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From television to movies, and even working on a video game, there seems to be no end to the output of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. While they are typically associated with juvenile cut-out humor, I think that the real legacy that they will leave behind aside from their award winning television show is their revolutionary influence on Musical theatre. Book of Mormon wad the unquestioned champion musical of 2011, this wasn’t just some pet project. Trey and Matt have been working towards this and making musicals for more than 25 years. Here’s a look at some of their significant work that lead up to BoM and how they influenced the American Musical.
The Early Years
Trey Parker had been a part of the Evergreen players, a Colorado based community theater group since he was fourteen. Afterwards he attended Berklee college of Music before switching over to the University of Colorado where he double majored in Music and Japanese.
Cannibal! The Musical (1993)
Based off a fake trailer Matt and Trey made in college, this feature length movie musical is inspired by the real life story of Alfred Packer. If you can see past it’s low quality footage, there’s a glut of wit to be found here. All of the numbers are Rogers and Hammerstein-esque and filled with cheer. Like much of Trey and Matt’s best work, it works because of how optimistically goofy and cheery it is (despite it’s grim circumstances). In it’s original release it was distributed by Troma entertainment, the infamous schlock film distributor responsible for The Toxic Avenger (which was recently turned into a musical), which also launched the careers of Kevin Costner, David Boreanaz, and Paul Sorvino. Despite some lame duck humor, there are sophisticated moments like a spontaneous debate on music theory with a bunch of fur trappers and Native Americans that are actually Japanese. Some South Park episodes feature the instrumentals of Cannibal. Despite its limited theatrical release, Cannibal! The Musical has become a cult hit and has been performed in Edinburough, off Broadway, and repertory companies all over the world. It doesn’t have many songs, but they do all fit into the plot true to the musical theater form. This also features Trey and Matt’s fascination with Mormons.
Not a great movie, but worth mentioning because it was originally going to be a musical, and it’s lead character is a Mormon.
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999)
Really, I consider this their most important musical work. While it was considered at it’s time to be another inappropriate movie, South Park the movie broke boundaries. It was the first musical comedy that wasn’t afraid to be completely uncensored, freely drop profanity in song, and be a “Musical Comedy for Adults”. While Cannibal! was a take on Rogers and Hammerstein, this seemed to want to mock the Disney movie formula (with a simple little town song, a villain song, and a love song). There is also a heavy influence from Les Miserable, with a focus on a youth led resistance and a eight-year-old names ‘the mole’ who constantly exclaims how there is no god. Its song “Blame Canada” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Steven Sondheim himself considers this one of the few movie musicals he’s enjoyed. Animation and musicals have always gone hand it hand, and this was the first animated musical for Adults. As an animated musical this broke ground for other musicals to free themselves from censorship. South Park the movie also inspired Robert Lopez to start work on Avenue Q, the first rude musical on Broadway.
Team America World Police (2004)
While not a pure musical nor critically acclaimed, Team America is a rude movie with puppets that was in development right when Avenue Q began on Broadway. Team America is worthy of note because it lead to Trey and Matt meeting Robert and some of the numbers in the show are really underrated “Pearl Harbor Sucked…and I miss you”, “Freedom Isn’t Free”, and the “Montage Song”. Its main character was a Broadway actor (Reflecting Trey and Matt’s love of Musical Theater and whose presence is a pretty funny comment on actors and acting) whose number mocking RENT is pretty spot on.
Book of Mormon the Musical (2011)
Trey and Matt’s opus of Musical Theater after almost eight years of development. BoM was smart, hilarious, and touching, but it was one of the few original musicals to (well as original as a musical gets) obtain this level of success in recent years. It took the concept of a rude musical to a whole new level and demonstrated a show where everything was firing on full cylinders to serve the story and didn’t let spectacle become the overriding aspect. Nine Tony awards speak for themselves.
Broadway Bro Down (2011)
This is a standout episode of South Park Co-written with BoM collaborator Robert Lopez. South Park has had musical moments, but this perfectly constructed 22 minute episode makes a solid story that if you are even the slightest fan of musical theater you have to see. As much of a satire as it is a love letter, Broadway Bro Down is hilarious, smart, and actually incredibly heartfelt. It also features Elton John, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Steven Schwartz, and Sondheim chilling out in Hooters. That alone should make you want to see what this is all about.
Next time: Weird Musicals, stuff from beyond the pale