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.
I find the familiar Mormon line, “Avoid even the appearance of evil,” to be hollow justification for anti-intellectualism, and thus a fair illustration of Mormonism’s head-in-the-sand approach to any criticism they cannot roundly condemn. Though outright condemnation was certainly to be found in some of the articles I read, including one by Hal Boyd detailing the show’s many inaccuracies. Mormonism’s self-righteous insistence, mostly to itself, that it is possible and preferable to be “in the world and not of it” is as delusional as it is mostly harmless.
I say “mostly harmless” because, of course, none of this happens in a vacuum: even the apologist, at rest in his certainties and safe in his rationalization of non-engagement, still speaks to the converted. The apologist speaks out loud, and, in our day and age, by satellite and streaming video. So that his “particular form of religious and moral certainty,” as scholar Edmund Kern characterizes it, becomes its own communal confirmation bias based solely on un-thinking. Ignorance has a way of spreading, much the same way as truth has one (though the two spread much differently in my humble opinion).
Even one of the Deseret News writers, Jim Bennett, took up more column-inches to pen his reply, to the reply, to his first condemnation of the show: Bennett insists his point about the Broadway’s offensive nature is a valid one, and the fact that he’s never seen it should not be an issue. “An unethical fraud would have pretended to see the show when he hadn’t,” Bennett insists, “and my commentary was based on solid research that I fully disclosed.”
He’s right…but only to a point. An unethical fraud also combs out any assertion that is directly problematic, to protect himself against indictment, yet allows his speech to be padded with plausible deniability, with leading rhetoric, with syntactic relation and juxtaposition, and with plenty of room for his readers’ wildest assumptions.
Social conservatives are happy to point out what they call a double-standard with respect to criticism, even jokes, about religion, with some religions being game and others off-limits. Many of the Deseret News articles I counted above made a habit of this argument, though they were not alone. Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal put it rather glibly in March 2011:
Making fun of Mormons in front of a Broadway crowd is like shooting trout in a demitasse cup. And while we're on the subject of imitation courage, let it be duly noted that if the title of this show were "The Quran," it wouldn't have opened. Messrs. Parker and Stone found that out the hard way a year ago when online death threats caused Comedy Central executives to censor an episode of “South Park” in which the Prophet Muhammad was shown wearing a bear costume. The boys have learned their lesson well: Never shoot at anybody who shoots back.
What social conservatives do not say, when making the double-standard argument, is how easy of a target is Islam. All their examples are of Islamic fundamentalism! Death threats, terrorist actions, 9/11. In short, extreme examples. Never to admit the obvious connective tissue, that that fundamentalism of any stripe does not deal well with either criticisms or jokes. Everyday American Muslims don’t get a mention.
We then hold up Islam as this symbol of zealous ill-humor—deriving the label, “Anti-American!”, from this apparently Muslim inability to take a joke—all the while arguing that the same jokes leveled at Mormons are deeply inappropriate and offensive. It’s funny. Because, whether we’re painting all Muslims with the same brush or dangerously displaying our ignorance of Islam (like the law-enforcement officials reportedly questioning Sikh-Americans about their ties to terrorism), it is this fallacy of composition that makes the whole thing fall flat.
Holding up Islam as humorless still employs the logic that it is American to take a joke: many Muslims seem able to, as to many Mormons, but the sheer amount of Deseret News articles arguing that the musical is inappropriate weakens any claim of Mormon geniality. If it is American to take a joke, why make this argument of inappropriateness at all? The insane jihadist psychopaths who executed 9/11 have as little in common with everyday Muslims as do regular Mormons with Warren Jeffs. That American life actively fears radical Islam—some of the fear is valid, even to the extent of granting our critics’ reticence a little good reason—only excuses the more accepted forms of American fundamentalism and serves to justify away the reticence that exists to protect everyday Muslims from obvious discrimination. Put simply, nobody fears that an offended Mormon will suicide-bomb their house. And while this may say a little something about Mormonism, it says all the much more about our uniquely American fears.
Lest you think this post merely a commentary, and not a review, I did see “The Book of Mormon: The Musical.” My ex-boyfriend and bestie, Jason Michael Snow, played an ensemble missionary in the Broadway Original Cast. In May of 2012, I took a birthday trip to see Jason perform. I sat tenth-row center in the Eugene O’Neill on a comp ticket, next to an adorable older interracial couple who chatted me up about my Mormon past before curtain, and in front of a group of (by my sights) typical New York theatregoers who bashed actual Mormons they’d known as naïve out-of-touch weirdos all throughout intermission. Unlike Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Mormons, who were “really fucking polite to everybody,” the joes and janes behind me left the worse taste in my mouth.
Jason, however, and the rest of the cast, were resplendent. “Turn It Off” struck too close to home, less because of its queer subplot, more because compartmentalization really is a Mormon cultural staple. And I was genuinely touched by “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” which seemed to combine the hope for an afterlife, and Zion, with all the disappointment (actual and hilarious) wrapped up in false idealism. More amazing still, it made me homesick for Salt Lake City…
The show is disturbingly racist—I’d agree with my friend, Ryan, about that. Yet what stuck in my mind was the oft-ignored song from the show’s Second Act: “I Am Africa.” Here, the missionaries gather around Elder Cunningham’s conversion of the village, and sing a show-stopper ballad of oneness celebrating their success. Here’s an excerpt:
We are the winds of the Serengeti,
We are the sweat of the jungle man,
We are the tears of Nelson Mandela,
We are the lost boy of the Sudan.
I am Africa!
Just like Bono! I am Africa!
I flew in here, and became one with
Ha na heya! Za ba neyba!
I'm not a follower anymore,
No, now I'm frickin' Africa!
With my Zulu spear,
I run barefoot through the sand!
I am Africa!
Ha na heya za ba ney...
We are Africa
We are the, the only Africa
(The one and only Africa)
And the life we live is primitive
(Let us smile and laughrica!)
We are Africa!
We are the deepest, darkest Africa!
(So deep and dark Africa)
We are the fields and fertile forests,
We are Africa! Take a listen to the whole song below:
To me, ex-Mormon, gay, watching my gay ex-boyfriend belt out this colonial nonsense, this seemed the satirical heart of the show. It was so painfully obvious that these dumb, harmless, polite white boys on stage—with their perfectly parted hair and pressed pleated slacks and bright black pocket-protector nametags—were as far from an understanding of Africa as just about anyone could be. I’m certain it was directed this way on purpose. I’m certain the creators wanted us, too, to recognize and mark this inherently ridiculous lack… It looked plain as day.
Though apparently not to the idiot theatregoers in the seats behind me. Despite “I Am Africa” spelling out the arrogance of colonialism—of a particularly Western tradition of shipping out its ideas, its products, its institutions and systems of government and then implanting them (often violently) into other cultures—the theatergoers behind me thought Mormons the main problem, the butt of the joke.
After sitting through the show myself, and now reading countless articles and reviews on the subject, I’m quite convinced that we, meaning America in general, are the real target here. Mormonism is simply our microcosm: tribal, bombastic, patriarchal and racially unambiguous, rigidly structured, capitalist to a fault, even comically patriotic. Tolstoy once famously called Mormonism “the American religion.” And “The Book of Mormon: The Musical” seems to tacitly accept Tolstoy’s logic, applying it widely to American quintessentialism—and arrogance—abroad. Americanism, that’s what I’ll call it, is so ripe for satire that to a Broadway audience it’s both inspired and unsurprising, it’s in vogue. Our unawareness, our near-universal ability to ignore our own culpability, only illustrates the need for the target on our backs. That Mormonism is a good example of all this, rife with plenty of other things to poke fun at, seems precisely the point.
The show wasn’t perhaps as hard on this point as I am. But the satire is available. In any case, for its faults, I enjoyed “The Book of Mormon: The Musical” quite a lot—even more than I expected to.
It’s competent and very funny, well-cast and interestingly staged and designed. Indeed, the show has heart, more than the sum of its parts, derivative or not, inappropriate or not. Potty humor and expletives were good enough for the Greeks, and I am not convinced by any argument for a “golden age of theatre” to which we ought to return. The arguments of its critics smack, lightly, of watered-down versions of censorship.
And I’m a firm believer, as a writer and artist myself, that everything should be material in a free society. I don’t think the creators of “The Book of Mormon: The Musical” would disagree.
Matthew D. Kulisch