The general consensus regarding the new musical “The Book of Mormon” is that the show is not for the faint of heart. Reviews warn theatergoers that the production is vile, crude, and obscene. The mouths of audiences and critics everywhere dropped at its insensitive and foul-mouthed musical numbers. Many condemned it as disrespectful, distasteful, and undeserving of the nine Tony awards it has won since opening on Broadway in 2010. For the most part, I’d say that’s accurate. The Book of Mormon is wildly and unapologetically offensive. From scene one to curtain call, it is profane and politically incorrect, and I would argue without reservation that you should definitely go see it.
I saw the production at West End’s Prince of Wales Theater and went in with a cautious curiosity. I was curious because I haven’t met too many Mormons and know next to nothing about their practices, and cautious because I was skeptical that a musical written by the creators of South Park would paint the most accurate picture for me. And while I didn’t learn very much about LDS doctrine, I also didn’t feel like the show was trying to force feed me any particularly nasty ideas about Mormons. While audiences are perhaps encouraged to think critically about the origins of the Church (“All-American Prophet”), as well as some of the official policies it once held regarding race (“I Believe”) I didn’t think that the show was trying to make me think poorly of Mormons, nor did I leave feeling any contempt or scorn for their beliefs. In fact, the show plays heavily on the positive aspects of the stereotype of the Mormon missionary: a handsome, charming, and tremendously friendly young man (“Hello!”), who, if not slightly sexually repressed (“Turn It Off”), is committed to this faith and using it to help others.
It’s important to remember that writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone are using the Mormon faith as a platform from which they make a larger statement about human spirituality and the role of organized religion. While the pair admits that for them, the cheerful, almost tuneful dialogue of the Mormon missionaries lent itself to musical theater, I think the production’s message could have been communicated using any faith group.
The development of protagonist Elder Price was surprisingly fascinating to watch, I think because his character represents one of humankind’s more irritating qualities: our tendency to think that, as individuals or as members of a certain group, we are special and therefore exempt from ridicule. (A concept that Parker and Stone enthusiastically reject). In Act I, Elder Price is fixated on serving his two-year mission in sunny Orlando, Florida, and believes that if he prays hard enough, the Lord will send him to the land of sun, palm trees, and Disney World. (“Orlando”) He’s horrified when he’s instead called to serve in Uganda with clingy, nerdy, socially awkward Elder Cunningham as his companion. It quickly becomes apparent that Elder Price is there for all the wrong reasons (“You and Me (But Mostly Me)”). He’s more concerned with self-glorification than with helping the needy and until the end of Act II seems to think he’s excused from the challenges of being a missionary and with stepping out of his comfort zone. He suffers derision and shame as a result of his swollen ego, but manages to rally in the end (“Tomorrow is a Latter Day, Reprise.”)
Elder Price is just one of many exaggerated caricatures and stereotypes out of whom Parker and Stone have habitually taken the piss over the course of their careers. I’m not a South Park fan. Honestly, I find the characters’ voices incredibly irritating and it gives me a headache. (“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” was one point when the show’s acerbic humor caved in to the same kind of boyish goofiness). That being said, I do admire their fearless, take-no-prisoners attitude towards comedy: everything is fair game. They’ve poked fun at every major religious institution. The political left is subject to just as much criticism as the right. Celebrities from Barbara Streisand to Mickey Mouse to Tom Cruise have felt the keen sting of the duo’s deprecating humor. Nothing and no one is exempt from their mockery, and in that that sense, everyone is equal. Everyone is held to the same standard, a standard that forbids anybody from taking themselves too seriously.
So, should you hesitate before bringing any of your squeamish or deeply religious relatives to see the show? Probably. However, despite the heaviness of the topics it covers (poverty, female genital mutilation, AIDS, bestiality, and loud, in-your-face racism) the play’s message is a genuinely thought-provoking one. It makes you laugh, cringe, and ask yourself some truly challenging questions all at the same time.