This is a review of the Book of Mormon Broadway show at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles on September 2012 which did not feature the original cast of the Broadway play. Unlike LDS commentators and bloggers who have given their thoughts about this play without having seen it, I have seen it.
The Book of Mormon Broadway show is one of the most awesome, thought provoking and wildly offensive show.
Lets get the obvious out of the way. This play was written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker who are well known for their deeply biting critique of everything. You shouldn't be surprised to that this is a play filled with swearing, sex jokes, scatological gags, and poking fun at religion, especially the LDS faith. Matt Stone and Trey Parker have poked fun at the LDS faith before with an episode dealing with the origins of Mormonism and a movie called Orgasmo which is about an LDS Missionary who becomes a porn star.
Like every other project these men have engaged in, they exert every ounce of creative energy they have to produce top notch entertainment. Yes, their entertainment is irreverent but its not cheap. There is a reason why they have won 9 Tony Awards and a nominated for a Grammy. The actors were fantastic. The set was phenomenal. The music was awesome. The lighting was done right. When it comes to the art of theater, Matt Stone and Trey Parker absolutely deserved these awards. It was very evident from what I observed at the play.
This play is about two young LDS Missionaries who have been called to serve in Uganda, Africa. One of the missionaries, Elder Price, is self centered overachiever who dreams of serving mission to Orlando, Florida. The other missionary is Elder Cunningham who is an awkward, chubby but funny person who yearns for a best friend. These two unlikely friends become companions. Once they arrive in Uganda, they find that other missionaries have been unsuccessful in sharing the gospel. They find a people who are more concerned about their everyday problems of malaria, AIDS, diarrhea, warlords, and poverty than they are about what peace this American gospel might bring to them now or in the afterlife. These Ugandans have a justified reason for saying "Hasa Diga Eebowai" (Fuck You God) which is the title of one of the songs in the play.
As a result of not getting a single baptism, Elder Price begins to feel frustrated and unhappy. The other missionaries (who are all very flamboyant) sing "Turn It Off" in which they advise him suppress his negative feelings. Unable to overcome his frustrations, Elder Price ditches his companion to wander off on his own. Meanwhile, Elder Cunningham, now without a companion, inadvertently begins to take creative liberties with Mormon doctrine and with what the Book ff Mormon teaches in order to win converts. He begins to make up things in order to address their everyday concerns and questions for which cannot be found in the Book of Mormon. As a result, Elder Cunningham has created a new religion which is a hybrid of Mormonism and his imagination which is filled with Star Wars, and the Lord of the Rings. With this new religion, he forbids the people from engaging in certain practices. Now, the missionaries are baptizing like crazy. This excites the Mission President and the local townspeople put on a play demonstrating what they've learned from Elder Cunningham which they sing the song "Joseph Smith American Moses." What the Mission President learns horrifies him and catches the other missionaries off guard. The Mission President is unhappy and threatens to shut the mission down.
While Elder Cunningham is off making converts, Elder Price is on a harrowing journey of what it means to be Mormon and what it is he really believes. He goes to hell in which he has a very "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" in which he sings about his sins. Elder Price finds his faith in hell and confronts the local warlord and sings about what "I Believe." The warlord, known as the General, takes Elder Cunningham and inflicts some pain on him. Having survived the torture, Elder Price shows up just as the Mission President is about to shut the mission down. He learns of what Elder Cunningham has been teaching and gets an idea. He confronts the warlord and threatens him with Divine Punishment based on Elder Cunningham's new religion. The General and his men flee. The people in this town of Uganda are happy that the Mormon helped them be free of this warlord. They sing a song titled "Tomorrow Is A Latter Day" with the Elders about a new and better tomorrow and say "Ma Ha Nei Bu, Eebowai." After that song, the show closes with a fabulous ending.
The play has takes some of the usual observations about religion and presents them in an interesting, thought provoking and sometime irreverent light. This would be a great play for those who study religions and philosophy.
This play is about a religion that has arrived in a new land filled with people who are facing problems that unique that region. The play goes on a journey of how that religion struggles to gain converts and some creative liberties were taken to get people to join the religion. It shows how it morphs into a new faith that is a hybrid of local beliefs and the original religion. This story is similar to the history of the Catholic faith in South America. It explores how ideas, beliefs and dreams are affected, shaped and changed by the land and people they are introduced to.
The Book of Mormon play also deals with the how people want to believe in a higher purpose but are more concerned about their everyday problems and how religion struggles in addressing it. Its not a problem unique to the most challenging parts of the world but in places that do not know war, hunger, disease and poverty. The song "Sal Tay Ka Siti" demonstrates how people want to rise above their circumstances and to place where such things don't exist either in this life or the next.
One of my favorite aspects of this play was how the missionary work changes the person teaching the gospel and the person receiving it and how it affects the relationship dynamics of proselytizer and investigator. It is an aspect that I don't often see addressed in stories about religions. Its also the most realistic part of the play in a play filled with humor, sarcasm, sex jokes, and scatological gags. It delivers moments that would make any Mormon proud with songs such as "I believe," and "Baptize Me."
One thing that I don't like about the play is when the missionaries (who are all very flamboyant) sing "Turn It Off" in which they sing about suppressing negative feelings and doubts. It doesn't really help the play in any way and I felt that it was an unneeded jab at religion.
Could Matt Stone and Trey Parker have made these points differently? Yes. For many Mormons, it is unfortunately that our ox got gored in this play. I can understand why some people of faith would be offended by this play. It pokes fun at religion. It also pokes fun at Mormonism. Thus, its not surprising why Mormons (and other faiths) would be upset by it and refuse to see it.
However, religion is a curious thing. It is bizzare. It is odd. It is funny. But its the people within the religion that make it is also spiritual, magical, and inspiring. That is Matt Stone and Trey Parker's message. Its also a topic worth exploring further because its a message that everyone needs to be reminded of because its applicable to everything else in life. Regardless of how we feel about religion, politics, business, or education, its the people that breathes life into those institutions we love or hate and create those touching and human moments within the framework of these institutions.