So what's the truth about the Tony-winning Broadway musical The Book Of Mormon? Is it:
A) a merciless mocking of religion by the creators of South Park
B) a show with real characters that people of faith (even Mormons) can embrace
C) a broad satire a la Jerry Springer: The Opera filled with cursing and expletives
D) a valentine to the Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and their polite practitioners
E) very funny and entertaining
F) all of the above
Of course the answer is F, all of the above. Trey Parker and Matt Stone (along with their collaborator on the book, lyrics and music -- Robert Lopez of Avenue Q) have delivered a show that does indeed mercilessly mock religion, even while conceding that people's beliefs can make them do some nice things (like help the poor) and also do some mean things (like launch Crusades). Here's how they did it.
First, they were never out to "get" the Mormons. In fact, they were always intrigued that faith (a belief system which they paint as little different than the mythology surrounding Star Wars or The Lord Of The Rings) could encourage the Mormons they knew to be so unfailingly...nice.
What Parker and Stone were really out to "get" was Broadway. They wanted to create a great musical, which is no surprise to anyone who has watched their TV show and movies for the past decade or so. Parker and Stone squeeze in show stoppers and musical numbers at the drop of a hat in their TV series. And the film South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut ranks as one of the best movie musicals of the 1990s. So they created a stage musical that has hilarious jabs but also features genuine characters with real emotions. A spoof of faith might have been funny but it wouldn't have any emotional punch; you wouldn't really care what happened to some Mormon missionaries in Uganda if the show didn't care either.
SPOILER ALERT: If you're planning to see the show and don't want to know anything about it, don't read on. But if you've seen it or even just listened to the cast album, you probably know 90% of the plot already. Use your best judgment so I don't spoil any fun for you. I'll give you another warning when I reference a twist from the finale.
Still, it wasn't until I started thinking about the way the show tells its story that I realized how The Book Of Mormon pulled off the feat of keeping both atheists and people of faith in the same room, smiling and laughing. In short, they did it by putting the most scandalous language into the mouths of unbelievers who need to be saved. Plus, they let a plucky Mormon hero proudly assert some of the more eyebrow-raising minutiae of that religion with a Julie Andrews-like confidence. If this show were a spoof, it wouldn't be the success that it is. But these are real characters with real beliefs and that's why The Book Of Mormon is really good.
Imagine how a Mormon feels. If you've seen The Book Of Mormon, you've already heard some of the more exaggerated or arcane elements of their faith -- in other words, you've been pre-scandalized. Instead of Elders having to bring up the underwear and the one-time ban on black priests (into the 1970s!) and the idea of God living out there in the universe near a planet called Kolob and Jews coming to America before Columbus, LDSers can just let you ask if that's true and then give the more nuanced, accurate description of what they believe. No wonder the Church has put posters up in Times Square. This show might just help recruitment.
Let's get specific.
"Hasa Diga Eebowai" is the first truly vulgar show in the show. It's a satire on "Hakuna Matata" from The Lion King. The title translates as "F*** you, God!" and is sung by Ugandans who lament war lords, endemic poverty, a crippling rate of AIDS and other miseries that make Job's life seem like a walk in the park. Our heroes Elder Price (the marvelous, should-have-won-the-Tony Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (the funny sidekick Josh Gads) are shocked of course. But railing against the Almighty isn't unheard of, even in the Bible (see Job, for example, not to mention the argumentative Moses). And who can argue with the truth that someone born in a war-torn land ravaged by a plague might in fact be a little bitter?
Finally, this song is sung by Ugandans who in religious terms haven't been saved yet. In fact, it is Africans throughout who speak the most vulgar, shocking lines. With South Park's usual daring, they walk a fine line between a satire of our culture's attitude towards Africans and just a plain old stereotype. But for someone of faith, these people are cursing and raping babies and railing against God precisely because they need the succor and support of the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You don't too upset when unbelievers have potty mouths.
What about "Turn It Off?" In this show-stopper for Tony-nominated supporting actor Rory O'Malley as Elder McKinley, some missionaries share their approach to confusing thoughts or bad feelings. When your dad beats your mom and mocks you for crying, when you decide to get in line at the Apple store instead of seeing your dying sister, when you have gay thoughts for your best friend, well, "Turn it off!"
Non-believers hear hypocrisy and an absurdly simplistic solution to difficult issues: "Turn it off/ Like a light switch/ Just go flick/ It's our nifty little Mormon trick." But people of faith (not just Mormons) have no problem with self-denial. It's not hypocrisy to stop thinking bad or tempting or confusing thoughts -- it's a darn good idea. And you're less likely to have those bad thoughts if you avoid pornography or even just secular TV shows that are sexed up (like Gossip Girl) and so on. So turn them off, too! It's not an official approach by any faith, as such, but numerous fundamentalist faiths acknowledge that some men are inherently gay. They want those men to simply tamp down these bad feelings and marry a woman anyway, because with prayer and the proper spouse and God's love you can be alright. (Not true, by the way.) It's presented in a silly, flippant manner, but "turn it off" is exactly what people of numerous faiths try to do every day.
Then there's "Making Things Up Again." This is a song where Elder Cunningham is desperate to keep the Ugandans from getting bored by his Bible stories. He also needs to steer them away from a threat to rape babies, which some think will cure them of AIDS. So Cunningham starts to toss ewoks and hobbits and the plot of The Matrix into the teachings of the Church. The locals eat it up and in fact ultimately consider the teachings of Elder Cunningham to constitute the fourth book of the Bible, after the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Book Of Mormon.
This song makes crystal clear that it's just made-up nonsense, much as some people believe the Book Of Mormon and indeed all organized religion is made up nonsense. If anything should anger people of faith, it's probably here. But remember again who is singing and who is accepting this. Elder Cunningham has proven he knows almost nothing about his own faith, so it's hardly a rejection of the teachings of the Church when someone who has never learned them makes stuff up. Indeed, even people of every faith who do sincerely believe are often ill-informed about their own religion. When unbelievers swallow nonsense by a person who doesn't know what he's talking about, why should Mormons take offense?
The story of the founding of the Church and its early days is utterly goofed upon in "Joseph Smith American Moses." But again, this song is performed by Ugandans who have been "instructed" in their faith by Elder Cunningham, who admits he knows almost nothing about it. On another level, missionary work by many faiths in the past often included presenting religious beliefs in a simplistic manner that locals could identify with. The thinking was that once very basic ideas had been put across, you could slowly instruct them more fully in the particulars of the faith.
So while Elder Cunningham's mishmash of pop culture would never pass muster, the basic idea isn't so far-fetched. Neither was his desire to stop one man from raping a baby as a cure for AIDS. A good missionary would have been able to explain why God objected without making up passages from the Book of Mormon or somehow claiming Joseph Smith had sex with a magic frog to cure his case of AIDS. Perhaps they would have related a story of Moses and the plagues or some miracle cure to get the same idea of redemption across. But the intent and very broad approach isn't so crazy. Besides, it's just a lot funnier when put into vulgar terms and set to catchy music.
Finally, there's "I Believe," Elder Price's proud announcement of faith. In an homage to "I Have Confidence" from The Sound Of Music, Elder Price finds the courage to help out Elder Cunningham and win over a war lord to the Church, all while declaiming many of the most controversial, seemingly goofy (or as Church members would insist, often exaggerated) articles of their religion.
Surely this song will offend Mormons. As my friend at the show pointed out, their beliefs are virtually punch lines throughout the song. "I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America." "I believe that the current President of the Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God." "I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people." "I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri." People laugh and laugh throughout this song. Don't Mormons find that embarrassing? Nope. In fact they probably find it liberating. As one online commenter said, it will probably be sung at a Mormon talent show before you know it. Yes, those are things they believe, albeit not voiced the way they would or with the accuracy the ideas deserve. Hearing it belted out with pride on stage in the hottest show on Broadway by a character who's had his doubts but resolved them and wants to help others is not exactly a difficult moment to accept.
Even the chorus of that song plays differently for people of faith, agnostics and atheists. When atheists hear, "I am a Mormon. And a Mormon just believes," they giggle. They hear what they see as the idiocy of religion presented in as blunt a manner as possible. You just...believe? How stupid is that? Where are the facts? Doesn't that make people of faith look simple-minded and dumb? But people of faith (not just Mormons) hear that line and say, "Yep, that's faith, in a nutshell. Believing when there is no proof." The hero has doubts? So does anyone of faith who isn't feeble-minded.
About the harshest judgment this show makes about Mormons is that they're hyper-polite. If that's the stereotype they must live with, it ranks alongside the gay stereotype of "witty, fashionable and in shape" or the Asian stereotype of "smart in science and math" as certainly annoying and inaccurate and rooted in prejudice but perhaps not the worst thing in the world.
Still, I believe anyone paying attention would know the show really doesn't pull its punches, even if people of faith choose to ignore this. One of the biggest laughs comes when a Ugandan says to one character that there's no such place as the fabled Salt Lake City -- "It's a metaphor!" he says. That's fine for me as a practicing Catholic. (We don't believe the Bible is literally true. The Garden Of Eden and Noah's Ark? Metaphors!). But it certainly won't cut muster with the fundamentalists in the crowd.
FINALE SPOILER ALERT
Parker and Stone and Lopez clearly say that as long as you don't take this stuff too literally and use your faith to help others, it's no biggie by them. But it's no accident that our heroes turn their backs on the Church at the end. The missionaries ignore orders so they can stay in Uganda and keep helping the locals in any way they can. You shouldn't have to choose between your religion and being nice to others here on earth. But if you do, it's pretty clear they think religion should lose every time. That's not the message they're shouting out from the rooftops. So everyone is welcome to see the musical and clearly people of faith (even fundamentalists) like a good show-stopper when they hear one. But that message is still there. Nonetheless, faith overrides all obstacles. What makes The Book Of Mormon work for nonbelievers and believers alike is that its creators have the strongest faith of all: faith in the power of a well-crafted Broadway musical.
THE 2010-2001 THEATER SEASON FINALE (on a four star scale)
All's Well That Ends Well (the Globe in London) ****
Angels in America revival at Signature *** out of ****
Anything Goes ** 1/2
Arcadia with Billy Crudup *** 1/2
Baby It's You * 1/2
Being Harold Pinter ** 1/2
Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo **
Between Worlds/Entre Mundos * 1/2
Beautiful Burnout at St. Ann's Warehouse **
Blood From A Stone ** 1/2
The Book Of Mormon *** 1/2
Born Yesterday ***
The Broadway Musicals Of 1921 at Town Hall ***
Cactus Flower *
Carson McCullers Talks About Love with Suzanne Vega * 1/2
Catch Me If You Can *** 1/2
Devil Boys From Beyond **
The Diary Of A Madman with Geoffrey Rush at BAM ***
Die Walkure at the Met with Deborah Voigt ***
The Divine Sister *** 1/2
Double Falsehood **
The Dream Of The Burning Boy ** 1/2
Driving Miss Daisy **
A Free Man Of Color ** 1/2
Ghetto Klown ***
Good People with Frances McDormand **
The Grand Manner **
The Great Game ***
Gruesome Playground Injuries ***
The Hallway Trilogy: Nursing **
The Hallway Trilogy: Paraffin ***
The Hallway Trilogy: Rose ***
The House Of Blue Leaves with Ben Stiller and Edie Falco * 1/2
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying ***
The Illusion (Tony Kushner revival at Signature) *
The Importance Of Being Earnest ** 1/2
The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide To Capitalism and Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures ***
The Interminable Suicide Of Gregory Church *** 1/2
John Gabriel Borkman * 1/2
King Lear with Derek Jacobi at BAM ***
La Bete ** 1/2
Les Miserables ***
Lord Of The Flies (in London) * 1/2
Lysistrata Jones * 1/2
Macbeth with John Douglas Thompson **
The Merchant Of Venice *** 1/2
Mike Birbiglia's My Girlfriend's Boyfriend ***
The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore *
Mistakes Were Made ** 1/2
The Motherf**ker With The Hat ***
Much Ado About Nothing (the Globe in London) ** 1/2
Nixon In China *** 1/2
The New York Idea **
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables at BAM ***
The Normal Heart ***
One Man, Two Guvnors (in London) ***
Operation Greenfield (in London) ** 1/2
Other Desert Cities **
Our Town with Helen Hunt ***
The Pee-wee Herman Show ***
Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: The Musical * 1/2
Pygmalion (in London with Rupert Everett) **
The Road To Qatar *
The People In The Picture *
The School For Lies with Mamie Gummer and Hamish Linklater at CSC ****
The Scottsboro Boys ****
Sister Act **
Sleep No More *** 1/2
Small Craft Warnings zero stars
Three Sisters (w Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard) *** 1/2
Timon Of Athens at Public with Richard Thomas ***
War Horse ***
We're Gonna Die ***
The Whipping Man **
Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown **
Blood Ties ***
Fellowship * 1/2
Fingers and Toes ** 1/2
Frog Kiss *** 1/2
The Great Unknown ** 1/2
Nighttime Traffic **
Our Country *
Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical ** 1/2
Show Choir **
Tess: The New Musical **
Without You *** 1/2
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.