The Book of Mormon: A Musical Review
I only recently heard of the book of Mormon, and I was a bit surprised how excited many of my friends and family members were to learn that it was coming to our area. Some of them knew it as “the musical written by the creators of South Park,” while others had simply heard that it was funny and knew very little about the specifics. I opted to go in mostly blind, only knowing that it was a humorous musical examining Mormonism. I was lucky enough to get a good ticket to one of the showings, and I have to say, I enjoyed the performance immensely.
A little background for those interested. It is true that two of the writers are Matt Stone and Trey Parker, of South Park infamy. They paired with Robert Lopez, a composer and lyricist, well known for working on Avenue Q. The three of them began work on the project in 2003. It debuted on Broadway in March of 2011. Since then it has received nine Tony awards and one Grammy. The original cast album became the highest charting Broadway album in over four decades and reached number three on the Billboard charts. Pretty impressive if you ask me.
The musical follows two young, Mormon missionaries who travel to Africa in the hopes of spreading their religion among the natives. Naive and self-centered, they receive a rude awakening when they arrive in Uganda expecting to be received with warmth and excitement, only to be robbed and threatened by the soldiers of a local warlord. The events of the musical present a constant tension between the ideas and desires of the Mormons to spread their religion and the actual needs of a local Ugandan village who faces drought, disease, lack of medical care and technology, and frequent threats of violence, particularly against the women. This synopsis admittedly doesn't sound very funny, but it is written and handled with wit, lightness and just a bit of cynicism which all come together to keep the audience laughing for almost the entire musical.
The issues at the center of the production are intimidating ones which are often difficult to have meaningful discussions about. Things such as the prevalence of AIDS in Africa and the lack of quality medical care can be thorny issues to talk about, but the musical presents these in a humorous context, which makes them more easily accessible for the audience. Though my experience is not necessarily representative of everyone's, I left the event thoroughly amused, but also with serious questions in mind about American attitudes towards Africa, and specifically various religious organization's views of Africa. Things like the role of religion in international affairs, the vast disparity between the concerns of an average American and the concerns of an average African. All of these ideas are exemplified best when one of the main characters, Elder Price, attempts to abandon his mission and return home. That night he dreams that he's gone to hell. Surrounded by devils and villains, he professes deep regret for having stolen a doughnut when he was nine and then for abandoning his mission partner. These are the sum of all his greatest regrets. Devils dance around him taunting him with donuts and coffee cups, his great temptations, mocking him for his failures. This is after a musical number in which the village has discussed their woes at length, including death, famine and AIDS, and Elder Price has witnessed a man get shot. This juxtaposition is not a heavy handed one. In fact, it isn't even brought up on stage at all. Elder Price's nightmare is simply a humorous exploration of his fears. But in the bigger picture of the musical, I couldn't help but think of it's implications. These are not necessarily things I expected to come away from a satirical musical thinking about, but I am grateful for the questions it raises. Very little American media these days seems to confront such issues in an honest and open way. This musical could have easily felt oppressive or extremely offensive, but thanks to superb writing and excellent casting, instead it is perfectly amusing and thought provoking.
Two of my favorite things about the night, which were not even in the musical itself, occurred afterward in the theater. First, the cast explained that on their tour around the country they are accepting donations to fund AIDS research and care throughout the world. I thought that this was a very clever way to address the issues the musical confronts in such a way as to actually help people. I was happy to donate. Second, followers of the Mormon church were waiting in the lobby handing out the actual Book of Mormon to anyone who was interested. They had slogans like, “The book is always better.” While I watched, they were approached by a few interested people. To me, this was the most brilliant thing. Not only did it allow the church to participate in the event, thereby making diplomatic peace with them, but it also was a humorous masterstroke as the representatives were, in a number of ways, perfect reflections of their counterparts within the musical. To be clear, they were not being made fun of. They were there by their own desire, attempting to reach out to non-believers, hoping to capitalize on people's reaction to the performance. To me, it seemed like an ideal symbiotic relationship. The musical had a humorous end cap, while the Mormons had their chance to reach out to new people.
I thoroughly recommend this musical, but I do so with a few disclaimers. I would not take children to see it. Also, if you are offended by vulgar language, or just easily offended, this is not the musical for you. It portrays and discusses violence, there are copious amounts of vulgar language, and it often utilizes crude humor. It is written by the creators of South Park, after all. But, if you're a fan of South Park, or of saucy humor in general, I whole-heartedly suggest that you go see it.