I'll do something incredible that blows God's freaking mind. - Elder Price
It's just a bunch of made-up stuff, but it points to something bigger. - Elder Price to Elder Cunningham
Eternal life is super fun. - Company
Book of Mormon is not just a musical vying for your ticket money in the West End, it's a full-blown cultural event. It opened in London last week, I caught one of the last previews and since then I can't stop talking about it. Neither can a lot of people who saw it. The two protagonists, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are young Mormon missionaries, sent to Uganda to gain converts through baptism.They succeed but the price of their success is their orthodoxy and maybe their faith. It is reverent and irreverent in the extreme. Faith is mocked and faith is admired.
When Matt Parker and Trey Stone were working on Team America, the puppet movie, they attended Avenue Q for ideas and fell in with Robert Lopez, Avenue Q's creator. After some intense hanging out, it turns out Parker and Stone as well as Lopez were interested in creating a musical about Joseph Smith and the Mormons. They opened in NY in 2011 and it rightfully won Tonys left and right, and with shrewd pricing, recapped the $9 million the investors had put into the show in under a year.
Every number in that show has a huge, go-for-broke feel. The choreography, well, thank god I can report that this choreography is big, clever and interesting. Casey Nicholaw can put together a dance that is aesthetically pleasing, impressive, feel-good, and completely post-modern. I saw Black Swann, Beyonce videos, 42nd Street, the Muppets and OK GO music videos in there. Plus serious tap dancing in an anthem to creating mental health problems called "Turn It Off". (Can anyone help me here? In our preview some of the tap dancing in that number took place in blackout - was this a mistake or intended? I think a mistake (it looked like some black out effect wasn't working) but my husband thinks it was intended. So only let me know if it was a mistake)
Here's the thing for me with the songs and this was true in Enron too. Uneven. Not like that is a bad thing. It's just that three of the songs were SO GOOD they almost transcended the musical genre. Hello!, Hasa Diga Ebowai and Turn It Off are so profound, surprising and entertaining that it was going to be impossible to maintain that standard into the wilds of Acts II and III (although I Believe and the Joseph Smith story really come close). The opening number, Hello!, is the cultural equivalent of listening to the Slash guitar solo which opens Appetite for Destruction. It is a declaration of intent, a battle cry, a staking of ground - like the young, clean-cut Mormons themselves it is ambitious and hard-working and big hearted. It is a rousing John Philip Sousa rondo with some madrigal harmonies and gospel thrown in. Then Hasa Diga Ebowai, the big Africa anthem which turns out to be, well, remember Lion King and when the puppets parade down the aisles you get chills and you are so caught up in the spectacle, and it is such an ecstatic moment? Well, this number trumps that moment by taking you down an unexpected path. And as I said, Turn It Off is a guide to suppressing unwelcome feelings, a little Chorus Line moment, when the group of Mormon missionaires share their really sad moments only to explain how they must be repressed - Turn it Off! Like a like switch. The human condition laid bare with all the insight of Shakespeare, followed by some tight tap work. What the hell else can you ask for in an evening of theatre/er? Nothing. You can ask for nothing else.
A Mormon family lived in our neighborhood in East Corning when I was growing up there in the 70s. Their house, or specifically their basement was famous because they kept enough food to feed the family for a Mormon-foretold apocalypse type event. So their basement had rows and rows of shelves with gallons of drinking water, cans of food and bags of flour. I remember looking at it one day - because in those days kids really did just go outside and play with other neighborhood kids and could end up in other people's houses like that - and thinking that if anything happened that seemed apocalyptic I would definitely be coming over to this house. They were just the nicest family and so clean cut. Everybody liked them.
Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are both likeable characters. Elder Price made me nostalgic for my former faith. Sure he is conceited and vain, but he also loves virtue, and goodness and truly wants to do great things - incredible things, things that will blow God's freaking mind. We could use some people like Elder Price right about now. People with the courage of their convictions seeking to do great things. People who really believe the creator of the universe listens to them and has their back.
But poor Elder Price. He marches into the oppressive War Lord's camp but is brought low. His faith is not rewarded. It seems stupid as well as inspiring.
The Telegraph was incensed by this. You cannot have a show where faith is both mocked and admired, where it is both stupid and brave. You can't have it both ways, says this reviewer. The reviewer is wrong. I think you can have it both ways. And actually, it's not just two possible ways, it's more than two. It's more like a million. Truth is complicated.
After his disappointment, only the fear of hell stops him from throwing in the towel. The Scary Mormon Hell that scares him is populated with American serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, Genghis Kahn, Hitler and a guy who was either supposed to be Johnny Cochran or Robert Kardashian - someone on OJ Simpson's defense team. I hope it was Kardashian, because he deserves to be in hell for the tawdry consumerist distraction his children and wife became with his money.
Elder Price sticks with his work in Uganda not because his faith is not rewarded. It is borderline delusional, and he delusionally fears a hell. To me this made the second half of the play less interesting.
He returns to the mission to find that Elder Cunningham, who has never read the book of Mormon, has been explaining it to the Ugandans. He makes things up that he thinks may be helpful and reaches the people where they are. I personally loved a debate among the villagers about whether Salt Lake City was an actual place or just a state of mind created by godly living.
It ends with Elder Price and Elder Cunningham staying on in Uganda, even as the real Mormons reject Elder Cunningham's made-up scripture. They lead new converts, including the War Lord, in mission work.
Note: These are the Southpark guys. There is a lot of stuff that would be considered "offensive" by whoever gets into being offended.
I was sad that Elder Price somehow couldn't really transcend his faith, keep that love of good and light and still somehow find a way to blow God's mind. Somehow he still had to believe that the head of the Mormon church speaks directly to God who changed his mind about black people in 1978. The Mormon doctrine seems kind of silly. As does, in my estimation, most religious doctrine.
But what didn't seem silly to me is the love of virtue, the possibility of change, the hope, the connection to the creator force that is beyond our understanding, the huge love of working for the good of the world. Those things are not silly, they are praiseworthy.
The bigness of Elder Price's ambitions I am sure put off the British reviewers. No one on this island can stand someone who wants to be great. And as we saw with Contact and August: Osage County, Clybourne Park - all of these - no one in Britain wants to make an American hit a hit in Britain. But here in the cold and uninviting UK, it may be that the hope, the big show, the swelling note, the outstretched hands are enough to draw the British in and warm them. I hope. Hello!