Trey Parker and Matt Stone of The Book of Mormon reinvigorated the musical.

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July 26 2011 6:52 AM

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Creators of the Musical The Book of Mormon

They reinvigorated Broadway: by taking musicals back to their roots (and making them more like South Park).

Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Click image to expand.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone

When The Book of Mormon previewed at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in February, some wondered whether a Broadway musical by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of the notoriously crude South Park, could appeal to an audience broader than Eric Cartman aficionados; others worried that the Mormon Church would want the show banned for sacrilege and obscenity. A month later, Stone and Parker's first attempt at musical theater opened to fawning reviews and instantly became the Great White Way's biggest hit in years. Critics praised The Book for its slickness, but also for its sweetness and the reverence it shows to the legends of Broadway and even to the Mormon Church itself. Jon Stewart joked that the show was so good, it made him "f-ing angry."The Book of Mormon has since won nine Tony Awards, including best musical. Parker's four wins ties the record for most Tonys won in a single night. It has also become the most expensive ticket in Broadway history, and is virtually sold out through 2011.

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Rewind just three years ago to when the recession was entering full swing: Broadway experienced a particularly harsh winter that resulted in 15 show closings in six weeks, theaters were struggling to fill half of their seats, and producers were opting to take shows to Beijing over New York. Even Saturday Night Live was ridiculing musical theater's staleness.

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Now in 2011, while other industries continue to be battered by the still-feeble economy, Broadway is thriving with a record $1.1 billion in gross receipts this past season. L.A. Times theater critic Charles McNulty has complained that in American theater, the "gap between commercial viability and cultural esteem is only widening." The commercial success of the second reboot of the critically abhorred, $75 million monstrositySpider-Man: Turn Off the Dark certainly may attest to that gap, but Parker and Stone have figured out a way to bridge it. The longtime collaborators have combined historic commercial success with adulation from critics, audiences, and Tony Award voters. They did it by replicating the success of Avenue Q writer (and Book of Mormon co-writer) Robert Lopez: writing clever and wonderfully catchy songs, slaying sacred cows without being self-righteous, and paying homage to great musical heroes, most notably Rodgers and Hammerstein. With a Grammy nod almost certain for Parker and Stone's smash-hit cast album, the grand slam of entertainment awards known as the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) will be within their grasp. And if The Book of Mormon gets adapted for the screen, as many of us hope, not even Phil Collins himself will be able to stop them.

Listen to "All-American Prophet" from The Book of Mormon:

Follow South Park and The Book of Mormon on Twitter at  @SouthPark and @BookofMormonBWY.

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Jeremy Stahl is Slate's social media editor. You can follow him on Twitter.