clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

'The Book of Mormon' musical is an equal-opportunity offender

Much has been said about the reasonable and measured response of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to "The Book of Mormon," the Broadway smash that has finally arrived in Salt Lake City. There have been no protests or boycotts, and the church even took out playbill ads with the message that "the book is always better."

The popularity of this satire has done nothing to diminish the popularity of its intended target, and anecdotal stories abound of how this musical unwittingly serves as an effective ambassador for the Mormon cause.

Yet given that premise, most of the controversy that still surrounds this musical focuses on whether or not Mormons should find this show offensive. Well, yes, they should.

But not because they're Mormons. They should be offended because they're human beings.

To be fair, I haven't seen the show. But I've heard the soundtrack in its entirety, and I've read the synopsis. And while working at Pioneer Theatre Company, I had a chance to meet an actor who had participated in one of "The Book of Mormon's" first workshop productions. This actor's claim to fame was that he was the first person to perform one of the show's big hits, a parody of the song "Hakuna Matata" from "The Lion King."

In the course of the show, two LDS missionaries arrive in Uganda and meet a cheery local who encourages them to repeat a catchy little phrase whenever they're feeling down. The missionaries happily oblige, and everyone's singing, dancing and having a grand old time until one of the missionaries asks what the phrase actually means.

Well, this is where "The Lion King" and "The Book of Mormon" part ways.

Whereas "Hakuna Matata" means "no worries," the title of the song from "The Book of Mormon" translates into a phrase far too offensive to print in a family newspaper. Basically, it's a curse against God, and the song goes on to describe, in detail, various vulgar and scatological ways to implement that curse, once again employing a vocabulary never used in polite or even not-so-polite company.

Indeed, R-rated movies seldom contain this much profanity, nor do they aim it at deity with such vitriolic glee.

The most reprehensible parts of this show are not the assaults on Mormon doctrine, but rather the assaults on common decency. Not to be a prude, but I don't think jokes about pedophilia with infants are ever funny. And am I alone in thinking that the production's colonial attitude toward Africans is more than just a little bit racist? The Ugandans in this show that aren't depicted as violent thugs are portrayed as ignorant, albeit good-hearted, buffoons with no understanding of modernity. Think Jar-Jar Binks from the Star Wars prequels, only with lower intelligence, less dignity and more prurient interests.

I'm not trying to be a scold. I'm just curious why material this blue has been able to find a mainstream audience. The offensive material isn't just an afterthought; it's this show's raison d'être. Regardless of what your community standards may be, this production goes out of its way to violate them. The fact that so few people seem to care suggests that there may not be any real community standards left.

Still, if you want to see this for yourself, I won't try to stop you. To each their own.

For my part, when given a chance to hum along with a parody that screams swear words at God, I'll sing "Hakuna Matata" instead.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog,