After seeing it advertised on the cover of a magazine in our hotel room in Melbourne, we bought discounted tickets to the local musical production of The Book of Mormon.
When we bought the tickets, I didn’t know much about The Book of Mormon musical, except that it was supposed to be shocking. I was curious to see what a musical about a notoriously odd American Christian sect would be like.
It was an interesting experience, and I’m glad we went. I imagine this show will never play in Singapore, a country that bans works of religious satire such as Life of Brian because they are thought to threaten social harmony.
See below for a plot summary of The Book of Mormon and what I thought about it.
Three-Act Plot summary of The Book of Mormon musical
The play itself has two acts, but I think about stories in terms of three acts, or four quarters, which is what you get when the second act is divided in half at the midpoint.
“Hello” – Young Mormon men are practicing introducing themselves door to door.
“Two by Two” – Young Mormon men are anticipating going out into the world as “elders” to offer to teach people about their faith.
“You and Me (But Mostly Me)” – The proud and enthusiastic Elder Price (who wanted to be sent to Orlando, Florida) is assigned to a remote town in Uganda with the awkward and adoring Elder Cunningham.
Second Act (Part I)
“Hasa Diga Eebowai” – When the pair arrives, they discover that Uganda has some serious problems. The locals teach them their own version of Hakuna Matata, but it’s shockingly NSFW.
“Turn It Off” – The elders already in Uganda have made no progress with the impoverished locals in part due to the interference of a local warlord. The local Mormon leader, Elder McKinley, is not too discouraged, though, because he’s used to switching off unwanted feelings. That’s how he deals with his homosexuality.
“I Am Here for You” – Elder Cunningham reassures the discouraged Elder Price.
“All American Prophet” – Elder Price, re-energized, sings about (the superiority of) his country, his religion, and himself.
The warlord shoots a local man dead. As a result, Elder Price suffers a crisis of faith and flees to Orlando, cruelly rejecting Elder Cunningham’s sincere offer to accompany him. The stakes have been raised and the hero is in retreat.
“Sal Tlay Ka Siti” – Nabulungi, an attractive young local woman, sings wistfully of the magical promised land of Salt Lake City.
“Man Up” – Elder Cunningham, touched by Nabulungi’s trust, decides he can teach the locals without the help of Elder Price. The intermission comes after this song.
Second Act (Part II)
“Making Things Up Again” – Elder Cunningham, left to his own devices, starts to improvise. He teaches the locals using a pragmatic blend of Mormon scripture and pop culture.
“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” – Elder Price, having arrived in Orlando, is so wracked by guilt that he has a nightmare and decides to return to Uganda.
“I Believe” – Elder Price marches straight into the warlord’s lair to profess his belief. The song he sings is breathtaking and memorable in its deadpan, melodic absurdity.
“Baptize Me” – If you didn’t know it was about someone baptizing someone for the first time, you’d think it was about two people having sex for the first time.
“I Am Africa” – The Mormons congratulate themselves for their successful conversions.
“Orlando” – Elder Price, having failed to convert the general, is despondent again. This song echoes”Tomorrow” from Annie.
“Joseph Smith American Moses” – A committee arrives to see how the Mormon missionaries in Uganda are faring. The converted locals put on a truly stupefying play in accordance with Elder Cunningham’s quasi-Mormon teachings. (Here’s where comparisons are made to The King and I, which contains a Thai interpretation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.) The committee is not amused.
“Tomorrow Is a Latter Day” – Defeat turns to victory when Elder Price realizes that the hope Elder Cunningham’s teachings inspired was real, which is all that matters. (Locals assure him that they never believed Salt Lake City was literally a real place. It was obviously a metaphor all along.) The new Ugandan elders spread their faith with the help of a book based on Elder Cunningham’s teachings, which they call The Book of Arnold.
Is The Book of Mormon musical offensive?
Yes and no. Offensive to whom and why?
Yes, The Book of Mormon musical is crass.
Reviewers describe the production with a number of adjectives that should raise a red flag for those with delicate sensibilities: crass, crude, coarse, obscene, smutty, raunchy, bawdy… the list goes on. If you don’t think you can enjoy or overlook that kind of explicit content, don’t go and see the show.
Yes, The Book of Mormon musical is irreverent.
Reviewers are also quick to highlight the iconoclastic aspect of the musical, which mocks organized religion. Here again, the adjectives are telling: irreverent, blasphemous, outrageous, biting, satirical. If you don’t think you can enjoy or tolerate seeing the audience laugh at some bumbling Christian missionaries, don’t go and see the show.
Thankfully, we have the right to be offensive.
There is no inappropriate subject for humor. (Inappropriate context, yes. Inappropriate subject, no.) There should be no sacred cows because institutions incapable of tolerating criticism, like the government in V for Vendetta, are dangerous.
Although you might agree in principle that we need a multiplicity of opinions and the license to express them, you might say that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints didn’t deserve to be attacked. I’m not sure it was.
The Book of Mormon musical is not mean.
Elder Price is depicted as arrogant and naive but not irredeemable, and the harsh reality he encounters fails to prevent him from achieving his stated and in fact deeply sincere goal, which is to help others. Elder Cunningham starts out as a desperate hanger-on, but he becomes an independent, inspirational community leader.
These are not caricatures meant to show that the Mormon faith is a hindrance to individual moral and intellectual development or world progress. The message is that religious people are good people. Their personal beliefs may seem nonsensical, but they do important work.
The Book of Mormon musical preaches tolerance
Oliver Burkeman, a writer I very much like, discerns a similar message:
You can’t really function in America – you can’t even turn on the television – without a high tolerance threshold for people with absurd beliefs…. [I]f you can’t countenance the idea that even these people might have some redeeming features as humans, too, you’ll find yourself ceaselessly embattled, enraged and exhausted.
Burkeman concludes, in contradiction of another reviewer, that you can (and sometimes must) “be Swift and Pollyanna at the same time”.
What Mormons think of The Book of Mormon musical
To their credit, Mormons chose not to stage angry protests. Sometimes righteous anger promotes necessary changes in society, but sometimes it just makes you appear whiny.
Mormons didn’t just tolerate the show, though, they embraced it. The official church reaction was that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. People who didn’t know thing one about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints started asking all kinds of questions about it. Members of the church deliberately encouraged this curiosity.
Many church members, meanwhile, professed little to no curiosity about the musical, and declined to watch it, citing reasons of personal taste. Why on Earth would they concern themselves with something so obviously trashy? Philippians 4:8 comes to mind:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Seems like good advice, no?
What I thought about The Book of Mormon musical
Personally, I could have done with less of the crassness, but I still found the show immensely entertaining. The Book of Mormon is a musical that pokes fun at musicals for being ridiculously, earnestly hopeful. It goes all the way through ridiculous and out the other side, yet is itself undeniably filled with that same earnest hopefulness. It’s a satire, but it’s a heartwarming satire. Thus the quip about Pollyanna and Swift.
The show is uplifting in that the main characters triumph over adversity. However, the deeper thematic implications of this triumph are not crystal clear. One message you could take away from The Book of Mormon is that the ends justify the means, which is a message I’m not terribly happy with. Another is that we all have to have faith, and it doesn’t much matter who or what, exactly, we have faith in. That’s a message I’m even less happy with. Nevertheless, I applaud the plot for honoring good intentions. Intent matters. Courage matters. Persistence matters. These are values the characters demonstrate (eventually), so they deserve to succeed. If, as Oliver Burkeman says, the message is to maintain your faith in humanity, I’m generally okay with that.
The show has been criticized for depicting Africa as backwards. Maybe that depiction is part and parcel of the delusion the musical’s white Mormon missionaries bring with them to Uganda. The story is an exaggerated, surreal fantasy. If the Mormons’ self-congratulatory evangelism is blown out of all proportion, maybe the Africans’ helplessness isn’t meant to be taken at face value either; maybe it’s meant to help show that the young white men are full of unjustified self-importance. Or maybe the bleak depiction of Africa is just a load of inexcusable carelessness on the part of the writers that sadly reinforces negative stereotypes. Luckily, we have some other, better fiction about Africa.
I think the depiction of religion as an expanding set of stories reflects what actually happens. One of the songs in The Book of Mormon points out that the Bible of the Jews has one part, the Bible of the Christians has two, and the Bible of the Mormons has three. More is obviously better. At the end of the show, a new religion has been created on the basis of Mormonism, and, in keeping with the established pattern, it has added a fourth part to the good book. (I was not surprised to learn that the real-world Mormon church has multiple branches, at least one of which has added to scriptural canon.)
I’m reminded of Flatland, a late nineteenth-century social satire expounded by means of geometry. The story follows a square who is initially only aware of his own two dimensions until he glimpses a one-dimensional world where there are no shapes, only points and lines. Afterwards, he meets a sphere who shows him a three-dimensional world. The square then reasons that there must be a four-dimensional world as well, and others beyond it. The pompous sphere, apparently unable to apply inductive reasoning, rejects this idea. My truth is the last, best truth. Obviously.