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Here Comes 'The Book of Mormon'

By Rick Pender · December 31st, 2013 · Cover Story
bookofmormon_4_photo-joanmarcusBroadway Across America's The Book of Mormon - Photo: Joan Marcus

The following are some phrases used to describe The Book of Mormon since the award-winning musical opened on Broadway in 2011: an “entertaining act of musical-comedy subversion,” “bawdy and irreverent,” “slick and smutty,” “incredibly sweet,” “blasphemous, scurrilous and more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak,” “a mixture of reverence and ridicule,” “happily paradoxical,” “silly, soulful and seriously rude” and “the new gold standard for rowdy fun.” Not since Mel Brooks’ raucously funny The Producers took Broadway by a hilariously satiric storm of parody and off-color humor has a show created such a stir and received so much commentary.

It’s time for Cincinnatians to fasten their seatbelts, since this entertaining but overtly offensive Broadway musical The Book of Mormon opens next week at the Aronoff Center in downtown Cincinnati. The touring production, presented by Broadway Across America, will be onstage from Jan. 7-26. It might be the perfect musical for the 21st century: It points out the foolishness of faith and organized religion while underscoring the social relevance of belief to mankind. It tells a tale that’s a sweet and happy buddy story while simultaneously staring at the horrors of everyday life in the Third World. It uses the joyous conventions of musical theater and language to tell a story that’s often so off-color and crude that it can leave some audience members shocked, offended and gasping. But I predict that very few attending The Book of Mormon will walk out: The winner of nine 2011 Tony Awards, including best musical, will keep them waiting for the next jaw-dropping moment. When it’s over, they’ll be glad they saw it — and perhaps even feel uplifted. The New York Times called the show “something like a miracle,” and that’s exactly what it is.

In a marriage made in 21st-century show business heaven, Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone came together to create The Book of Mormon. Parker and Stone had no prior Broadway experience, though they have dabbled in musicals going all the way back to their film school days when they created a black comedy called Cannibal! The Musical. 

In 1997 they began producing the shock-humor animated sitcom South Park about contemporary kids in a fictional Colorado town. Still going strong in its 17th season, South Park’s weekly episodes take fresh, smart and often offensive aim at modern American life. The series has a history of breaking taboos with its profane language, disregard for both conservative and liberal causes and satiric portrayals of religion, celebrities, morality and popular culture. (It was the first weekly TV program to earn a TV-MA rating.) Parker and Stone utilized the musical form in the 1999 full-length film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, in part to parody Disney movies and mock controversies surrounding the show itself, as did their 2004 film Team America: World Police, which took aim at action film clichés and stereotypes. 

Lopez was part of the team that brought forth the 2004 Tony Award winner, Avenue Q, another very modern musical, one that used the puppets and simplicity of Sesame Street to explore and satirize realities of modern young adult life — including profanity, racism, pornography and more. Parker, Lopez and Stone worked for five years to bring The Book of Mormon to the stage.

• • •

The show revolves around two 19-year-old Mormons, Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham. Called “elders,” they are missionaries, dressed in white, short-sleeved shirts, black ties and shiny name badges, overflowing with ebullient good nature and zeal to export their faith around the world. The opening number, “Hello!” puts them in a Mormon training where they practice ringing doorbells and offering their chipper testimonies about the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its “third testament,” the Book of Mormon.

Elder Price is an earnest, egotistical overachiever, while Elder Cunningham is an ill-informed, inappropriate misfit in the vein of characters often played on movie screens by Jack Black. Although he shows no traits that promise success, Cunningham has been sent to missionary training by his family, who hopes the discipline will pull him together. The mismatched pair is joined together for a two-year mission; while others are assigned to locations including Norway, France and Japan, Price (who secretly yearns to be sent to Orlando) and Cunningham are shipped off to Uganda, where the Mormon mission has met with utter failure.

Robbed upon arrival and met by Ugandans whose desperate lives have left them with a belligerent attitude toward God, Price and Cunningham have a rude awakening. Unlike The Lion King’s jaunty anthem, “Hakuna Matata,” which means “no worries,” the saying employed by the desperate villagers they meet blasphemously expresses their anger and disdain for the almighty. The musical number “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (best left untranslated) is the first warning; says one actor: “This is where we’re going tonight; buckle your seatbelts.” The missionaries’ lives are about to change — and not in ways either of them imagined.

They encounter a brutal warlord, disease and faithless, ignorant people who are full of fear. Price’s simplistic, sunny lessons about Mormon founder Joseph Smith, “The All-American Prophet,” get no traction with the locals. But Cunningham’s crazed, improvised stories that start in Mormon teachings but veer off into delirious mishmashes of sci-fi and fantasy — including elements of Star Trek, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings — pique the interest of the Ugandans, who are desperate for something they can believe in.

The first convert is Nabulungi, a sensitive young woman who catches Cunningham’s fancy. 

Price’s faith is shaken, but after a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” returns him to the fold, he discovers that Cunningham’s wild tales have led to multiple conversions and a new corps of followers who are emboldened to stand up against the warlord. When Mormon church leaders visit the village and become aware of the silly stories (“Joseph Smith American Moses”) used to recruit followers, they are appalled. Of course, these tales are not much more implausible than Mormon teachings about Joseph Smith digging up golden tablets left by a tribe of wandering Jews in Upstate New York, so it’s tough to condemn the success of the new “book.” In fact, the truth of any specific scripture is not the ultimate point — it’s the social value of religion, with an impact that is subtly but powerfully as well as humorously conveyed by this show.  

• • •

The Book of Mormon does all this with the cheerfully energetic good humor and melodic themes that typify classic musicals. The show’s tunes — one of its nine Tony Awards was for the best original score — are firmly rooted in that tradition, even if the subject matter is oh-so-modern. The opening number, punctuated with doorbell chimes and a repetitive meter, has the buoyant energy of Oklahoma’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” while Price’s tribute to spiritual fortitude, “I Believe” (punctuated with several far-fetched tenets of the Mormon faith) sounds like “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music. “The All-American Prophet” has the spirit of The Music Man’s “Trouble” (including its subtly ironic undertow), while “I Am Africa” conjures the inspirational tones of The Lion King. I suspect many theatergoers will walk out of the Aronoff Center humming these tunes — even if they would be advised not to repeat the words in polite company. 

The show’s original cast album won the 2012 Grammy Award for best musical theater album. It’s been a best seller for some time, racking up 61,000 sales in the week following its June 2011 Tony win, the highest-charting Broadway cast album since Hair in 1969. Amazon’s three-day download deal for $1.99 around the time of the Tony Awards resulted in 85 percent of the recording’s sales through that mechanism. It’s on a lot of iPods these days.

• • •

One other aspect of The Book of Mormon requires a bit of exploration. Is it inappropriate or even sacrilegious for a musical to poke fun at an organized religion practiced by more than 14 million people around the world? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken a measured response to the show, never overtly protesting its message or content.

In an official statement in 2011, the church said, “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” The church’s head of public affairs subsequently wrote an essay stating, “Of course, parody isn’t reality, and it’s the very distortion that makes it appealing and often funny. The danger is not when people laugh but when they take it seriously — if they leave the theater believing that Mormons really do live in some kind of world of self-deception and illusion.” His essay cited numerous humanitarian efforts undertaken by the church and its missionaries in Africa. Church officials don’t seem to fear misperceptions: It has placed advertising in theater programs in numerous cities visited by the touring production of The Book of Mormon, including Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Minneapolis, Seattle, St. Louis, London, Toronto and Washington, D.C.

Members of the Mormon faith have appreciated the attention the show has brought to their faith. “Mormons experience the show like looking at themselves in a fun-house mirror,” wrote Richard Bushman, a Mormon and an emeritus professor of history studies at Columbia University. “The reflection is hilarious but not really you. The nose is yours but swollen out of proportion.” 

The show’s creators were not surprised by the calm response of the church. Before The Book of Mormon opened, acquaintances of Stone and Parker were concerned. In an interview, Stone said, “Trey and I were like, ‘They’re going to be cool.’ And they were like, ‘No, they’re not. There are going to be protests.’ And we were like, ‘Nope, they’re going to be cool.’ We weren’t that surprised by the church’s response. We had faith in them.” The writers have repeatedly said that they love Mormons. Graceann Bennett, a Mormon from Chicago interviewed in 2011 by USA Today, said, “It was like loving teasing. I don’t think you could get that sweetness in today’s world without a serious dose of irreverence.”

In a 2012 interview with Playbill, Lopez said, “We didn’t really want to write about Mormons in particular. It was just a way into giving our take on religion and scripture in general, which basically is that religion really is a bunch of goofy stories. It’s all these preposterous, made-up tall tales, but they’re worth something. They have emotional truth. The make us live better lives.”

Lopez added, “When you see the show, you realize it’s not anti-Mormon at all. There’s definitely some offensive stuff in the show, but it’s all in the service of saying something pretty uplifting. I think a lot of people who might have taken offense or protested are disarmed by that.”

In his liner notes for the cast recording, onetime New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote, “Mormonism is another preoccupation of [the show’s creators], and no wonder. Like so many other all-American cultural phenomena, it’s inseparable from show business: bigger than life, melodramatic, sentimental, full of spectacular special effects and ripe for parody. The links The Book of Mormon draws between Joseph Smith’s over-the-top mythology and the belief systems of Star Wars and the heavenly attractions of Orlando’s Disney World are entirely apt. But the satirical tone is far closer to bemused tolerance than blasphemous antipathy. Like so many other critics of America’s most popular homegrown faith — see, for instance, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America — Parker, Stone and Lopez can’t help but be seduced by the fabulousness of those golden plates. The hymn [in the show], ‘Sal Tlay Ka Siti’ [say it out loud and you’ll get the joke] is so glowing it might be describing such other [musical theater] meccas as Glocca Morra, Brigadoon, Bali Ha’i Anatevka or Gary, Indiana. Which is to say it’s the rousing old-time religion of Broadway that’s always at the heart of The Book of Mormon. No prophetic powers are needed to predict that the faithful will be filling its pews for years and years to come.”

• • •

And speaking of filling the pews, in addition to this successful tour, which will spend most of January in downtown Cincinnati, The Book of Mormon is still a big hit on Broadway. In early December it broke the house record for ticket sales at the 1,068-seat Eugene O’Neill Theatre for the 47th time, grossing more than $1.8 million for one week of performances. If this show has the same drawing power locally, it could leave more than 50,000 theatergoers laughing and cheering.

THE BOOK OF MORMON: Jan. 7-26, Aronoff Center’s Procter & Gamble Hall, 650 Walnut St., Downtown. Tickets: broadwayacrossamerica.com.

What critics are saying about The Book of Mormon:

"I am here to report that a newborn, old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical has arrived … the kind our grandparents told us left them walking on air if not on water. So hie thee hence, nonbelievers (and believers, too), to The Book of Mormon, and feast upon its sweetness. The Book of Mormon achieves something like a miracle. Trust me when I tell you that its heart is as pure as that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show. These men take pleasure in the transcendent, cathartic goofiness of song-and-dance numbers. Witty, ridiculous, impeccably executed and genuinely stirring."

— Ben Brantley, The New York Times

"If any show could make the case that you can have fun with absolutely anything in the oft-painful run of human experience, then that show is The Book of Mormon, a shrewd, remarkably well-crafted and wholly hilarious new Broadway musical. By the end of a night more emotional than many will expect, the show is arguing the importance of finding a spiritual center, if not exactly embracing the doctrinal details of that most American of religions. And The Book of Mormon even makes a case that it takes those suffering real pain to understand the real role of religion in our lives."

— Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

"One of the most joyously acidic bundles Broadway has unwrapped in years. The sin it takes such fond aim at — blind faith — is one that this musical suggests observes no religious bounds. No matter how brazenly the writers question the precepts of Mormonism — and boy, do they ever make mincemeat of the religion’s genesis — their respect for the traditions of the American musical borders on devotional."

— Peter Marks, The Washington Post

"The happiest play ever, and full of feeling, The Book of Mormon made the audience insane with joy in this way I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a theater. In row H, they were gasping and squealing and covering their mouths with their hands. It made me feel hopeful for the very idea of putting on a show, and it made musicals seem like a wonderful, magical invention. One of my favorite things I’ve ever seen, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and humming the songs and telling everyone I know to get tickets immediately and wanting to see it again, which I never do. I mean seriously: laughs, great numbers, frogs and clitorises — what else does a theater-going audience want?"

— Ira Glass, This American Life



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