EDIT: Saw The Book of Mormon and really digged it. This review is a tad more formal than my usual stuff. It's going in a newspaper.
The Book of Mormon manages to satirize, offend, evoke laughter, make powerful statements on religion, and be heartwarming and irreverent all at the same time. The show brings in $19.5 million every month on average, making it the most successful musical in four decades. The show also recently swept through the Tony awards winning virtually every major award including Best Musical, Best Actress, and Outstanding Music.
Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame and musical writer, Robert Lopez, The Book of Mormon stems from Parker and Stone’s huge success in writing music for South Park along with their satirical take on American exceptionalism, Team America: World Police (2004).
The show is certainly much more crude than most Broadway goers are probably used to. There are tons of subtle (and not too subtle) sexual references and vulgar language. Yet like the past few years of South Park, the vulgarity isn’t there for shock value like Family Guy.
The musical tells the story of two Mormons on a missionary trip to Uganda to convert locals. The pair try to share their religious text that they believe is the third part of the Bible, The Book of Mormon. Only one of the missionaries have actually read the book and the Uganda village is more concerned with the war, famine, AIDS, and poverty that have always plagued them. The Mormons try to convince the villagers to seek help through Christ and slowly the pair question if faith is enough to combat serious problems.
The Book of Mormon certainly has the South Park flavor of sensibility and edge. The show points at the absurdity at Mormonism, and that is arguably just a platform to lampoon against religion as a whole. On the surface, the entire musical satirizes organized religion and challenges the credibility of Mormonism.
Yet, The Book of Mormon manages to be gentle at the same time. Yes, it presents people of faith as cartoonish and gullible. For instance in the song “I Believe”, the protagonist is recovering his faith and sings lines like, “And I believe God lives on a planet called Kolob, and in 1978 God changed his mind about black people!”. Those two statements are official stances the church takes and the character totally sings these lines as genuine beliefs, but is presented with a wink and nod to how silly the established church can be.
The Mormons are still presented as great and optimistic people that are just out there in the world doing their best. The ending is heartwarming and communicates that no matter how ridiculous or illogical religious doctrine might be that doesn’t take away from its power.
The Book of Mormon has the potential be offensive but it still managed to be one of the most harmonious pieces of entertainment I’ve seen. Stone and Parker are far more endearing to religion as opposed to someone like Bill Maher. On the surface there are constant jabs at religion, AIDS jokes, and suggests that the Mormon profit Joseph Smith was a total fraud. The show also flirts with the idea that religion is in a vicious cycle of reinventing itself to gain control over people. Upon further examination, nothing in the play comes off as malicious. Instead it feels like it’s trying to communicate that while a lot of beliefs are silly, Mormons are still incredibly charming.
I laughed at all the songs and jokes and appreciated the smart score. The Book of Mormon had me walk away appreciating the Mormons. It commands the audience to still respect these people. Despite being apart of a church, the group manages to be extremely devout, polite, and hardworking people. The play is more of a friendly hazing than rude. Stone and Parker continue to be the masters of crude humor while building a subtle and powerful punchline in the background.
Below is a video from the play showcasing the song I referenced: