Everyone says the Book Of Mormon is fantastic. They’re right.
Theatre | by Lisa Johnson
The Book Of Mormon
They call The Book of Mormon a satire because it reflects real life in a way that makes us laugh, but the Tony-award winner for Best Musical (2011) isn’t about laughing at Mormons. It is a full-tilt comedy, complete with references to bestiality and a little blasphemy (just like the Old Testament!), but ultimately, the narrative is less about scorn and more about compassion.
“Honestly, for the most part it’s a celebration of religion,” says cast member Cody Jameson Strand, who plays Elder Arnold Cunningham. “It’s like a roast. The show puts a magnifying glass on all organized religion and sort of makes it okay for people to laugh at themselves more than anything.”
The story follows Elder Kevin Price and Elder Cunningham as they chase the Mormon dream, graduating from their Disneyfied Training Centre in Utah and travelling to a remote village in Uganda to preach door-to-door (“‘cause God loves Mormons and wants some more!”).
Alas, it’s not everything they dreamed it would be and the young missionaries soon find the locals far too burdened with their own, very serious shit (starvation, disease, a terrifying local warlord) to convert to the church. The straight-laced hero Elder Price experiences a crisis of faith, and his hapless sidekick Elder Cunningham (who literally cannot be left alone except to use the washroom, as per mission rule #72) gets a little too creative with the Word of the Heavenly Father in an attempt to connect with his audience.
Misguided, cross-cultural hijinks ensue, including the dream song “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”, about an imaginary paradise, “the most beautiful place on earth”: Salt Lake City.
It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story, but it veers into totally original and slightly mischievous territory right from the start. You won’t forget the only song that comes close to a love song, “Baptize me” — a song Strand says he hasn’t used to seduce a date. “…But I might have to start,” he says.
(Then again, this might be one of those bits that doesn’t translate from the fantastical world of musical theatre into real life.)
Even if you get caught off guard by the naughtiness, you’ll be thoroughly entertained.
“The show is too funny to ignore….if you haven’t figured it out by now, [creators] Matt Stone and Trey Parker are masters of satire. They’ve found the perfect formula. It’s easy to bring up very real topics in a very real drama, but they illuminate such horrible things happening in the world today through such joy and laughter that it makes these awful situations impossible to ignore,” says Strand.
We don’t only have Stone and Parker to thank, though. Robert Lopez, the man behind the hit Broadway puppet musical Avenue Q and the soundtrack to Disney’s Frozen, teamed up with the South Park creators to create The Book of Mormon, because, as they have said, they all love Mormons. (Stone and Parker have also said that field trips to Salt Lake City, the home of the Church, inspired much of the material.)
It’s no coincidence their paths crossed: Lopez had been motivated to create Avenue Q after watching South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.
As Elder Cunningham, Strand features in the best numbers. Not only does he get “Baptize me”, he also sings “Man Up”, an ’80s stadium anthem that takes the crucifixion of Jesus and turns it into a pre-game pump-up. Blessed with such awesome material, it’s no wonder Strand has an appreciation for Stone and Parker’s writing.
So, what’s his favourite South Park episode?
“Probably the episode where Cartman makes a kid eat his own parents. What does that say about me?” he jokes.
Sure, that episode synopsis might seem a little macabre — but maybe that’s the magic of transposition. In a cartoon, like a musical, everything can be magical!
Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, the musical actually fulfills a very important Mormon mission: to introduce the faith to non-Mormons. In some cities, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has used the show as an opportunity to hand out literature and talk to play-goers. It even placed ads in the Broadway production’s playbill.
Some of the show’s most hilarious moments playfully trumpet the main tenets of the Church without actually cracking any jokes. There’s the mythological backstory, for example, including prophet Joseph Smith’s mysterious and secreted golden tablets, his Bible: Part III, and the existence of a planet for Jesus, all presented with an ecstatic, infectious zeal that somehow makes it funny. There, too, are the most controversial elements of the Church’s theology (such as the racism and homophobia), translated into flamboyant Rodgers and Hammerstein-style song and dance. For example, “Turn it Off”, in which one character sings about suppressing his homosexuality, is terribly tragic, but it’s also one of the most gleeful songs in the play, and manages to deliver one of the most memorable punchlines.
You might call The Book of Mormon a commentary on the relationship between religious faith, which so easily can be convoluted, and the reality of everyday life, with all of its messy complications. And, for all of its theological skewering, the Book of Mormon leads us to a very feel-good revelation: that people should be good to one another.
But before anybody gets too high and mighty about moral lessons, let’s not forget that the whole show is very, very fun. Even the costumes are a joke. Look for licence plates in the Ugandan women’s bonnets, or kitschy lion-print blankets in their wardrobe. Perhaps the show is as popular as it is because it lets some hot air out — and by Zeus! we live in a balloon of extreme religious seriousness, from the atheistic end of the spectrum to the other. At the very least, it testifies to the power of uplifting stories – however unbelievable or metaphorical they might be.
“In the end, audiences leave with a beautiful and unifying message of love,” says Strand. See? It’s just good, wholesome cathartic fun.