I bought the soundtrack for The Book of Mormon on Broadway and listened to it at least twenty times before I was able to see the show. Despite my intimate knowledge of the songs, I was not prepared for the totality and spectacle of it. I knew The Book of Mormon would be funny, but I didn’t realize how subversive and intelligent it would be.
For those who don’t know, at 19 years old (or so), young Mormon men are sent as missionaries across the globe for a two year mission to create more Mormons. The musical follows two particular missionaries as they are dispatched to Uganda. “Elder” Price is the good looking, slim white boy while “Elder” Cunningham is an odd, not-up-to-par Mormon. Yes, in real life the Mormon Church labels adolescents as “elders.” The culture of Mormonism is as much a star of the show as the lead actors.
The musical’s opening number is set in clean, homogenous Salt Lake City but quickly moves to a violent and dangerous territory of Uganda. Once there, the two lead characters meet with other missionaries who are all working to convert the locals.
It’s a simplified plot, leaving plenty of room to explore poverty, homosexuality, and faith. At the center of the missionaries struggle is a debilitating kind of naïveté.
If Book of Mormon took only the cheap laughs, it would still be an unrivaled comedy. However, the musical goes one step better by spending the time to develop and humanize the Ugandans. Songs such as “Just Believe” and “Turn It Off” explore the somewhat odd Mormon faith, while “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (translated literally into “Fuck You, God”) and “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” explore the Ugandans opinion of god and their own social issues.
The song, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” is particularly moving. It is sung by a Ugandan, a young lady yearning for a better life. It shows emotion and depth in the same show that also features 12-inch dildos, which brings up another secret behind the show: Juxtaposition. The songs, longing, sexuality and profanity are all mixed together in a messy stew, best exemplified by the gap between clueless, suburban white kids and the population of sub-Saharan Africa. The show creators exist in this space, simultaneously humanizing and satirizing both the Mormons and Ugandans.
It’s quite a feat.
And, oh my, how religion is mocked. Jesus, disciples, angels and holy men of the Mormon faith are trotted out to make a point about religion, race and privilege. There has been some criticism of the show for picking on the “minority” religion of Mormonism. Let’s set aside the effort Mormons still take in discriminating against gay people and the fact that Mormons kept blacks from full participation in their religion until 1978—a fact played for uncomfortable laughs during the show—I would say Mormons come off looking almost good.
It’s also quite easy to poke fun at Mormons with their magic underwear and farcical origin story. More than anything, the religious suffers from a lack of obfuscation by antiquity that Catholics, for instance, take for granted.
I’ve seen other musicals with great social critique, particularly Billy Elliot and Cabaret (I’m a big fan of both). Yet The Book of Mormon stands as high or higher in my opinion, and the fun, whimsical quality of the music make the themes all the more subversive. You’re snapping your fingers to the catchy beats without realizing the horrendous blasphemy of the thing (if you believe in blasphemy, which I personally don’t). On this trip to New York I also saw Chicago and Phantom of the Opera—two great shows but with absolutely no social value, just a slight aftertaste of having been entertained. The Book of Mormon made my other choices seem all the more vacuous.
Despite the mockery, The Book of Mormon is less a condemnation of religion, than a somewhat sentimental apology for it. At the end of the production (not to give too much away) the Ugandans learn to appreciate and emulate the missionaries, if not the Mormon Church proper (you have to buy a ticket to get all the details). Sure, there’s the “Fuck You, God” number, but at the end of the show, the faith of many of the Africans and Missionaries is stronger than ever. This show is a far cry from an atheist manifesto (although I know that all of my atheist friends would love it).
My only complaint about The Book of Mormon is my feeling of slight sadness afterward, not because it missed expectations, but because it so exceeded them. I love musical theater (and offer a hearty fuck-off to any childhood-type bullies who might consider me less manly for it). I can’t imagine any musical beating the entertainment and social value of this one, ever. At forty years old, I’m sad to have already seen the best stage production ever made.