Americanism on Broadway: The Book of Mormon Musical

In March of 2011, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on West 49th St in New York, “The Book of Mormon: The Musical” opened to packed theatres and rave critical reviews after eight years of development and workshops. Its creators, South Park showrunners Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Avenue Q composer/co-lyricist Robert Lopez, called it “an atheist’s love letter to religion”—this to Katharine Whittemore of The Boston Globe, in a 2011 article about the Broadway’s relation to the faith, called, “The Book of Mormon: Literary works that look beyond stereotypes of the Latter Day-Saints.”

Whittemore is plain about the situation of this musical:

We modern-day sorts love to rib Latter-day Saints. There’s such rich material: the Osmonds, the bans on drinking, premarital sex, and caffeine(!), the back story (Jesus coming to America and converting the Indians, Joseph Smith digging up the golden plates), how teenaged missionaries are called “elders.’’

Both Joseph Smith and those teenaged missionaries feature prominently in the musical, as book and numbers satirize Mormonism’s doctrine and history in songs like “All American Prophet,” “Man Up,” and “Making Things Up Again.” You expect irreverence, and you get it, as you follow the naïve pair of white, well-dressed, clean-cut youngsters into a remote Ugandan village beset by AIDS, famine, and a local warlord that our protagonists are hilariously unprepared for.Yet time and time again, critics and theatregoers alike highlight the musical’s attention to its characters and its great affection for Mormons on the whole.

Of course, no production is universally-loved. Tom Williams of The Chicago Critic called “The Book of Mormon” “fluffy yet crude satire,” a one-trick pony of a joke, “(Mormons are naive geeks) permeat[ing] every scene.” The New Yorker went further in an April 2011 article, “God Squad,” stating plainly that the show had no teeth, and unwittingly the wrong teeth:

The musical…gives off a lot of Parker and Stone’s familiar comic heat, as well as their familiar lack of illumination... The laughter is hip; the formula is Hollywood. AIDS, female circumcision, assassination, Jesus, and the despoiled African population as a collective Stepin Fetchit routine are the targets here; one African character, for instance, finds a typewriter at a local market and thinks she’s “texting”—big racist gag. The show is smart enough to test the waters of outrage but not brazen enough to take a genuine plunge.

I played some of the cast recording for my friend, Ryan, back in 2012, after he’d just returned from a 3-year stint with the Peace Corps in Uganda. He was less than amused, offended not for me (an ex-Mormon), but for all the joyous, smart, and faithful people he’d just left behind in Africa. Ugandans, he insisted, were deeply religious people; they had much more awareness of the issues facing them than the musical was giving them credit for.

I heard and read the same sort of criticisms from other detractors as well, some from pundits, some from bloggers, but mostly from believing Mormons—and from some who were all three.

Since 2011, the Deseret News—the LDS church-owned newspaper headquartered in Salt Lake City—has printed over eighteen (18!) articles and reviews about the musical, seventeen of which were written by pundits and journalists who admit to never seeing the show, including one article by the church’s Public Affairs director, Michael Otterson, and another by a Deseret News intern reporting one theatregoer’s conversion to Mormonism after seeing the show in Boston. Nearly every one of these articles contained a section praising the LDS church’s reaction to the show, oft-quoting an official church statement, “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening…” and Otterson’s own line, “Of course, parody isn’t reality.”

When the traveling production opened in Salt Lake City in 2015, it sold out its run in hours. Yet a Salt Lake Magazine article by Jeremy Pugh was quick to find that it was nearly impossible to get anybody in Salt Lake City government or arts programming, including the show’s producers, Broadway Across America, to talk about it. Everyone avoided it.