The Book of Mormon is a highly offensive, funny, incredibly observant musical which will leave the audience clutching their stomachs in laughter, disgust, and wonder. One might not expect the creators of an animated TV show to be able to translate their art to the Broadway stage, but Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone have done just that.
The story follows two young Mormon missionaries as they travel to Africa: Elder Price, the poster child of the faith who is determined to convert an entire village despite his confusion that his flawless childhood has not enticed God to send him to his dream assignment in Orlando, and incompetent, geeky Elder Cunningham, a compulsive liar who is determined to become Price’s best friend. Upon arrival, they find a land more concerned with surviving war, famine, poverty, and AIDS than hearing about their religion. Under such brutal circumstances, Price’s works-driven faith falters after a failed attempt to convert a violent General and he wallows in a caffeinated stupor while well-meaning Cunningham tries to reach the village himself, filling in the many gaps of his knowledge with references to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and other fictional references which the villagers believe. Inspired by Cunningham’s words, they are all baptized. This attracts the attention of the Mormon Mission President. Everything looks promising until the villagers perform for the Elders the outlandish, often offensive skewed stories of the faith Cunningham had made up. Through this play, their ignorance is revealed along with the failure of Cunningham to teach them the proper tenets of Mormonism. In the end, although they are left defenseless against the General, they manage to scare him off using the same sort of outlandish stories to threaten him and pressure him into converting as well. Price is awakened from his stupor, assuming this entire exercise has been a lesson precisely for him that it doesn’t matter what he believes as long as he believes something that is able to help people. The village then starts a crusade to reach the rest of Africa with the fourth revelation, “The Book of Arnold (Cunningham).”
The musical numbers live up to the extraordinary quality expected of Broadway shows. The musical was well performed with clever lyrics striking at truths as big as their sound no matter how humorous their intent. The song, “Hello,” presents a comical, yet accurate montage of the Mormon evangelism method, which anyone who has been visited by a Mormon will recognize. Another deeper truth is found in “You and Me (but Mostly Me),” a song that not only characterizes Elder Price, but points to an individualistic mindset shared by many. The number “Turn It Off” shares the strategy the Mormons use to deal with everything from depression to homosexual thoughts, though its effectiveness is illustrated as dubious at best if the sufferer does not actually deal with the problem. “I am Africa” expresses the supposed oneness the Mormons are able to share with the villagers despite their many differences and is sung prematurely enough that the audience can recognize the American mentality of fixing “less civilized” cultures and imposing the American way on others whether or not that culture wants to follow Western ways.
The sets and costumes were unforgettable. From the stereotypical white shirt, black ties, and nametags of the Mormons to the tribal village set and the elaborate Devil costume and multi-layered set used in the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” scene, everything was deliberately planned. Especially notable is the quick and flawless costume change during a few minutes of blackout during “Turn it off” after which the missionaries are suddenly dancing in sequined pink vests; a moment of sheer theater delight.
Despite its obvious theatrical merits, this is not a musical that offers thoughtless entertainment and should be approached cautiously, with the expectation of being insulted. Especially offensive is the song “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” in which the villagers blaspheme God over and over again to cheer themselves up. Though, when we are honest, this is a natural response of fallen man to want to curse God when faced with impossibly difficult situations. This does not make it the proper response, however, and can be offensive to all those who worship God. Another overly explicit part was the lengthy “Joseph Smith, American Moses” song which details the gritty and inappropriate stories Elder Cunningham had made up to deter the Africans from other atrocities such as raping babies and female circumcision. Though it was necessary to further the plot and reveal the deception to the board of Elders, it could have been far shorter and less explicit. These are only the most glaring pieces, the intent of the whole play is to shock the audience to some extend and create discomfort within the current status quo of evangelism and to caricature and ridicule the overly religious. Put these goals in the hands of the writers of South Park, who draw no lines and you would expect to get a musical as crude as the Book of Mormon. A viewer must be prepared to deal with this.
But there are positive lessons to be learned through these caricatures as well. The Christian observer will recognize that the thinly disguised, gross vanity of the self-righteous Elder Price is not a mentality found only in the Mormon community, but common to Christians as well. His unfeeling, prideful way of approaching the poverty-stricken village is the way Christians often come off, as the villagers recall “Other missionaries have come before, and then they leave. Nothing changes!” This is an indictment on the arrogance found in Christian evangelism as well; not that the gospel message is unimportant in the face of a stricken nation, but that it is most effectively shared through relationships and humility, realizing that it is God that does the work, not our well intentioned formulas.
The deeply seated human need to believe in something is the ultimate punch line of the musical, and though it is missing the saving knowledge of what must be believed in, it is entirely correct. Through musicals like this, we see that people are so hungry for a hope bigger than themselves but are readily deceived by half truths and false promises as are given in real life by the Mormons, not just the lies of Elder Cunningham in the musical. This musical should make hurt the Christian’s heart, not because of the obscenity used in the medium of the telling, but because, at the conclusion, though the characters feel that they have grown, they are still so far from Christ. Like the Mormons who have embraced this musical and used it in advertizing to encourage the public to learn more, Christians should be aware of the desire for salvation and use it to share Christ, the only path to true salvation.