Now Playing

Theater by the Book

The Book of Mormon (finally!) lands in Chicago.

Broadway stars Andrew Rannells (left) and Josh Gad performing The Book of Mormon in New York

Rare is the theater production that draws from fan bases as varied as Nick Jr.’s Wonder Pets! and Comedy Central’s South Park. The former is a toddler-oriented cartoon about a trio of elementary-school pets; the latter is a crude comedy situated in the eponymous middle of nowhere. While a professional partnership between the aforementioned shows’ creative brains could have been a disaster, instead it produced a powerhouse hit, sold out months in advance of its Chicago debut on Dec. 11.

The show, of course, is The Book of Mormon, which debuted on Broadway in March 2011 and went on to earn nine Tony Awards including best musical, best book and best score. Members of its creative team, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q, Wonder Pets! and more), admired each other from a distance before meeting nearly a decade ago in New York. Parker and Stone were in town researching Team America: World Police, a satirical comedy starring marionettes, and were encouraged to check out the puppetry in Avenue Q. Lopez spotted them in the audience, took them out for a drink, and the rest is Broadway history.

“We got to talking, and found out we both had this idea of doing a musical about Mormons—using it as a way to talk about religion and make up a bunch of goofy stories that seem kind of crazy,” Lopez recalls. “It seemed like such a crazy coincidence.”

Seven years of development followed. All three men lead busy careers juggling multiple projects, and they didn’t want to rush the project’s process. Once the trio settled on the basic storyline (two missionaries making the best of being stationed in one of the world’s worst humanitarian situations), Lopez’s songwriting began. Then there were production workshops. Years of them. “You rewrite a lot,” Lopez says, “and you learn a lot from each one.”

Right up until its previews in early 2011, the show’s reception was an unknown. Producers were prepared for some controversy, but what they didn’t predict was its instant success. Its first night on Broadway sold out, and that pattern hasn’t let up since. “It’s opposite of my experience with Avenue Q,” Lopez says. “There was a long, slow build to 100 percent, then a few months before a long, slow decline.” But not with Mormon. “I couldn’t believe that it was such a big hit from Day One.”

We’re now past Day 600, and it’s still hot. A touring version, which launched in Denver in August, sold out in five hours. Chicago’s production, the show’s first permanent staging outside of Broadway, has already been extended once, through June 2013, and another extension is likely. The show’s continuing success is a feather in Lopez’s hat, but Chicago is an unknown: He’s never been. “This will be my very privileged introduction to Chicago,” Lopez says. “I’m just kind of excited to see how it’s received. That’s one of the cool things about theater: You can’t assume that the same show will play the same way, not even two nights in a row at the same place. You never know how it’s going to go.”

The Book of Mormon opens Dec. 11 at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., 877.280.9582, chicago-theater.com