“A celebration of Mormonism by guys who aren’t Mormon,” is how South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone describe their new musical written with Bobby Lopez, “The Book of Mormon”, scheduled to open this week on Broadway. And if you can jump a few hurdles, I’d have to agree with their summation.
The theater was packed, and I was as interested to see who would pay the big bucks for this type of entertainment. Searching my fellow theater patrons for the tell-tale lines in their clothing, I found none. I looked for those who weren’t drinking alcohol, but that wasn’t helpful either. I honestly don’t know who the intended audience was, because the show was definitely too vulgar for a PG-13 audience, but neither was it anti-Mormon.
Sure, it was irreverent in traditional South Park-esque style. But the jabs at Mormonism paled in comparison to the irreverence to the very real plight of Ugandans dealing with war lords, a population nearly debilitated by the spread of AIDS and the horrific practice of female mutilation.
Rather than worry that we were being poked fun of, as a Mormon, I felt we had arrived. The humor towards us was good-natured and the story gave props to Mormons and religion in general that I just didn’t anticipate going in. The parts I found would offend my fellow Mormons the most were the casual use of the F-bomb and crass sexual references much more than any joke about our religion.
By show’s end, the Mormons were seen as people whose stories encourage their believers to “be nice to everyone” and “stand together.” There are humorous references made to Mormon guilt (the “Mormon hell dream” scene) and cognitive dissonance (“turn your feelings off like a light” scene), but they are friendly jokes made without anger or bitterness. Even a scene which compared a first baptism for a missionary to his first sexual experience was pretty tamely done and only proved the import of the ordinance within the Mormon faith.
Most funny to me were references which had to be written just for Mormons. From the names of the Elders being so traditionally LDS (Cunningham, Price, Davis, etc) to the Utah icons seen on the set (Zions Bank and Crown Burgers restaurant), the inside jokes were abundant. Elder Cunningham is admonished for not using the set discussions, Elder Price speaks of believing God lives on Kolob or hoping Heavenly Father shakes his hand to tell him what a great life he’d lived, while Elder McKinley substitutes O-M-Gosh for OMG, and extra effort by everyone is used to include Latter Day Saint when mentioning the Church. Hysterically funny to a Mormon, but these quips seemed meaningless to anyone outside the culture.
And when they referenced practices Mormons find more sacred, I found Parker, Stone and Lopez using particular restraint. Perhaps the most telling is a scene where the Elders get ready for bed. They are wearing garments, but the long underwear shown is clearly a symbol rather than an imitation when, let’s face it, it wouldn’t have been too hard to come up with the real thing. It’s a very subtle reference when full-on mocking would have been easy to come by. That’s generally the spirit with this show.
As I stood with a cheering audience at the end to applaud the efforts of the actors, orchestra and everyone else involved, I felt a connection to those who had written it and at the same time a sense of melancholy that those who could appreciate it the most would likely not be able to get past the assumption that it’s anti-Mormon and the South Park style humor factor to enjoy it.
And mostly I felt sadness that it takes people completely outside of my faith to see where the power of Mormonism lies. From watching the play, it appears that the creating trio actually respect Mormonism, but not for traditional reasons. It’s not the historicity of its claims and the exactness of its practices being celebrated, but rather, it’s the inspiring source Mormonism provides in the lives of its believers that proved to be the underlying theme of the show.
Though we laughed as an audience together throughout, this theme was not lost to the irreverent humor. On the streets of New York I overheard people speculate about how funny the musical was rumored to be. But after the show there was a palpable energy and admiration for not only its humor but its brilliant exploration into religion and the words of Elder Price, “I believe.”