goofy sidekick who’s in thrall to Price, his hero. “When I was with Matt and Trey, I was definitely following them. I was just so in awe of getting to work with my heroes.”
Truth be told, The Book Of Mormon is nowadays quite far away in Robert’s rearview mirror. His main preoccupation of late has been Frozen 2, but in a sense he’s looking forward to leaving behind the Disney phase of his career: “I don’t like to have a brand - I don’t like to be one thing.” After Mormon and Avenue Q, he was happy to leave the scabrous funny stuff for a bit and do something more emotional; now, having filled up on all those Disney emotions, he’d like to move on once again.
More immediately, though, Robert is looking forward to taking his 13-year-old daughter to see The Book Of Mormon for the first time.
“She’s ready,” he shrugs. “She’s already heard the cast album - her friends listen to it. I think she had a nice, shielded, sheltered childhood mostly. And now I think she’s ready to enjoy some adult comedy!”
The Book Of Mormon shows at Birmingham Hippodrome from Wednesday 4 to Saturday 28 March.
By Louis Wise