Sunday, January 6, 2013

Book of Mormon (Musical): Laughter, shock. and awe!

Ten months ago I coordinated a group purchase of tickets to "The Book of Mormon" show, and Friday night we finally got to see it! It's quite a coup for Portland, Oregon, to have such a relatively new, hit Broadway show come to our smallish city. I have never seen South Park, but I have always been interested in religious satire and am a bit fascinated with the Mormon church. So I was in!

It didn't disappoint. As one of my friends said, "I alternated between laughter and shock for 2-1/2 hours." The show is not for anyone who is easily foul language, blasphemy, or bawdy humor. It's just about the farthest opposite you can get from "Les Miserables."

Even though it satirizes the Mormon church, it does so in a somewhat gentle way. No mention of polygamy, although Joseph Smith is portrayed having sex with a frog to cure his AIDS. Yes, you read that right.

It starts off with two Mormon missionaries (an uptight, Bishop wannabe Elder Price and a slacker Elder Cunningham) who are given their mission assignment. Elder Price has his heart set on going to Orlando, Florida, which he considers paradise on Earth. Elder Cunningham just wants to go anywhere for two years with a new friend who is required to be with him at all times and cannot run away from him. When they are leaving for the airport, their parents arrange for a "Lion King" tribute to send them off to Africa, showing the entire community's naivete and ignorance of what they would be facing.

Of course, Uganda is nothing like they'd imagined. Their suitcases are stolen as soon as they arrive at their post, and the villagers are saddled with poverty, AIDS, men who rape babies in the belief it will cure their AIDS, and a fierce, raiding general (General Butt-Fucking Naked) who wants all their females to be genitally mutilated. The natives cheer themselves up by singing a catchy song, "Hasa Diga Eebowai," which Elders Price and Cunningham are horrified to learn is translated to "Fuck You, God."

The missionaries attempt to be their most upbeat and optimistic, even when they realize that it will not be as easy as they first thought to baptize all of Africa. One of the funniest songs in the show is "Turn it Off," a song about how easy it is to repress sinful thoughts (like homosexuality) by turning it off like a lightbulb. The ever-attempting-to-be-pious (and vain) Elder Price's ambitions are dashed when the general shoots a villager in the head when he attempts to resist the general's demand for all the females to be circumcised. Elder Price cannot take it any more and decides to run away to Orlando.

Without his fearless leader in place, Elder Cunningham "mans up" and attempts to convert the villagers. The sweet, beautiful Nabulungi, who longs for a better life, gathers them together and dreams of paradise in "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" (Salt Lake City). However, Elder Cunningham has never actually read The Book of Mormon (too boring) and when he attempts to share its stories, the villagers find them completely irrelevant to their own trials and tribulations (such as maggots in one man's scrotum, which of course is all he cares about). Cunningham soon begins telling stories that actually appeal to the villagers' concerns (AIDS, female circumcision, dysentery, etc.), by using images from “Star Wars,” “The Hobbit,” and “Star Trek.” 
“People back then had even worse AIDS,” he explains. “Behold, the Lord said to Mormon Joseph Smith, ‘You shall not have sex with that infant.’ Lo, Joseph Smith said, ‘Why not, Lord?’ And thusly the Lord said, ‘If you lay with an infant you shall burn in the fiery pits of Mordor. A baby cannot cure your illness, Joseph Smith. I shall give unto you a frog,’ and thus Joseph Smith laid with the frog and his AIDS was no more.” 
Nabulungi is convinced and asks Cunningham to "Baptize Me," a song full of double entendres about the first time Cunningham does it "with a girl." In the meantime, Elder Price has the "Mormon Hell Dream" and decides to return to the village to save the day, only to learn that in fact his B-grade companion has converted the lost souls ahead of him.

Excited at the amazing progress made in Uganda, the Mormon mission president decides to pay a visit. When he arrives, the villagers surprise everyone by putting on a reenactment of the Book of Mormon as they understand it. Chaos ensues.

I've never been to a Broadway musical that made me laugh this much. Every song had humor. It skewered organized religion in general (and how out of touch missionaries can be with the day-to-day strife of the people they are evangelizing to), but in particular highlighted how preposterous and unbelievable the stories in the Book of Mormon are.

One of my favorite lines in the play was "I believe God changed his mind about black people in 1978." Here's a really interesting analysis of the show's song, "I Believe" (which the line is from), written by a Mormon and explaining how the show actually gets much of these beliefs right. Although I like his assessment, I have to say I disagree with this statement:
"Did members of the church make racist remarks about non-whites prior to 1978? You betcha. Really not nice remarks. Statements that make me personally very uncomfortable. But at the same time, I recognize that these people were just people." 
It's way more than just the "really not nice remarks" people said. Although racism and prejudice have prevailed in most religions, Mormonism is unique in that it was very late to the Civil Rights Era and claimed people of color had "the curse of Cain." Joseph Smith preached against slavery, but once he was out of the picture, Brigham Young preached discrimination against black people. In 1852, Young said, "any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] ... in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ I know it is true and others know it." Later he said "The Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood."

Until 1978, the church permitted black people to become members but denied them the priesthood, entrance to the temple, or celestial marriage. Essentially, they could become church members but they could NOT get into heaven...until 1978, when God changed "His" mind.

As Marty Hughley commented in the Oregonian, the only disappointing thing about the show was the difficulty to catch all the lyrics and words. Sometimes it was the Ugandan accents, sometimes it was the fast talking and singing, and sometimes it was just the cavernous Keller Auditorium. And sometimes it was the fact that my hearing is nearly nonexistent in my left ear!

It was great fun to go with a wide range of our community, made up of friends from the kids' schools, my cousin and his family, and friends from church. Everyone who saw the show in our group seemed to enjoy it. A friend's friend took her parents to see the show, and they were shocked and appalled (not in a good way).  Reading the reviews online, it's clear that some people hate it. Given the sell-out popularity of the show, I think  it's worth it for people to be aware of the content in advance. It's not for everyone...and better to sell your ticket at double the price you paid for it than to suffer through something shocking for you!

But for me, laughter, shock, and awe was just the ticket!

1 comment:

  1. It sounds hilarious, but I love irreverent humour and am not easily offended!