Within a year of South Park debuting in August 1997, you could buy plush toy versions of the gang: Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman. The show, created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, became a global phenomenon in a short amount of time. During the show’s first season, Comedy Central offered Parker and Stone an unspecified seven-figure cash bonus to bring the show to the big screen. It took only two years for the show to go from the television to the silver screen; mainly because there was pressure to capitalise on the show’s popularity while it was still hot; Parker and Stone thought it would be over by the third season. When South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut arrived, many expected it would be exactly as the film’s title promised: a movie-length episode, they even stuck to the low-fi animation style. The biggest surprise was that it was a fully-fledged musical – a damn fine one.
The musical score and songs featured in the film were composed and written by Parker and Marc Shaiman, a mainstay of theatre and film for his musical/lyrical contributions to Broadway hits like Hairspray and movie scores ranging from Sister Act to Sleepless in Seattle. Early in the film’s production, Parker and Stone committed to writing the film as a musical, drawing on influences from Broadway while poking fun at the Disney Renaissance of animation (89-99). South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut features 14 original songs that not only push the story forward – as every musical should, even the mediocre ones get this right – but leverage existing musical conventions into something new and ingenious.
The film’s opening number ‘Mountain Town’ is a parody of the introductory song ‘Belle’ from Beauty and the Beast with a pinch of Oklahoma! The song appropriates the optimistic gloss associated with Broadway opening numbers to deliver twisted gags with a huge, deranged smile. ‘Mountain Town’ introduces the main characters in South Park in the grand style of a traditional musical while setting up, and foreshadowing, every major plot point in the film. From a story perspective, it’s one of the thriftiest opening 5 minutes of a movie musical.
From the pure movie musical mechanics of the opener, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut shifts to the astounding ‘Uncle F**ker’, a masterclass in profanity and lyricism, but here’s where the dance sensibility of Parker and Shaiman kicks in. ‘Uncle F**ker’ is sung by Terrence and Phillip while the kids from South Park watch their film Asses of Fire. Parker and Shaiman take what would traditionally be a tap dancing break and replace it with farts. Shaiman said in an interview it was his idea: “Trey had basically already written ‘Uncle F**ka’ but I wanted to bring my own idea to the song, so I said to Trey, ‘How about if they do a tap break, only with farting for the taps?’ I had been sitting all morning listening to farts, about which ones go up and which ones had a rhythm, and how to put them together so that they created little tap rhythms.” ‘Uncle F**ker’ proved that Parker could write songs that were just as scathing and hilarious as the dialogue South Park was famous for, but he could do while retaining the spirit of his musical influences. While South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut pokes fun other musicals, it does it with a lot of love for the artform.
‘I’m Super’ and ‘It’s Easy, M’Kay’ have echoes of ‘Be Our Guest’ from Beauty and the Beast; ‘Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch’ has the fast pace of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, and ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ from Mary Poppins; and ‘La Resistance’ is a great nod to Les Misérables.
‘Up There’ riffs on ‘Part of Your World’ from The Little Mermaid and with Disney still in their sights, Parker and Shaiman composed ‘Eyes of a Child’, a song that parodies the pop ballads that often accompanied the credits of Disney’s animated movies like ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ (The Lion King), ‘Colours of the Wind’ (Pocahontas) and ‘A Whole New World’ (Aladdin). Rather than just be superficial references, these song leverage Parker’s influences into something dynamic and hilarious.
‘Blame Canada’ ended up being the song from the film that endured, especially when it was nominated for best original song at the Oscars in 2000. Robin Williams performed the song at the ceremony. Shaiman said: "We're making fun of people who pick ridiculous targets to blame anything about what's going on in their lives, so Canada was just the perfect, ridiculous, innocuous choice for a target.”
Parker and Stone celebrated their film’s Oscar nomination by attending the ceremony in drag while tripping on LSD.
Critical and box office success aside, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut gained praise from musical legends. Stephen Sondheim wrote a letter to Parker to let him know that South Park:Bigger, Longer and Uncut was one of his favourite musicals of the past fifteen years. When Team America was released a few years later, Sondheim withdrew his favouritism for South Park by saying he adored their puppet film. Parker and Stone cemented their place in musical history with The Book of Mormon on Broadway, which won nine Tony awards, set records in ticket sales and has gone on to be one of the biggest musical hits of the decade.
In 2002, the Hollywood adaption of Chicago ushered in a revival of movie musicals, mainly because it was the first musical to win the best picture Oscar since Oliver! In the '60s. Often, this has been the marker for the resurgence of great modern musicals. It’s time to move back the starting line to 1999 and acknowledge South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut as the first great modern musical that sat on the cusp of a new decade and paved the way for Chicago and every musical adaption that followed.
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'South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut' screens Saturday 20 May, 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND.
Watch another movie by the 'South Park' creators at SBS On Demand:
What's it about?
Joe Young is a naive young Mormon, serving his mission in LA and needing money to marry his girlfriend. This leads him to a porn film set, where a filmmaker unwittingly casts Joe as a masked superhero named Orgazmo, which becomes a surprise megahit. Written, directed by and starring South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.