Collateral Damage Benefits: A Review of “The Book of Mormon” Musical
Jerry Argetsinger, who directed the Hill Cumorah Pageant for 9 years, calls the outrageous and offensiveBook of Mormon musical “one of the most entertaining shows ever written about the Mormon experience”
by Jerry Argetsinger
I believe ’cause I’m a Mormon
And that’s what Mormons do.
The Book of Mormon formally opened on Broadway last night and this morning the rave reviews are pouring in. Every major outlet from the New York Times to Varietyhas endorsed it as one of the most hilarious musicals ever seen. The cast has been universally praised and the musical numbers appropriately lauded. Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone are being congratulated for accomplishing the impossible: writing a religious satire that is at once outrageous and faith promoting. I was able to see the final preview Wednesday evening and I couldn’t agree more. The Book of Mormon might well win the Tony.
When you enter the O’Neill Theatre, the first thing you see is a proscenium in the style of the Washington D.C. Mormon temple, topped by a miniature statue of the Angel Moroni. Behind it is a drop painted in the fashion of a Mormon universe. When the lights dim, a spotlight hits Moroni, who rotates slowly as a trumpet fanfare signals the beginning of The Book of Mormon. The curtain rises and a pin spot hits an actor portraying a stereotypic missionary practicing a door approach at the Mission Training Center. He is soon joined by an entire district of model missionaries working to perfect their approach designed to interest suburban Americans in learning more about their church. At the conclusion of the song, a voice of authority assigns companions to missions. Each pair is excited and grateful until the last two, a mismatched “true blue” Elder Price who has never done anything wrong in his life with screw-up Elder Cunningham, an inveterate liar who can invent an excuse no matter how outlandish, are assigned to the Uganda Africa Mission. The irreverent musical by the creators of South Park is underway. The missionaries are going out to serve because “God loves Mormons and He wants to make some more.”
When the odd couple arrive in Uganda, they are sent to a small outlying village where they encounter a man dragging a decaying horse carcass across the stage toward a communal pit where it will be roasted. At least today the villagers will have something to eat. With new-missionary zeal, the Greenies ask the villagers if they’ve yearned for something more out of life. The impoverished natives answer by sharing their own philosophy that whenever something goes wrong, such as the AIDS epidemic, starvation, and the threat of female circumcision being enforced by the evil General Butt F’n Naked in order to appease the gods, they sing out in their misery, a word much like “Hakuna Matata,” excepting in this case it translates to “F*** Y** God,” a curse for never relieving their suffering. The missionaries are devastated to learn what they have been saying and exclaim, “The Lion King is a total misrepresentation of Africa!” Now their mission has been made clear; they must bring the Restored Gospel to these disadvantaged Ugandans in order to improve their lives.
Elders Price and Cunningham are quickly introduced to their new district of discouraged missionaries; missionaries who never leave their living quarters because there is no use. The problems they face are nothing like those back home in suburban America and the villagers are disgusted with other Christian missionaries who stop by once a year to promise blessings that never materialize. The Elders are paralyzed because they must follow their Handbook under any and all circumstances, the violation of which will bring down the judgment of Heavenly Father. (Yes. They always say “Heavenly Father.”) When the Greenies ask how they cope, the district sings the solution: “Turn It Off.” Anytime they face a problem or dilemma, such as dad getting drunk and beating his children. Like a light switch, they merely click it off and put on their happy faces. “It’s a cool little Mormon trick.” It is in this song that we learn that one of the missionaries is gay. The thing he must do, the Elders sing to him, is “Just click it off and you’ll never have to think about it again.” Of course he thinks about it again, several times. Elder Price has a crisis of faith because he was always taught that if he did everything right all of his prayers would be answered. He realizes that none of his prayers have been answered (such as desperately wanting to go to Orlando/Disney World on his mission) while every prayer of Elder Cunningham, who has never even read the Book of Mormon, is answered no matter what he needs. That crisis of faith provides the motivation for their entire adventure. The Elders have no contacts, have taught no lessons, have no investigators and have never had a baptism. When the pair finally go out to tract, they are plunged into confusion at the first hut they approach. They were taught in the MTC that they must first ring the doorbell. After searching intently, they panic because the Handbook does not cover this situation.
The Book of Mormon is one of the most entertaining shows ever written about the Mormon experience. As Parker and Stone have stated in their many interviews, it actually is a loving satire of Mormons: people who believe the most amazing things, but who are happy and who spend their lives in service to others. Members who write this off as anti-Mormon are missing the point. It is valuable to see ourselves through the eyes of observant others. This script defines what its authors see as Mormonism’s foibles (both culturally and doctrinally) as well as its strengths. The two major themes that emerge are that “It doesn’t matter what your story is, if you are doing good works you are in the service of your God.” When the heroes of our story break rule # 87 they suffer the nightmare of “Spooky Mormon Hell” where they meet Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, and other historic villains only to discover that the sin of breaking a mission rule makes them worse than all of those despots put together. In the end they learn the second important lesson: by breaking the rule, they throw off the plastic MTC-created logo-perfect patina of the official church sales representative and discover that true religion results when you do whatever is necessary to help those in need.
What a great story! It ends with the villagers saved from annihilation, starvation, deformation and that truly praises God for their deliverance. When the Mission President is appalled that the missionaries veered outside the bounds of the Handbook, he decides to send the entire district home. They rebel and finish their missions helping the people they have grown to love. The discomfort, indeed the most outrageous scene takes place when the newly converted villagers stage their own Mormon Pageant portraying Elder Cunningham’s wacky version of the Restoration which mixes Mormon doctrine, scriptures and history with Star Wars, Star Trek,and Lord of the Rings. The other two things that could be considered overboard are when the two missionaries prepare for bed, undressing down to their garments. They were wearing the old fashioned union suit style with the button front that hangs down over their knees. Fortunately no markings are visible. Finally,when the Mission President speaks to the district his sycophantic and television-evangelist-hair-styled Assistants chime in with “Praise Christ.”
Just as Parker and Stone’s earlier satire of Mormonism in South Park, this story is mixed with incidents and characters from Church history. But here the writers find success where they previously failed. Their earlier satire of the Mormon family doing everything they can to “be missionaries” and share Family Home Evening with their neighbors was hilarious. But their satire of the Joseph Smith story was nothing more than sarcasm, the cheapest and easiest form of satire, backed up with a musical chorus of “Dumb, dumb, dumb.” In Book of Mormon their writing is more mature and their satire is filled with wit rather than arrogance. The Savior appears on stage speaking with a Western Utah accent. The Nephites conflict with the Lamanites is used as a metaphor helping the villagers to understand that they can be blessed while their enemies are defeated. The Nephites, Jesus and Joseph Smith are all depicted with blond hair, because that’s what God truly likes. It is here that the missionaries make the mistake of explaining that “God changed his mind about Black people in 1978.” There is one straight forward, inspiring song called “I Believe,” that brings the house down with laughter because it checks off a long list of Mormon beliefs that outsiders find rather odd even though it is doctrinally accurate. In the end the story praises the young Elders for their demonstration of Christian love.
There was an added bonus for me. I served as director of the Hill Cumorah Pageant for 9 years and my wife, Gail, served as costume designer for 19 years. I was caught completely off guard, and rather delighted, when I saw Gail’s and my Pageant work being satirized. For example, when the new version of the Cumorah Pageant opened in 1988, Gordon B. Hinkley looked at the colorful Book of Mormon prophets in contrast to Joseph Smith who was properly dressed in a black cutaway. When he asked for a “more colorful Joseph Smith,” my wife responded by designing a costume that featured a light blue frock coat, tan breeches and a Belgian silk vest. There is was on stage last night at the O’Neill Theatre! The designers had done their research and I was both flattered and proud.
What affect will this new musical have on the Church? I am reminded of an incident that occurred when Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was playing in New York City while I was the Pageant director. Angels had won back-to-back Tony Awards for best play and a Pulitzer Prize. It was the must-see play on Broadway. The Church Public Relations Director from New York City came to see the Pageant and I asked him what affect the portrayal of the gay Mormon and his pill-popping wife in Kushner’s play was having on the Church? I was startled to discover that he had never even heard of it, even though it had been playing for years just a few blocks from his office. The fact is, New York theatres are intimate and only about 650,000 per year can see any given play. Outside of theatre lovers and a few tourists, hardly anyone knows what is happening on Broadway. I don’t believe that many people will pay attention even if The Book of Mormon plays for years.
But there is another unexpected benefit. This week there were four Broadway openings and two more Broadway shows that went into previews. The Book of Mormon has garnered the bulk of the publicity, from Vogue and Newsweek, to The Daily Show on television and the cover and two full pages in the insider newspaper Backstage. If the show becomes the hit it seems likely to become, there will be ads all over New York City, on bill boards, in the subways and on taxi cabs all over the city. The title alone, The Book of Mormon, with someone else paying for it, will be seen by millions of New Yorker’s. I can see it now: missionaries knocking on doors in every borough being invited in because the person who answered the door wants to know more about that book that has come to their attention via the show’s advertising. As the cast joyfully sings in celebration at the end of the play, “Tomorrow is a Latter Day!” Ultimately, it made me proud to be a Mormon.