The Book of Moooormooonnnnnnnnn

Posted: July 15, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

So, as I mentioned in a previous post, I got to see the Book of Mormon in Chicago while at ALA. I had been dying to see it since it hit the stage in 2011 and got universally good reviews. I’m a huge fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, particularly for their dedication to story and their stubbornness to do exactly what they want to do, which is very rare in Hollywood. So much of their creative output is solid that I’d have a hard time picking my top ten, or even top twenty, favorite South Park episodes (though this last season was pretty meh.) I have the Book of Mormon soundtrack, and I was familiar with the storyline from watching a number of interviews with the duo on YouTube. It’s safe to say I went in with high expectations.

Spoilers ahoy (and warnings for language – this is a Parker and Stone production, after all).

In short, I enjoyed it, but something about it struck me as off. I think I finally isolated the parts that hit that note of discord and threw me out of the story, to such an extent that it impacted my enjoyment of the show.

The plot of the musical is that two young, mismatched Mormon missionaries get put together and sent to a poor, AIDs-inflicted, warlord-terrorized Ugandan village. One of the Mormons, Elder Price, is a clean-cut, quintessential Mormon. He’s smiley and charismatic. He’s also enormously self-centered. His dream is to go Orlando for his mission and become the best Mormon ever, and getting stuck with a sub par partner and sent to impoverished and violent Africa is a huge culture shock for him. Meanwhile Elder Cunningham is a terrible Mormon: He has a tendency to lie, fidget, and is slightly creepy and off-putting. I was genuinely surprised that as the musical progresses, he becomes more and more the main character: He ultimately provides the solution, converts the natives, and gets the big End-Of-Act-I number. He also gets the girl – Nabulungi. The village they are to expected convert is mired in appalling conditions while being ruled by a murderous warlord obsessed with female circumcision. The villagers aren’t impressed by any of the young Mormons, and have no interest in converting.

This is a show about religion, written by non-religious people, and it shows. The characters of faith have no faith. The natives are eventually converted by a story that makes no sense, made up on the fly by Elder Cunningham when he sees he’s losing their interest.

Faith is about a relationship with a higher power. People who believe in God consult His will for their lives, and their understanding of that will determines their actions. No one in Mormon prays or asks God for guidance or help. Elder Price is self-centered, sure, but even the most self-centered faithful person turns to God. Certainly there are people who are brought up in religious households and walk away from that religion when they grow up and find out that God is not a magic wand to wave around and conform the world to your expectations and automatically give them everything they ask for. This strikes me the kind of person Elder Price is: He has his idea of how his life should be, and when it doesn’t go the way he plans, he has a crisis of faith – “I Believe.” And that’s fine; the problem is that none of the other Mormons display anything that could be considered sincere faith. Elder Cunningham is even more baffling to me: He admits that he has not read the Book of Mormon, has no gift to be a missionary, and is spiritually vacuous. But, as mentioned, he becomes the hero of the story and the leader of the new religion that saves the village, all without any concept of what he’s doing or why it’s important.

If we were to compare Book of Mormon to Jesus Christ Superstar, another religious musical, I would argue that Jesus Christ Superstar is a more accurate portrayal of faith and a crisis of faith than Mormon. Certainly JCS has numerous problems, the primary one being that its Jesus is fully human but not fully divine (one of the premiere beliefs of the Christian Church is that Jesus was both). But if we take the character of Jesus from JCS to be a generic Christian, the struggle in the garden of Gethsemane is a much more accurate portrayal of wrestling with doubt and faith than anything in Mormon.

If “I Believe” is Mormon‘s crisis of faith number, and “Gethsemane” is JCS‘s, and we lay them side by side, I think it demonstrates the point I am trying to make.

 

Elder Price does not actually work through his doubts and faith with God. He recites the tenants of what he believes and facts about the Mormon church, getting increasingly ridiculous (“And I believe that in 1978 God changed His mind about black people!”), and later admits that what he believes “makes no sense” but he’s just going to keep on believing it. Jesus in Gethsemane agonizes over God’s will – running through a gauntlet of emotions from weariness, anger, despair, and defiance. People in a crisis of faith don’t just get a little sad and then perk up – I say as someone who’s railed against God’s unfairness in ways that make me ashamed now. Yes, Mormon is a comedy, and something as heavy as “Gethsemane” may not belong, but I think there still is a way they could have made Elder Price’s struggle a little more believable. Nabulungi’s reprise of “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is pretty emotional, so it wouldn’t be a huge tonal shift to include something similar for at least one of the Mormons.

Parker and Stone compare Mormon to Fiddler on the Roof, but Fiddler on the Roof‘s characters do act like faithful people. Tevye’s amusing asides to God show his struggle to reconcile his faith with a changing world. His daughters are living lives he didn’t live, and making choices he didn’t envision for them, and Tevye’s Jewish religion and his understanding of God is a major reason he responds the way he does.

It would have made more sense to me if the missionaries in Mormon were just privileged white kids from America who are on vacation in Africa and somehow find themselves in that situation and have to react. The way they act is closer to that than the way genuine missionaries do. Religion is an internal thing, but mature people of faith demonstrate that faith through their actions. None of the Mormons in the musical did, though.

Not only do the missionaries not have any relationship with God to speak of, the musical makes it plain that to reconcile the world with religion, a person needs to make themself stupid. “Turn It Off” was a highlight number for me: It’s fun, nicely choreographed, and provided probably my biggest laugh of the night when the  Mormons turn the lights on and off by clapping in the number, and the last time the stage is relit they all – including a surprised Elder Price – are in flashy tap-dancer costumes. But “Turn It Off” is supposedly about the life of the mind for a religious person when confronted with hard things. Domestic abuse? Fear of your own mortality? Loss of a loved one? Homosexuality? Just turn your brain off – “like a light switch” – and make the bad feelings go away.

Again, there are some people whose faith is like this, but mature faith isn’t. It won’t last if it is. But this is a very common belief among people who aren’t religious: Those who are must be dumb, or intentionally making themselves dumb. This is one of the biggest indicators for me that Parker and Stone don’t really understand Mormons, for all that they think they do. And when you don’t understand something, you tend to fall back on an explanation that makes the most sense to you.

Similarly, I spent the entire second act distracted by trying to figure out the appeal of the Book of Mormon – or the Book of Alfred, as it becomes – to the natives. The villagers have heard the story Jesus, and they hear of Joseph Smith through Elder Price, but it doesn’t apply to them. Why should they subscribe to this religion? So to keep them interested, Elder Cunningham starts making stuff up, pulling heavily from pop culture pieces like Star Wars and Star Trek and shoving AIDs, female circumcision, and other issues that matter to the villagers into his narrative. OK. But how is that spiritually satisfying?

Religions provide an ethical framework for people. They seek to answer questions about how we should live, what happens after we’re dead, why are we here. The contorted story the Book of Mormon becomes in Mormon doesn’t have any of that. There is no will of a higher power to listen to and obey, no threat of retribution in an afterlife, no discussion of morality. No reason to NOT have sex with babies or force female circumcision. Just because a story brings up an issue that is plaguing you doesn’t automatically mean that you will change your behavior to – well, to what? Why should a story about the early Mormons getting dysentery influence someone’s behavior? Again, I understand that Mormon is a comedy, but all of these issues and evils are already addressed in the show. Would it have been too huge a leap to add a little layer of morality in the end result as well?

At least Elder Price, up to “I Believe,” has a concept of theology. He believes that what he is doing is for a heavenly goal, and he has a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” after he abandons Cunningham and the mission, which scares him into correcting his path and going back. But all of this only makes it more jarring when he gets demoted from main character to second player, and abandons his certainty after his crisis of faith. Elder Price’s journey ultimately dumps even more lead into the concept of religion in Mormon. The concepts of good and evil, an afterlife, and a way to live on earth that’s connected to a heavenly purpose aren’t what makes a religion in the Book of Mormon: It’s believing dumb stuff and feeling good about it.

I don’t want to sound too down on the show, because I did enjoy it. I also appreciated the heck out of the logistics: There wasn’t a tortured, extended “tuning” session from the orchestra during the start and after the intermission. It jumped right into the music and got the show underway. Similarly, the cast didn’t keep coming back for more bows at the end. They filed out, bowed, and that was it: The audience was dismissed. It was extremely refreshing to have a show run to smoothly and efficiently. But a show about religion that doesn’t really understand religion requires an additional suspension of disbelief, and this kept pushing mine so far it snapped.

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