Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon is a musical created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of and writers for South Park. It is legitimately about the tenets and history of Mormonism and depicts the journey of a few young men as they go forth into the world on their “mission”, a rite that every Mormon must pass.
Kath and I went to opening night in Zürich. The cast was excellent; several of the main characters had played in the same musical on Broadway. See the link for more information.
It’s a lot to unpack, but I’ll give it a shot.
It starts with a song called “Hello”, which shows a dozen Mormons ringing doorbells, speaking the word of Jesus Christ (of the Latter Day Saints). Soon after, the young men are sorted into missions and Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are teamed up to go to Uganda. Cunningham is excited to be matched with star pupil Price; Price is less than thrilled to be going to Uganda, as he’d had his heart set on Orlando instead.
They go to Uganda, meet the villagers and the warlords, sing a bunch, Price loses his faith and thinks he’s escaped to Orlando, but really he’s just having a Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, Cunningham converts them all by lying heavily about the Book of Mormon (they end up publishing a fourth installment called the Book of Arnold), the villagers put on a very special show for the visiting Mormon chieftains and Cunningham and Price decide to stick around longer to promulgate their good work.
The final song starts with the Ugandans reenacting the opening song: Hello.
An Earnest Satire
There is so much going on, at so many levels. Tongue in cheek doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s less direct irony or satire or parody and much more like an earnest homage that goes just a little farther to reveal shadows that indicate that there are other interpretations possible. As with South Park, nearly every line can be taken literally or not, as a coarse joke or as a subtle dig at a power structure or commonly believed myth. The songs are very much like this, as well—earnest sabotage.
Mormons just believe—which is, on the one hand, a wonderfully naive and beatific quality, but then they also believe the wildest horseshit. Parker and Stone make fun of Mormonism by just presenting it as it describes itself. It’s a ludicrous story.
The misinterpretation of the Ugandans is no more of less ridiculous than the original. It’s perhaps cruder, sure, but it’s also more appropriate to their situation, more likely to offer them guidance that makes a difference in their lives. Here Parker and Stone seem to be showing us that this is all that religion can really do for us: tell ridiculous but entertaining stories that keep us from killing each other or letting nature kill us.
Jews believe in one book, Christians in two and the Mormons in a Trilogy. They also happen to believe that Jesus was in upstate New York in the 1800s and that Joseph Smith wasn’t a con man.
Details and Impressions
The opening scenes of the two acts look very much like school plays and are voiced exactly like South Park. Jesus sounds kinda like Eric Cartman.
The backdrop for Salt Lake City has a Wendy’s and a McDonald’s in it. The one for Orlando has a bigger Mini Golf sign on it than the Epcot Center Dome. Why? Because it loomed larger in nine-year-old Elder Price’s memory. Orlando is, on the one hand, believable as a dream destination for a boy, but not for an adult male, for whom Orlando is a ridiculous dream destination, a playground in Florida—someplace that everyone knows is terrible. Are Mormon boys naive to believe that it’s not? Or are we jaded? Who knows? Parker and Stone leave it open, poking fun but also cutting their targets a break.
You have to already have known a bunch about Mormons to get some of the jokes—like that they’re not allowed to drink coffee, which isn’t exactly common knowledge. I never thought I’d hear a song about Upstate New York and Rochester (Joseph Smith’s origin story) or one in which the words clitoris and scrotum featured so much.
There’s another song called Hasa Diga Eebowai (Fuck You God), which featured enthusiastic gesticulation with middle fingers in the Lord’s direction, to the missionaries’ utter horror. The finale where the tribe re-enacted what they’d learned ended up in a simulated orgy with lots of positions and gigantic dildos. This almost topped the “Crazy Mormon Hell Dream”, which featured Jeffrey Dahmer buggering Elder Price’s father while Hitler was fellated by District 9's leader while Genghis Khan looked on.
Was that all? No, the musical also featured a warlord named “Butt Fucking Naked” who shoots a man directly in the head in a shocking scene that’s sandwiched between jokes—and whose juxtaposition was anything but an accident. AIDS is a fact of life that is so accepted by the Ugandans that they think nothing of threatening the Mormons with it or noting it like the weather. The first scene of Uganda features a woman dragging a half-eaten animal carcass across the stage. Slowly.
Clitoral mutilation is presented as a prevalent problem—enforced by the local warlord. But one of the villagers is depicted as believing that having sex with a virgin—even a baby—will cure his AIDS. These are just as ludicrous and overblown as anything else in the show, but are traps for dipshits at NPR and elite universities to try to call the show racist.
The point isn’t that Ugandans are stupid or primitive or backward. At least not only them. Everyone’s an idiot. Mormons believe ridiculous shit and travel the world trying to dunk people underwater and get them to believe it, too. Ugandans believe crazy shit to get through the day and deal with the horrific hand they’ve been dealt. But it’s always fun to see the prudes and stick-in-the-muds fault a comedy for failing to be unfunny about taking the piss.
In a way, the depiction of Uganda was exactly what a Mormon would expect, no? Otherwise, why send missionaries? I mean, Africa is the land of cell phones, but the girl doesn’t know what “text messaging” is. It’s a joke, guys. The Ugandans were exactly as most Americans—not just Mormons—would expect. It was a caricature of what Westerners think “Africa” is.
There are several bits shedding a very dubious light on the tales from the Book of Mormon and also a song called “Man Up” where Cunningham exhorts himself to be like Jesus—who showed balls when he climbed up on that cross and let himself be nailed there. There is a song called “Baptize Me” that just drips innuendo and double entendre, another song called “I Am Africa” sung exclusively by the whitest Mormons you’ve ever seen.
A Real-life Producers
I honestly spent the first half just smiling thinking of Stone and Parker just daring each other to make an even more ludicrously named character or write a more shocking line or make the characters say “fuck” more than any other Broadway musical (or “scrotum” or “clitoris”).
It’s hard to imagine that Parker and Stone didn’t just dare each other to come up with crazier and crazier stuff, with an eye on Mel Brooks, whose movie The Producers about a musical so deliberately bad that it would close on opening night—and featured a song with half-clad goose-stepping Nazis singing “Springtime for Hitler”—was subsequently made one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time, just as Book of Mormon has now done. In both cases, it’s utterly unclear who gets the joke and who doesn’t or who is getting which joke.
I can think of many people who would have seen this is a straight-up musical about Mormons in Africa that had a bit too much swearing in it (OK, they said “fuck” all the time).
Also, the uncircumcised girl’s name was Nabalungi, not Nefertiti or Necrophilia or Nintendo or any of the many other names Cunningham called her.