After six months of tingling anticipation and fervent attempts to avoid spoilers and over-exposure, I had the privilege of seeing The Book of Mormon on Broadway last Thursday. Before launching into impressions of the experience, please understand that the word ‘privilege’ here applies to the acquisition of four tickets seated together in the Eugene O’Neill Theater, that cost neither limb nor promise of immortal soul. Should either be requested as compensation for a ticket, I would recommend considering it.
As a style defined through their brainchild South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone don’t poke fun at topics. Instead, they skewer them and sell tickets to the public to view their exposed pinioned forms. The show is formulaic in the way that we expect from Stone and Parker. It begins with a simple concept, pushes it to and beyond offensive levels of ridiculous proportion, and brings it all together in a tight, layered, and surprisingly moral final message. The two were joined by Robert Lopez (known for an impressive collage of musical compositions including the Broadway hit Avenue Q) to create the book, music and lyrics for this award-winning production about two young Mormon missionaries and the world they encounter. Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and his designated mission companion Elder Cunningham (a role originated and typically filled by Josh Gad was instead played by his “standby”, Jared Gertner) are released into the world for the Mormon rite-of-passage that is the assigned mission trip. After watching their friends receive comfortable destinations in like France or Japan, the pair is assigned to set out to disease-ridden and war-torn Uganda. While determined to make a difference (with Elder Price in the lead and Elder Cunningham as the pathetically eager-to-please sidekick) the two are gradually discouraged by their mission after meeting the cynical population they are assigned to minister to that is resolved to blasphemy as a coping mechanism for their countless challenges. Over the next few hours their beliefs are tested and their roles are re-defined in surprisingly fresh ways.
From the design of the stage to the very first scene it becomes apparent that the trio of creators has truly done their homework in regards to both the Mormon religion and a Broadway tradition. Soaring white arches with simulated stained glass panes frame the stage. A backdrop of the heavens fills the space, sharply reminiscent of the very murals that decorate the Visitors’ Center of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. The backdrop rises as the first musical number begins, “Hello”, a precisely timed chorus reminiscent of Bye Bye Birdie’s ‘The Telephone Hour’. From this first impression the audience enters a swirling world of satire. Humor comes in a variety of flavors and layers, from the cheaper repetitions of “I have maggots in my scrotum!” to the more high-brow jabs or nods to other Broadway shows or characteristics of Mormons.
The show is full of references to classic and modern musicals. These frustrate the portion of the public who believe in the purity of creation. Isn’t there anything new or original out there? Why re-visit what’s been done? But these small cues are so effectively swirled in with the fabric of the show – a chord progression, the staging of a number, or a phrasing of a line, that they can be taken as is or appreciated as giving a wink and a nod to a history of famous productions. There is no sense of material having been stolen, but rather re-applied in the collage of theater. It provides a strange and cloying sense of security and honor to the classics in between jokes about AIDS.
Yes, that’s right, jokes about AIDS. They’re jaw-dropping at first, frankly addressing a reality of life that our two Mormon missionaries have never experienced. Such tragedies as female circumcision and the AIDS epidemic are the butt of consistent jokes. Are these laughing matters to be tackled in a Broadway production? There is a surprising difference between snickering at a potentially racist gag in a South Park episode while sitting on your couch and laughing outright in a packed public theater at the ignorance of a population that defaults to tribal practices to treat their AIDS outbreak. The Book of Mormon is clever in providing genuine motives folded into limit-pushing dialogue and lyrics. The soothing balm on these cynical, stinging jokes comes from imagining the neighboring Broadway shows, simultaneously playing out stories that don’t include any issues with any more depth than Getting the Girl. Why not tell a story about two men who have enough faith to allow themselves to be sent into a world of danger with the objective to make a difference, even if its wrapped in a shiny package of satire?
Fantastic, eye-popping sets, costumes, lighting, and props make this the most polished show to be seen in a long time. A full Broadway universe is created, comparable to Wicked or the original staging of Ragtime. No longer limited by the confines of their primitive albeit stylized form of animation, the production is visually stunning, almost to the point of over stimulation. The number ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’ has so much going on one feels as though one must turn off their brain processing in order to free maximum mental capacity to take in everything. It feels it will take multiple views to take in the detail of what’s happening, to receive and laugh at every joke. Which is an odd statement about a musical number that includes damned dancing coffee cups.
The pair of companions celebrate the modern bromance in a story that gives the impression of being a solo coming-of-age tale. The intertwining paths of both Elders compare and contrast themes of faith and doubt, teamwork and individualism, and humility and pride. The leading trio of Rannells, Gertner, and Nikki M. James (Tony winner for her role as native Nabulungi) knock it out of the park and deserve every bit of praise written about them.
The show makes fun of everyone, but also pays quiet respect to concepts of working together, of believing in something bigger than yourself, and of searching for a purpose. Believers and non-believers alike will leave the theater feeling vindication. The arc of plot first calls into question and ultimately puts confidence in the concept of man preaching beliefs in their own words – that personal touches and experiences can have greater impact than words read off of a page no matter what you believe or don’t believe. That beliefs or non-beliefs personalized in the experience of man embody the worst but also very best of what an individual’s beliefs can be. The concept is taken to heretical heights when viewed as how one preacher’s personal interpretations are shown to result in an entirely new hybrid of religious stories with fantastical, pop culture details. (Imagine Star Wars and Tolkein added to Bible stories to get an idea of this. If your mental image is amusing, rest assured that the staging is even more satisfying.) However the point rounds out to the simply layered conclusion that the individual journey to whatever end you reach, whether it be greater faith or greater scrutiny, has immense value so long as it is pursued and not just accepted.
I would recommend this play to everyone who doesn’t take themselves so seriously. Open your mind to let offensive blows, statements and language roll off your back, laugh at the world we live in, look outside of yourself, and you may just allow the quiet message of tolerance, belief, and confidence to sneak in and strengthen or stimulate whatever you believe in. Don’t waste time being offended. There are almost as many quiet, sincere moments that really come off as genuine – about believing in religion, others, or self – as there are jabs about how ridiculous beliefs in all of these can be.