Monday, April 14, 2014

Impressions of The Book of Mormon (the Musical)

I saw The Book of Mormon back in January and intended to write something about it, but got swept up in my Downton Abbey recapping.  Even though it isn't a movie musical, it likely will be soon enough.  And knowing co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, it will involve puppets…

The Book of Mormon premiered in 2011 on Broadway and has been a smash hit ever since.  Its basic premise sprung from the minds of Stone and Parker, whom many know as the creators of South Park.  If you have ever caught a South Park marathon, you are probably aware that the duo has had a fascination with Mormonism for many years, as shown in the classic 2003 episode: "All About Mormons."  Both Stone and Parker grew up in Colorado, where they knew several Mormons, also known as "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints."

Most of us know of Mormonism as that religion in Utah.  Or that religion Mitt Romney belongs to.  Or that it's "sort of like Christianity," only with polygamy.  Those a little more educated know that Mormonism is a religion of 15 million people worldwide and has banned polygamy officially since the nineteenth century.  However, to most of us, Mormonism remains, in many ways, a mystery.  It was a mystery that Stone and Parker decided to investigate, with their conclusion being: "Okay, Mormonism is a little weird (okay, a LOT weird), but the people who practice it are nice."  For all of Stone and Parker's renowned anti-political correctness, I think they sanitize Mormonism a bit, but I'll touch on that later.

So Stone and Parker had this fascination with Mormonism and some experience writing musicals (see South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut).  However, they had very little experience with Broadway.  One evening, when they were in New York, they caught a production of Avenue Q, co-created by Robert Lopez (recently of Frozen fame).  It turned out that South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut  was an influence on Avenue Q, and the duo quickly paired with Lopez (and a co-creator who would drop out later) to work on The Book of Mormon.  While Stone and Parker brought the idea, Lopez would steer them through the Broadway show building process and (in my opinion) polish some of Stone and Parker's ragged edges.

The end product is a musical that is funny, politically incorrect while also touching, and sometimes thought provoking.  With little effort, it could be transferred to the big screen… with puppets. 

Plot Synopsis

There be spoilers below!  You have been warned!

"Elders" Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham are among several Mormon teens who have just completed training for their mission -- a two-year stint at a location chosen for them, where they will preach about the Book of Mormon and try to convert as many locals as possible.  Elder Price is a golden boy who everyone believes will do great things, while Elder Cunningham is a screw up with low self esteem and a penchant for stretching the truth.  Elder Price hopes that "Heavenly Father" will send him to Orlando, Florida, home of "the happiest place on earth."  Instead, he receives a tougher assignment: converting wary residents of a village in Uganda, with Elder Cunningham as his sidekick.

Elder Price tolerates Elder Cunningham, but quickly finds Uganda too much to handle.  The village is poor, and the people are terrorized by a warlord who wants all of the women circumcised.  After seeing one villager murdered in cold blood, Elder Price flees, leaving Elder Cunningham to take up the mantle of leader and rally the villagers.  

Realizing that the villagers yearn for the Book of Mormon to address their problems, Elder Cunningham lies about what is in the Book.  It is enough to convince the villagers to convert to Mormonism, but causes problems when the Mission President pays a visit.  Yet the villagers' new faith allows them to rise up and defeat the warlord, with the help of Elder Cunningham and (recently returned) Elder Price.  In the end, all involved realize that the act of believing, in a way that makes you stronger, matters more than the specific beliefs.  The villagers are so appreciative of Elder Cunningham that when they begin their missions, they preach about the Book of Arnold.

The Good

The Matt and Trey Effect.  To fully appreciate The Book of Mormon, you must be familiar with South Park.  For those who are not, South Park revolves around four foul-mouthed boys in suburban Colorado and a supporting cast of eccentrics.  Over time, much like The Simpsons, South Park has developed several memorable characters and "isms" that viewers will recognize in The Book of Mormon.

For instance, at one point you see the South Park devil.  Then there is Jesus, speaking with Mr. Garrison's voice.  Then there is Elder Price's victory dance at the end of "I Believe," mocked in so many South Park episodes.  Then you have Elder Cunningham sounding like Cartman after he has grown a touch too full of himself.  And so on.

But more importantly, with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, you have a complete lack of reverence.  With it comes a desire to question and poke holes in cherished beliefs.  That is usually refreshing, though as I'll go into later, it also reveals their blind spots.  Because they push the envelope with practically everything, they don't get the blowback that many other artists or commentators would.

In this case, Stone and Parker are not shy about stating their belief that Mormonism is fucking nuts.  The founder, Joseph Smith, found "golden plates" that told about Jesus Christ's appearance in America -- plates that he somehow could not show anyone?  And the native American tribes were once white... because they were Jews who sailed from Judea?  And some of the tribespeople were dark because of their wickedness?  And God has his own planet, and each Mormon can have his own planet as well?  And...

Stone and Parker are also not shy about claiming that Joseph Smith was a huckster.  However, they acknowledge that hucksterism can be used for a good purpose (see Elder Cunningham) and that the people who believe the claims are not necessarily bad, and may even be perfectly decent.

In this way, the South Park duo are fond of turning expectations on their head.  Hucksterism is bad... except when it's not.  Belief in things that aren't real is wrong... unless you know that they're not real.  By doing this, Stone and Parker constantly force viewers to reevaluate their beliefs about a subject.

The entire structure of The Book of Mormon follows this pattern.  If you knew nothing about Stone and Parker's work, you might assume that it would follow 99 percent of other stories where the "hero," Elder Price, rises up and takes on life's challenges after overcoming major doubts.  In fact, that is even how his journey is characterized during the Tony awards, before The Book of Mormon's most famous number: "I Believe."

But Stephen Colbert was wrong.  "I Believe" is not about Elder Price reaffirming his belief after experiencing doubt.  Sure, it looks like the "hell yeah!" song from any other musical, where the hero rises up just before the final battle, but it's not -- it's a fakeout song.  Elder Price sings it because he is jealous of Elder Cunningham's fame.  Since Elder Price was the one who was supposed to reap the glory (as shown in the song "You and Me (But Mostly Me)"), he reasons that he is meant to do something even better than what Elder Cunningham has done: reform the unreformable warlord.  Instead, his plan goes horribly (and hilariously) wrong.

Elder Price's journey is learning to accept that he's not the hero of this tale, but the sidekick.  And that faith doesn't just involve rigid belief, but flexibility and change.  That said, taken out of context, "I Believe" seems destined to be the most misunderstood song since "Born in the USA."

The Lopez Effect.  As much as I appreciate Stone and Parker's humor, it can get too nasty and over-the-top at times, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth afterward.  (See, for example, Jambu's fate in "Free Willzyx.")  While it's possible they learned to rein in their excesses for The Book of Mormon, I have to think that Robert Lopez had a softening influence.  So while there is a lot of tasteless humor in this musical -- almost everyone in the village has AIDS; one villager thinks the only way to cure it is to rape a baby; Elders Price and Cunningham constantly mispronounce the name of the female lead character, Nabulungi -- it never taints the overall tone and message.

I also credit Lopez with giving The Book of Mormon a polish that is missing from many South Park episodes.  The musical is tightly paced, sharp humored, and filled with elaborate musical numbers that it carries off with aplomb.  While South Park episodes can be clever, too often they have a ragged, rough-around-the-edges feel to them, most likely because Stone and Parker churn them out in a matter of days.

Oh Yeah, and the Songs Are Really Good!  Not only does The Book of Mormon make interesting observations, but it works extremely well as just a musical.  The songs are catchy, clever, and fun.  Some deliberately mock existing songs, and in many cases end up being better (see "You and Me (But Mostly Me)" versus Wicked's "The Wizard and I").  Some express poignancy when you least expect it.  Even as you laugh at Nabilungi thinking that friendly warlords "help you cross the street" in "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," you recognize her yearning for a better place.

Many of the songs feature large choreographed dance numbers.  A typical example would be "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," filled not only with Satan and other "baddies" sent to hell (like Johnnie Cochrane: "I got OJ freed!"), but also a Mormon no-no, coffee in what looks suspiciously like Starbucks containers.  Dancing Starbucks containers.

The Problematic

Matt and Trey Again.  While Stone and Parker deserve credit for being so fearless with their targets, their criticism can at times be facile and somewhat limited.  For instance, their basic message in both "All About Mormonism" and The Book of Mormon is: they may be weird, but at least they're really nice.

My experience with Mormons is that yes, many are very nice.  Yet I doubt the Church of Latter-Day Saints would receive the criticism it does if it were simply a weird church with nice people.  Doesn't that describe most religions?  The Book of Mormon does not even touch upon some of the biggest criticisms, including gender discrimination.  Of all the "Elders" in "Hello!", note that none are female.

Yet from what I've seen of Stone and Parker's work, they don't seem to think that gender discrimination -- or racial, or sexual orientation, etc., etc. -- is a real problem.  Rather, for them, the problem occurs when people become offended.  The Stone and Parker universe is filled with oversensitive types who become hysterical in response to actions that are either innocuous or non-existent.  Whether they have a legitimate gripe is a point not worth pursuing.

I don't think I need to spell out the reasons why Stone and Parker would be so blind.  I'll just say that another one of the duo's weaknesses is that they try to have their cake and eat it, too.  Most episodes of South Park seem to say: "We'll rip the thing you most love to shreds, but hey, don't be offended, because we're just funnin' ya.  It's totally okay to love that thing, just don't be an asshole about it."

Having tolerance is always an important lesson, but somehow it seems to cut just one way.  It's okay for Stone and Parker to rip on people who like to drive hybrids, for instance, but if you take offense at their one-dimensional portrayal, you're just an intolerant asshole.  It's okay for them to laugh at Al Gore for believing in ManBearPig, but if you like Gore, or believe in global warming, and feel their portrayal is off the mark, you're an asshole.          

With regard to The Book of Mormon, the duo poke endless fun at Mormonism's dubious beginnings, but don't expect a deeper critique of the Church and its practices, or of religious hypocrisy in general.  And to the extent that you are offended by their constant poking at the Church, the message is: hey, it's cool, believe what you want, even if it is stupid.


Nonetheless, The Book of Mormon is a fun, well-crafted musical that kept me entertained and had me racing to buy the soundtrack.  I don't know if or when it will hit the big screen, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were sooner rather than later.  

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  Also, I take no credit for the cool storyboarding in the final YouTube video.  Click on the YouTube link and leave comments for the artist!               

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