The Book of Mormon Musical

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the satirical animated series “South Park,” have long been fascinated by Latter-day Saints, and on more than one occasion have skewered our history and goody-two-shoes personas on their show.  About ten years ago, Parker and Stone decided to write a Broadway musical about us.  Their efforts came to fruition in February 2011 with the debut of a ground-breaking, critically acclaimed, award-winning and wildly popular musical called “The Book of Mormon,” named after one of our books of scripture.  The show just finished its stop in my hometown, at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, and judging from the buzz on Facebook and among my husband’s colleagues, it was a crowd-pleaser. 

 The play’s plot centers on two young, male, white, American Latter-day Saint missionaries (no, not all LDS missionaries are young, male, white or American) working in Africa, where they cluelessly try to share their faith with people more worried about war and AIDS than prophets and scriptures.  I enjoy a good laugh, even when the joke is Latter-day Saints’ simplicity, and I would go see the musical myself if profanity, sexual innuendo and mockery of religious faith were not the authors’ favorite comic devices.  From reading the reviews, it’s clear the musical goes far beyond poking fun to something like bigotry.  The production’s hilarious theme  is Mormons are lovable fools.

 Can you imagine what the public’s response would be if this musical were titled “The Talmud?”  Theater critics would be aghast at the anti-Semitism.  Or what if they made a musical called “The Koran?”  Theater critics would be aghast and we’d have a national security crisis.  Why is it that our generation’s passion for tolerance and respect does not apply to my faith?  

Compared to most religions, ours is young, and Latter-day Saints have a keen sense of history.  We remember well that our founder was assassinated by a mob of “upstanding” Midwesterners who were never brought to justice.  We haven’t forgotten that Latter-day Saint women were raped; Latter-day Saint men, women and children martyred; and their farms burned.  We haven’t forgotten that in 1838 the governor of Missouri ordered all Mormons in the state be driven out or “exterminated.”  Most of them fled to Illinois, where they heroically erected a new city and temple, only to watch the temple burn as once again they were driven from their homes, this time across the frozen Mississipi into the wilderness.  After they traversed the continent and built new cities in a bleak desert far from the boundaries of the United States, the U.S. government sent armies after them to stop the practice of polygamy.  Some church leaders were thrown in jail; other families fled to Mexico.  Fathers were forced to abandon their children.  

 I share this history because if you’re not LDS, you probably don’t know it.  Every American and his uncle seems to know that black Latter-day Saint men were not given the priesthood until 1978, but almost no one recalls that until just two years before that, it was still legal to exterminate Mormons in Missouri.  You’d think that we Americans would be more familiar with this shameful past and would have learned something from it, as we have been ashamed and enlightened by such things as slavery, the Trail of Tears, and Japanese internment camps.  You’d think Americans would want to distance themselves from perpetuating prejudices. 

So what was our church’s response to “The Book of Mormon” musical?  Our leadership published a single-sentence statement:  “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but The Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”  A while later, a church PR official published a piece in The Washington Post called “Why I won’t be seeing the Book of Mormon musical,” in which he cautions people from confusing parody with reality.  He listed the many humanitarian projects our church has completed in Africa in recent years.  In Seattle, as it has in other locations, our church purchased ads in the production’s playbill.  As for average Latter-day Saints, they’re barely bothering to talk about it.  It’s only the sort of thing that makes us shake our heads and ask, “So they’re portraying us as small-minded?”

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2 Responses to The Book of Mormon Musical

  1. Doug says:

    I’d like my comment to be educational and not intended as an attack. But if one doesn’t actually see the play, one is going to not be prepared to defend the church or legitimately criticize the play. Your statement that the point of the play is that Mormons are loveable-fools is simply wrong, and the further arguments used to defend the church aren’t really relevant to the play.
    Honestly, the people who are in most need of seeing the play are: First Mormons and Second, every other Christian evangelical group. The most important point of the play is how simplistic Western Ideals do not translate into real problem solving ideas when not being hungry or dying of disease are your constant issues. As for LDS members, they should see the play because it is “How The World Sees Mormons”, for good or bad.
    The Church’s response to the play almost makes a good point, but falls short by saying the musical “attempts to entertain” and thus loses the moral high ground. The show absolutely and undeniably entertains. It won 9 Tony Awards and was nominated in 14 categories. One might as well say that “Hank Aaron attempted to hit Home Runs”. So once the church statement says “attempts to entertain”, the church is seen as petulant, unnecessarily defensive and even a bit dishonest.
    There are songs about: Religious guilt, frustration with God over serious problems he doesn’t seem to fix, joy at a baptism, determination to do the right thing, New Converts to the church having very wrong ideas because of unprepared missionaries, religious joy and more. Foul language and sexual innuendo are NOT valid reasons for a Mormon to miss this play. It is real world language surrounding real world situations that Mormons seem to not want to be aware of . It is not pornography. It is simply harsh and real.
    My own review of the musical: it was the best show I have ever seen on stage or screen, ever. It was funny, sad, tragic at times and in the end, hopeful.
    In full disclosure I am a returned missionary with a temple marriage (20 years now), and I am a former LDS member.

  2. Lara says:

    Douglas: I’m sorry I took so long to respond to your comment; it was lost in spam comments.

    You are correct that one cannot review a play that she has not seen. I know quite a bit about the play, though, from reading reviews and advertisements, and so I think I have a fairly good idea of the premise. That is what I am critiquing, the very premise of the play–hence the label of “non-review.” The play is based on and perpetuates a caricature of Mormons. I think it’s dangerous to perpetuate stereotypes of people, especially minority groups, especially on such a grand scale.

    I understand that the production leads the audience to sympathize with the Mormon characters at times, thus giving the impression that the play is true to life. I am not sure how realistic the setting, characters and plot are, but I can tell from reading the reviews (and from being familiar with South Park), that it’s emotion is not truthful. That’s the trouble with lightmindedness. Lightmindedness misleads people emotionally, portraying the sacred as silly and the tragic as comical. It’s harmful to the spirit.

    Because you are a former member of the church, I presume you and I differ in our beliefs about what is sacred and true. I can’t complain that we disagree. I believe I am justified, though, in compaining that people of a different faith have spent great sums of time and money in order to mock my way of life and things I hold sacred on a large scale and that many more are flocking to see this mockery. I would never do that to someone else, and I believe it’s gross hypocrisy for people who claim to celebrate tolerance and cultural diversity to produce or watch such entertainment. In writing this post, I am not trying to condemn them–they probably believe that what they’re doing is harmless–but to make them aware of how this play seems to the average Mormon.

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