Guest Post: by Ian — An Early Review of The Book of Mormon Musical.
This past Monday I had quite the Family Home Evening—I saw a preview performance of the new BOM Musical. I was in NYC for work and wasn’t going to miss my chance.
Cutting to the chase, the show is amazing.
To paraphrase Parker and Stone, who wrote this musical, the Latter-Day Saints present a perfect case study of two competing principles, each of which seem paradoxically true:
- religion is based on absurd, verifiably false truth-claims that lead adherents to all sorts of ridiculous and often harmful conclusions; and
- those same faith traditions produce meaning, hope and positive change in the world and the life of the believer, even amidst the starkest examples of theodicy and pain.
The BOM Musical lived up to this thesis. It will be appreciated by many, but none more so than by unorthodox Mormons, followed closely by the disaffected and reformed of other traditions. By the end of the show, there is a clear call to see past the literalism and orthodoxy of those running the institutionalized religion, to embrace metaphor, and to make the faith your own. This is of course, by some measures, the genesis of all faith traditions. It turns out that Mormonism, with its American Prophet, is a classic break from orthodoxy; an embellished, made-contemporary form of Christianity, recast for localized norms and needs. (“Did you know Jesus came to America?”). The BOM itself is so very 19th Century. For the purposes of exploring Stone and Parker’s thesis in a comical, scatological way, Mormonism works beautifully.
I am no theater critic, but the music and dance in the BOM Musical were tons of fun. For this reason alone I won’t be surprised if it is a wild success. The “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” was so NOT Mormon, yet wildly funny (Johnny Cochrane and Starbucks Coffee are right there in hell with Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer). There was also a spot-on number about cognitive dissonance (“Turn it Off!”). You could tell who among the crowd had a Mormon identity (or past identity) because they were the people laughing the hardest at this one.
I’ll admit that for all my liberated and apostate-lite views, I cringed at times. A scene mocking a convert baptism brought back a flood of emotional experiences from my mission. As funny as it was, the scene bothered me. I just instinctively recoiled. As far along as I am in my disaffection and unbelief, it was amazing how viscerally “wrong” some of it still struck me (suggesting I have more Mormonism in my bones still than I thought). But that is really the South Park comedy mojo. I wasn’t expecting anything different. In the Tolstoy, evocative sense of the term, the show is real Art. Make no mistake, this is not a musical for your orthodox, True Believing Mormon family and friends.
In the end, I died laughing, which in my opinion is half the battle for any musical (Confession: I usually only see musicals when forced to by my wife). There was something so very cathartic and thrilling about alligator-tear laughing at an exaggeration of my past-self in a crowded Broadway theater. So much of the LDS missionary experience is there, even if its in melodramatic, gross terms. The silly sentimentalism and earnestness of Mormonism works perfectly for this story.
I walked back to my hotel after the show feeling like I had been laughing for 2 hours. I also felt surprisingly inspired. (Almost as inspired as I felt earlier that day at a real latter-day temple, the MoMA). For me the BOM Musical was faith promoting, albeit in a New Order Mormon kind of way. I wanted to reconnect with my own inner-Elder Price, notwithstanding all the pain, absurdity and evil I see. And yes, I get that principle number 2. above is anything but clear cut. (Along those lines, my favorite line of the show: “I still have maggots in my scrotum!”). But I still want to believe.
Other than being way more fun, seeing this show was ultimately like being in an LDS Church on any given Sunday—I was both offended and inspired. I had to remind myself, it’s just a show. And its just Church.
Ian is a 5th generation Mormon. He is still not sure how he feels about that. He lives in Dallas and practices law by day (and often by night). He served an LDS mission to Santiago, Chile, in the late 1990’s.