Salt Lake City — “You’ve seen the play … now read the book,” suggests a turn-the-other-cheek ad The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has run in playbills for the musical “The Book of Mormon.” But what about this corollary: “You’ve read the book … now see the play”?
The raunchy, irrepressible, irreverent, acclaimed, denounced musical lands in Salt Lake City Aug. 1, the second engagement in two years, once again giving Utah Mormons the choice to either stay away or buy a ticket to see what all the fuss is about.
The musical opened on Broadway in 2011, won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, won a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album and has been touring the country since 2012. The show was created by TV’s “South Park” co-writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez, co-lyricist and co-composer of “Avenue Q” and “Frozen.”
In 20 seasons of “South Park,” plus several movies, Parker and Stone have proved they will gladly skewer anyone and anything, both liberal and conservative, secular and sacred. As The Guardian TV critic Filipa Jodelka succinctly put it: “It’s not ‘the thing’ they hate, it’s the way society reveres ‘the thing.’”
So you know going in that “The Book of Mormon” musical will work hard to shock you, that it will be full of profanities as well as outrageous sexual and scatological humor, and that it will not look at anyone’s religious doctrines with a benevolent gaze.
Still, says University of Utah theater professor Bob Nelson, who is LDS and previously taught for 28 years at Brigham Young University, the show has value.
“I think it’s a useful and important evening of theater,” he says. “Non-Mormons can get something of a window into the church, even if the glass is a little distorted here and there, and Mormons get a useful, important view of how they’re perceived by others.”
“Surely,” he adds, “one’s religious faith needs to be strong enough to stand up to ridicule, regardless of the intent behind such mockery.” On the other hand, he adds this caveat: “I think an active Mormon who attends the play experiences pain for a while. Then halfway through the play you’re numb and you just go with it.”
Janet Gunson, who is both LDS and a fan of “South Park,” enjoys the TV show’s humor so she was eager to see the musical on Broadway, but told her husband that if it got too offensive they would walk out at intermission. She liked the first act, it turned out, so they stayed. “When people make fun of religions, they’re poking fun at something they don’t understand; there’s no reason for me to be offended by people’s opinions,” says the Santa Barbara, California, mother of three.
The second act though, crossed a line for Gunson. “They created a caricature of Christ. I remember being so uncomfortable at that point.”
For X96 “Radio From Hell” producer Richie Steadman, the line crossed was a scene with missionaries wearing nothing but their sacred garments. But, like his friend deejay Rob Ferre — the two have a podcast called “The Cultural Hall” — he felt the show had a “sweet moral” takeaway for returned missionaries like himself: that the LDS Church “makes people’s lives better.”
The musical’s plot swirls around Elder Kevin Price and Elder Arnold Cunningham, who are called as missionaries to Uganda, where nothing is as hopeful or as “Lion King” as they had expected. The result is a coming-of-age story for the enthusiastic, confident Price (“I’ll do something incredible that blows God’s freaking mind”) and the awkward, goof-off Cunningham, who sprinkles his theology with references to “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings.”
Of course, musicals are generally broad-stroke and reductive; even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning “Hamilton” occasionally sacrifices historical fact for a convenient story line. “The Book of Mormon” musical is a satire, though, so everything is even more heightened and narrowed, reducing Africans to simplistic stereotypes, and Mormonism to both platitudes and the theology’s more fringe beliefs. These never fail to bring guffaws from non-Mormons in the audience.
“What is open for continued conversation,” says Megan Sanborn Jones, a BYU theater professor whose research focuses on Mormon performance, “is whether ‘The Book of Mormon’s’ satire functions to critique our negative assumptions about Africa and Mormons or just reaffirm them.”
At its core, you could argue, the play is a raucous meditation on the place where faith and proof, inspiration and imagination, self-deception and hope intersect. Elder Cunningham tells the Ugandan villagers an outlandish take on Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, denounces himself as a liar, and then consoles himself that “this time it’s helping a dozen people!”
“Genuine but easily deceived,” is the way Tim Threlfall sums up the show’s portrayal of Mormons. Threlfall, who is a theater professor at BYU, has listened to the cast album and read the script, but has chosen not to see the show. It’s his personal way, he says, “of objecting to the use of one specific religious organization (in this case the Latter-day Saints) as the object of ridicule. I find it interesting to imagine the outcry that would have arisen had the creators of ‘Book of Mormon’ chosen a different faith tradition to satirize, such as Judaism, Islam, or Catholicism.”
While Parker and Stone have not lampooned other faiths on the big stage, “South Park” has featured jokes about Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Scientology and Judaism, as well as atheism, and once included a cartoon rendition of Muhammad. In a subsequent “South Park” episode, bowing to criticism, Comedy Central censored a similar image.
In a 2009 post on the LDS Church’s Newsroom site, two years before “The Book of Mormon” opened but at the height of the HBO TV series “Big Love,” the church pondered what it called “The Publicity Dilemma.” Although some Mormons were up in arms about the way the series conflated modern-day polygamists with Mormonism, the church counseled restraint. “If the church allowed critics and opponents to choose the ground on which its battles are fought,” the post argued, “it would risk being distracted” from its focus and mission.
When “The Book of Mormon” opened on Broadway, instead of taking the musical to task, the church put witty, non-defensive ads in the playbill and on billboards. The most recent iteration is an ad that has a picture of the book itself and the tagline “Our version is sliiiightly different,” and in smaller print: “The musical is entertaining. The book? It’s life changing.” Contacted by the Deseret News for an update about the church’s reaction to the musical, LDS Church spokesperson Doug Andersen said simply that the “we have nothing new to add to this story.”
Salt Lake’s Broadway-at-the Eccles website notes that the musical “returns by popular demand,” but MagicSpace Entertainment, the show’s local promoter, has been hesitant to discuss how the show plays in Salt Lake compared to other markets.
Ferre has seen the musical both on Broadway and in Utah. He believes that with its numerous references to Mormon culture and Salt Lake City, or as the Ugandans refer to it, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” the musical is even more fun to see here than on Broadway. “You’re with people who get the inside jokes,” he says. “Things that usually just go by the wayside hit on a grander scale here in Utah.”
Still, he says, he was sometimes uncomfortable on behalf of the other members of the audience. “I was squeamish for my wife," he said. "She doesn’t like the F-bomb.”
Those who are curious may find "The Book of Mormon" to be "a lot of fun," he said. However, "If you’re orthodox Mormon, this is not for you.”
If you go …
What: "The Book of Mormon"
When: Aug. 1-20, times vary, matinees available
Where: Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main Street
How much: $30-$135
“The Book of Mormon Musical” will conduct ticket drawings prior to each performance, making 25 tickets available at $25 each. It will be held on Regent Street (near the Regent Street Black Box ticket office entrance).
Interested patrons should print their name and number of tickets they’d like (up to two) on a provided card. Entries will be accepted up to two and a half hours before curtain, with names being drawn two hours before show time. Cards are checked for duplication before drawing.
One entry per person, two tickets per winner. To receive the tickets, winners must be present at the time of drawing and must show valid ID. Tickets are subject to availability.