Last Friday I saw the musical “Book of Mormon” at the Bass Concert Hall on the UT campus. Before I say anything about the play, let me give my clear, unambiguous opinion:
If you have the opportunity to see Book of Mormon, see it!!!!
If you can’t, buy the soundtrack instead. More thoughts below.
Qualification for the above advice: I’m predisposed to love this show. First of all, I already love musicals. I was raised on Gilbert and Sullivan since I was a kid. I’ve sung in a chorus for many years. I’ve seen “Phantom of the Opera” live four times. Book of Mormon was written primarily by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame — I like South Park, and loved the movie and its soundtrack especially. And finally, I love blasphemy. If any of these conditions do not apply to you, take that into account when deciding whether you would enjoy the show.
Here’s what I found interesting: In the middle of the program booklet was a huge, four page ad for the Mormon church. It said, “If you’ve seen the play, the book is even better!” Now, I haven’t read much of the Book of Mormon myself, but I’m pretty sure that it isn’t true. Even the play itself has a line where somebody says “I haven’t read it! I tried to but it’s SO boring!!”
But the fact that Mormons were willing to advertise in the playbill brings up an interesting point: What DO Mormons generally think about it? And is this a well-informed opinion, or not? I had heard, going into the show, that Mormons love it as much as non-believers do. That the authors managed to successfully walk the line between good natured ribbing and being genuinely sweet, sympathetic, and honest about the Mormon faith.
Now that I’ve seen the show, all I can say is: If any Mormons really like this show, they must be really liberal Mormons. And also, they are probably overlooking what I see as The Point at the end of the story. They’d have to be liberal because the show is totally obscene — very much on par with Stone and Parker’s other works, like the South Park movie and Team America. It has LOTS of bad words. It has massive sexual innuendo. In some cases it has actual rape jokes — although, as other before me have noted, there are ways to make rape jokes successfully, and IMHO this show pulls it off. I just don’t see a Mitt Romney or an Orson Scott Card having a sense of humor about this, at all. So I think that knocks a lot of Mormons out of the running right away. It isn’t even because they’re Mormon. I can’t imagine Bill Donohue, professional Catholic fussbudget, enjoying it either.
I’m going to sum up the story in a nutshell, but I’m going to stay away from details as much as I can so as not to spoil the enjoyment for people who haven’t seen it yet. However, I expect that the comments will wind up containing complete unmarked spoilers, so here’s your
in advance: feel free to read this entire post, but don’t read the comments unless you’re okay with hearing the ending.
So we have a couple of adorably naive Mormon kids, ready to go on their “mission” — every Mormon teen travels somewhere to witness to people. “Elder Price” is a hardworking school superstar, with a big ego, who believes he will change the world. “Elder Cunningham” is a misfit fat kid who doesn’t understand the material (the “so boring” line is his of course) and also has a habit of making up stories on his own.
The kids draw the short straw and are sent to Uganda. Uganda sucks. It is a comically horrible place to live in all kinds of ways. The superstar is disillusioned and has a breakdown of sorts; the lying screwup is forced to preach a gospel that… let’s say, bears very little resemblance to the real Book of Mormon. But the natives are sold on this new story, so they cheerfully incorporate his version of the religion into their culture.
Along the way, there are a few songs that explain — in a reasonably direct way — the real story told in the Book of Mormon. This is done with kind of a knowing wink about the obvious absurdities of the story. It’s not quite on the same level as the South Park episode about Mormons, in which a chorus sang “Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb!” after every line, and one character directly says that Mormons must be a bunch of idiots. But it comes from the same place. It’s meant to be laughed at.
By the end, there’s an obvious parallel drawn between the fake version of the story that Elder Cunningham tells, and the fairly fake story about an angel bearing golden plates, that Joseph Smith told in the first place.
End of synopsis
It’s this last bit that I find it hard to believe Mormons don’t find insulting. When I wrote a review of Life of Pi earlier this year, I thought the message of the movie was summed up by the sentiment at the end: “I prefer to believe the story that is more beautiful. And so it goes with God.”
This is kind of what the characters in Book of Mormon believe at the end. But the message in this play is clearly delivered with a more cynical edge. The natives genuinely seem happier and more hopeful because of the religious story they have been told. But the story is clearly, unambiguously, a massive pile of bullshit. Even the few true bits of the story are embellished so much that one of the more savvy Ugandans observes, “Of course Salt Lake City isn’t a real place! It’s a metaphor!”
Which is cute, if you are the sort of person who believes that just having faith in something is enough to make you a better person, and it makes no difference what you believe or how true it is.
But your average Mormon doesn’t think the book should be taken that way… do they? A song that Elder Price sings goes sort of like this:
I Believe! That God lives on a planet called Kolob.
I Believe! That Jesus has his own planet as well.
And I Believe! That the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri!
I am a Mormon,
And a Mormon just believes!
You can see that these beliefs are laid out in a way to emphasize their stupidity. But if you’re a real Mormon, you had better genuinely believe this is true, hadn’t you? Salt Lake City isn’t just a metaphor, and neither is Kolob. If you don’t understand the Book of Mormon as a true story, then it’s no more useful than a story about Ewoks and hobbits.
So I wonder what Mormons are thinking when they say they like this show. I found this one useful article, titled, “What do Mormons think about ‘The Book of Mormon’?”
Here are some excerpts from the interviews:
“I haven’t seen it… I’m not upset by it and I’m not in any way, shape or form against it.”
“It’s a good thing for the community and Utah in general. No, I don’t [know what's in the show].”
“I don’t know it… I read a review on it… There are certain parts of the world where, if you make fun of their religious beliefs, it would be chaos. But we’re not that way, of course!”
This is all anecdotal, of course, but it kind of sounds to me like the Mormons who claim to like the show, mostly haven’t seen it and don’t want to. Rather, there’s this general sense that reacting to “Book of Mormon” with outrage and protests, would be bad. Probably has something to do with the Streisand Effect — “an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.” In the case of this show, it’s already been pretty well publicized. But still, the Mormons don’t want to seem like bad sports, so they laugh it off and just roll with it by buying advertisements.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that’s great. I’m glad that secular backlash against religious finger-wagging is now such a grave threat that they’d rather just remain silent and be good sports about it. I call that progress.
At the end of the day, I think Parker, Stone, and company have come out with an enjoyable and thoroughly blasphemous work of art. It made me laugh, it made me think, and it’s gotten great press. And it did all this while promoting the message that even religion’s successes are nothing more than silly people sitting around telling totally implausible, crazy stories. Kudos to them.