by Troy Williams
(Originally published in the Q Salt Lake)
The Book of Mormon is not only true it’s outrageously awesome. At least The Book of Mormon as translated correctly through the musical seers Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez. From the moment the curtain rises the production delivers non-stop sparks of jaw dropping wowness. And beyond the spectacle, the play offers a toe-tapping deconstruction of religious narratives, white colonialism and messianic narcissism. What more could you want from Broadway?
After leaving the theatre I was struck with the question: “how did Mormons and gays ever come into such severe conflict with each other? Are there two other groups of people who share such a cheese ball affinity for feel good musical theatre?” I don’t think so.
Before New York I watched the seminal Mormon musical classic Saturday’s Warrior (the “Millennium Edition” no less). If you haven’t watched this in awhile please treat yourself (but first perhaps bless and sanctify some vodka and weed for the souls of all those who partake). Saturday’s Warrior is the goofy 70’s play that explored the Mormon Plan of Salvation with such earnest songs as “Circle of Our Love”, “Line Upon Line” and my personal favorite, “Zero Population” (The latter was an pro-abortion rock anthem sung by worldly corrupt teens: “Tragedy our oil is depleating each day/Ev’ry baby makes it last a shorter time/Legalized abortion is the answer, my friend/Without it, there is no peace of mind!”).
The creators Douglas Stewart and Lex De Azevedo understood then what Parker and Stone discovered today; musical theatre is the perfect vehicle to explore Mormonism’s Disneyland theology. You have to love Saturday’s Warrior for so perfectly capturing the self-indulgent egotism of Mormon culture. That’s not a diss. All religions construct narratives that place themselves at the center of the universe. Every religion believes that they have the one-true interpretation of god and the universe. Mormon cosmology is only unusual in that it’s quite possibly best explained by tap-dancing missionaries. Hence the appeal for Parker and Stone. The Mormon gospel is camp.
This may have something to do with how Mormons are taught to perform their faith. We express our beliefs by putting on a show — be it the monthly ritual of testimony bearing or the classic stake road show. As a missionary in Britain I didn’t want to knock doors so I wrote my own Book of Mormon play instead. It was dramatically titled “Voices from the Dust” and we had two sold out runs in the Cardiff, Wales Stake. I recruited the entire mission zone to dress up in make-up and Judeo-Native apparel to re-enact the best bits. This is what happens when you put closeted gay boys in charge of other people’s salvation. We dress each other in Nephite drag.
But back to the musical. What Parker and Stone have captured so beautifully is the entitled sense of religious exceptionalism held by many zealous missionaries. Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) is the ridiculously handsome, tall and blonde. He knows his destiny is to bring souls unto Heavenly Father on his mission to (he hopes) Orlando, Florida. Even being mismatched with the unkempt Elder Cunningham (the hilarious Josh Gad) Price is still determined to succeed as he sings “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”. Price’s pride quickly crumbles when he discovers that Heavenly Father is sending him to Uganda – the land of warlords, female circumcision, AIDS and baby raping.
The prevailing criticism of The Book of Mormon is not its portrayal of Mormons but rather the stereotypes of Ugandans. That’s just what Parker and Stone do. However, there is no doubt that the writers love both their Mormon and Ugandan characters. Many of the African stereotypes are viewed through the perspective of the white missionaries who fetishize their would be converts. The song “We Are Africa” is not only a wild send-up of pop celebrity paternalism ala “We Are the World” but also the myriad ways that we in the west romanticize aspects of other people’s cultures. The missionaries see themselves as “the great white hope” as they literally dress in white to baptize the village.
I remember Church leaders telling me as a young missionary to “go and love the people elder” which on the surface sounds sweet but also carries a lilt of colonial condescension. Missionaries don’t go to be taught – they go to teach the unenlightened masses. The lack of deep cultural understanding often leads LDS missionaries into big trouble (remember elders sitting on the Buddha and desecrating Catholic shrines?)
One character that gays will love is Elder McKinley (played by Rory O’Malley). He is the wonderfully repressed missionary who manages his same-sex attraction with the song, “Turn It Off”, inspired no doubt by Elder Packer’s famous “little factories” talk on masturbation. The dancing elders sing throughout their own “clap on, clap off” strategies for overcoming a myriad of sins and temptations.
Another favorite song is provided by villager Nabulungi (Nikki M. James) who, in the tradition of every Disney princess longingly pines for a magical faraway land, “Salta-Lake-Ceetee.” If she only knew!
And true to South Park tradition, the show is packed with unrepentant blasphemy. Including Joseph Smith’s “Magical Fuck Frog”. You’ll just have to see the play to understand the reference (get thee hence to New York!).
Trent Harris famously said of his Mormon satire, Plan 10 From Outer Space, “just because I made it up doesn’t mean it’s not true.” This is the major theme of The Book of Mormon; all religious stories are nuts. But if the stories that we fabricate improve the quality of our life then they hold a kind of truth. Not Colbert style “truthiness” but rather metaphorical truth. This worldview potentially delivers us away from the rigid excesses of fundamentalism but it’s also too simplistic. It doesn’t address directly how religious narratives also have the ability to make our lives hell — but that is perhaps another play. In the meantime we have a Mormon musical that is both endearing and shockingly funny. Joseph Smith should be proud. The stories he made up in 1830 continue to inspire a new generation of storytellers in these latter-days.