Since its opening, the Book of Mormon musical has been surrounded by controversy over its degree of vulgarity, its treatment of Mormons, and various other issues. It has also been tremendously popular in the US and abroad, notably sweeping the Tony Awards. It’s natural to ask whether it’s just fluff appealing to the lowest common denominator or whether there’s some substance there — and if there’s substance, let’s tease it out and have a look.
Welker and Shaw’s book Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon does just that. They’ve collected a remarkable set of original essays by various authors analyzing every facet of the play including its treatment of Mormon culture and beliefs, its treatment of Africans and women, its messages about faith in general, its use of bawdy humor, its illustration of Joseph Smith’s techniques and trajectory through the character of Elder Cunningham, and many other points.
Even for those of us who have been following the online discussion of this musical, there are plenty of fascinating new ideas in this collection. In the discussions I’ve read online, the consensus has generally been that the errors in the portrayal of Mormonism are small and superficial, especially compared with the deeper cultural themes the play got right. Some essays in this book expand upon that point, but I think the book really shines when the authors go beyond the obvious question of “Is it fair to Mormons?” and start to tackle its treatment of other groups. Here’s a taste:
As Max Perry Mueller writes in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, “Say what you will about the accuracy of the ‘Africans’ depicted in The Lion King musical, at least ‘Hakuna Matata’ actually means something in Swahili.” “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is akin to a modern Broadway musical, set (for example) in China, including a number entitled “Ching Chong Bing Bong”—-an unthinkable occurrence. Yet, because this is Africa, this cultural appropriation receives a pass from its predominantly white audience.
More shocking and upsetting still was seeing Nabulungi reduced to an accessory—not someone who assists in accomplishing an action, like an accessory to a crime, but in the sense of being an object that completes an outfit. Nabulungi does something that’s a punch line in “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”: she literally stands next to [Elder Cunningham] and watches.
One of the running jokes in the musical is the white Mormon missionaries’ ignorance about Africa — yet ironically the musical itself is just as ignorantly Eurocentric, treating Africa and Africans as cardboard cut-outs whose real-life counterparts are irrelevant and uninteresting to the (white) audience. As much as I want to love this play for how well it nailed so many aspects of Mormon culture that I remember from my Mormon upbringing, I can’t overlook its blind spots and treat them as minor issues. I’m glad to see that this book gives those questionable points some serious scrutiny.
I’d like to thank the editors and authors of this book for their insights. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys textual analysis and has an interest in the musical.
[disclosure note: I am listed in the acknowledgements of this book for having provided some feedback on one of the essays.]