I applied for a summer writing grant in the Fall and promised myself I would use some of the money to go see the new Book of Mormon musical if I got it. Well, I haven’t heard about the grant yet, but I was planning a trip to Connecticut to do some work with some colleagues and decided that it would be worth the trip to NYC to see the play. It was!!!
First, it was nearly impossible to get tickets. I tried buying them online a week in advance, but the website said they were sold out. My friend who went with me and I went to the box office early in the day to see if there were any tickets available and there were a few left, but they were crappy seats. Knowing I probably wouldn’t get another chance, we went with them. It didn’t really matter – crappy seat or not, it was a very good production. But, just an FYI for anyone planning on going – buy your tickets well in advance!
As far as my review goes, keep in mind I’m not a regular visitor to Broadway. In fact, this is the first show I’ve seen on Broadway. I’ve seen other Broadway shows on tour, but not many of those, either. So, I’m not really much of an expert as far as these things go.
But I can tell you what I thought…
First, a run down of the plot. (SPOILER ALERT!!!)
Elder Cunningham, a chubby, annoying, self-esteem-lacking, pathological liar without any friends, and Elder Price, the perfect Mormon missionary – good-looking, faithful, arrogant, self-righteous, and full of enthusiasm – are assigned to be companions in the MTC (I’ll note what they got wrong below) and then sent to Uganda. They arrive in Uganda to find the people in squalor and misery, afraid of a local warlord who is running around killing and raping. The Ugandans can do naught but throw up their arms and voices in despair and curse god (quite literally, in a song titled “F*ck you, God!”). Elders Cunningham and Price, naive as can be, are sent to convert them to Mormonism. But they are not the only missionaries in the country. Another half dozen are already there and have had no luck converting the “natives”, both because the natives are actually wise to them and because they are too busy dealing with their own problems, like their homosexual attractions and terrible home lives, which they conveniently deal with by simply “turning off” their emotions and pretending to be happy.
Elder Price, who is self-righteous, pompous, and arrogant, thinks he can make a difference where the other Elders have failed. But his arrogance just turns the Ugandans off. Frustrated, he begins to doubt and wants to be sent to a different mission. Elder Cunningham, meanwhile, feeling betrayed by Elder Price, decides to “man up” and teach them himself. It helps that Nabulungi, the local leader’s daughter, thinks he can help the village by taking them all to the mystical “Salt-e Lake City,” where the streets are paved with gold and they won’t have their clitorises cut off or be raped. There’s just one problem – Elder Cunningham doesn’t know the slightest thing about the Book of Mormon or Mormonism. So, as a pathological liar, he makes up all sorts of stories that loosely follow the outlines of Mormonism, but involve some rather sordid interactions between Joseph Smith, babies, frogs, feces in water, dysentery, the starship Enterprise, Moroni, and penises. Amazingly, it works. The villagers are converted and are baptized. Their conversion gives them the strength to stand up to the bully warlord, who is also converted in the process. When Elder Price realizes Elder Cunningham succeeded where he failed, he realizes the great truth of the play: it doesn’t really matter whether religion is true or not, just that it helps people. He is once again able to “just believe” and the other missionaries follow suit, deciding to stick it out in Uganda and do their best to help the locals.
As far as the quality of the show and performance go, it was superb. The music, acting, singing, staging, and choreography were all very good (there were some weak spots in the choreography, but that’s just me being a dance snob). Otherwise, I was very impressed. The performers were excellent, well-cast, and convincing. It is a very solid, entertaining show. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s funny… Very, very funny! I probably laughed more than anyone in the theater because: (1) I laughed at all the obvious jokes; I’m easily entertained now that I spend 95% of my time reading academic articles and books; (2) I laughed at all the Mormon themed jokes that most people got; and (3) I laughed at all the Mormon themed jokes that no one else got.
This leads me to an interesting point. My friend who went with me asked me during the intermission how many of the people in attendance were Mormon. I guessed that very few were as Mormons would likely be turned off by the very idea of a play about their religion by the creators of South Park. I said that there might be some Mormons who could stomach it (more on the crassness below), but there wouldn’t be that many. Ex-Mormons would love it as they would get the jokes and could laugh at their old religion. But I also didn’t think most of the people there were in those two categories (there aren’t enough X-Mormons, yet!). Before I could say why I thought people were attending, a woman sitting in front of us turned to us and explained why she was there (I was actually quite glad she was listening in on our conversation). She is a Catholic from the southern US. She knows of Mormonism and has had missionaries stop by her house, but she doesn’t know much about the religion. Even so, that’s not why she was attending. She loves Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s work and thought the play would be entertaining. My guess is that is why most people are attending – it’s a very entertaining play by two tremendous entertainers. The music is catchy; the writing is witty; and the story is engaging. What’s not to like?!?
Well, what won’t be liked by any Mormons who get up the gumption to attend is the profanity, blasphemy, and crudity. Every curse word you can think of is used, and some are key elements in songs. Feces, genitalia, rape, child rape, female genital mutilation, frog rape, bestiality, and maggots in a scrotum all play prominent roles. Yet, it works. The use of profanity is partially for effect (it is used at times for cheap laughs) but it is also thematically relevant and generally not gratuitous. So, the biggest threat to Mormon sensibilities is actually the language, not the plot or take home message. Speaking of which, the primary take home message, while not really favorable to Mormons, really shouldn’t be seen as all that offensive to them and, frankly, is a lesson they could well-afford to heed:So long as people are trying to do good and don’t take their beliefs too seriously, it doesn’t matter what they believe or even how they go about doing the good. Be nice, help people, and believe whatever silliness you want. Stone and Parker just want people to be nice to each other.
I’ve read several other reviews since I attended, and none of them have been by Mormons or former Mormons, so I figure I should mention a couple things they got wrong (none of which really matter, but Mormons will notice them). First, the play opens with the missionaries in the MTC, but they don’t know where they are going yet. Yeah, that’s not how it works. Also, the missionaries are assigned their permanent companions in the MTC as well – they are told they will be with them for two years. Oops! (And, frankly, thank the COB that is not the actual policy; I would not have made it through had I had some of my companions more than a month.) The missionaries wear one-piece garments, which is pretty old school, but not technically inaccurate (though I don’t know if they even sell those anymore). I wasn’t close enough to the stage to see if they had the symbols sown into the garments, but I don’t think so. They have some silly notion of a “Mormon hell dream,” that I’ve never heard of, but it’s a funny scene, so, again, it doesn’t matter that it’s not based on reality. The Assistants to the Mission President of Uganda kept saying “Praise Christ,” which I’ve never heard a Mormon utter, ever. I think those are most of the mistakes…
As far as what they got really, really right… They mock Disney’s Lion King incessantly (that’s what the missionaries were expecting), but it’s fitting given the Mormon fascination with all things Disney and their naivete about the world. There is a song (noted above) about “turning off bad feelings”, which is basically about hiding true feelings. I’ve never been more creeped out then when I was visiting a friend’sfiancein Provo and she never frowned or even stopped smiling. She was HAPPY; always creepily HAPPY! They got that right! Their subtle humor relating to Mormon homosexuality was keenly insightful. And the naivete exhibited by the missionaries was pretty accurate. So, I’d call it a wash on the issue of accurately portraying the religion.
My overall conclusion… If I had to put this up against the only other Broadway plays I have seen (Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Spamalot), I’d say it is better than Spamalot but not quite as good as the other two – an 8.5 to 9 out of 10.
X-Mormons – go see it. You’ll laugh. A lot!!!