Offended? Outraged? Inspired to spittle-soaked declarations of damnation?
As a non-Mormon—Jewish, specifically, and not too observant since a shotgun bar mitzvah long ago—I am less than morally apoplectic over The Book of Mormon, the startlingly rude, religion-eviscerating musical about golly-gee-willikers! missionaries in AIDS-wracked, warlord-ruled Uganda. Surely some folks—particularly in Mormon enclaves of Las Vegas—will believe its June 10-July 6 Smith Center run amounts to tuneful blasphemy with an intermission.
Or not. Hard to know without exit polls in the Reynolds Hall lobby.
Since the musical’s 2011 debut, reports have said reaction from Mormons nationwide has been mixed, some enjoying it as a satirical romp, others disapproving of its mockery and “misinterpretation” of their beliefs and practices. (Celebrity Mormon Marie Osmond told me in 2012 that she had “no desire to see it.”)
Yet social critics have observed that as a community, Mormons are reluctant to publicly express moral outrage due to feeling misunderstood in general, which was underscored by the media’s perplexed coverage—more quizzical than thoughtful—of Mormonism during Mitt Romney’s presidential run.
So, let’s spitball about sensitivity.
Indignation would be unseemly from me as a theologically disinterested, entertainment-first critic. That’s despite wince-worthy show dialogue such as this that would make even Satanic cultists blanch. (The devout and the delicate are advised to skip the next sentence. Think of it only as bad thoughts with bad words.):
“Fuck you God, in the mouth, ass and cunt.”
You see why Newsweek called The Book of Mormon “maybe the most obscene show ever brought to a Broadway stage” and The New York Times labeled it “more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak.” Yet The Times also proclaimed it “the best musical of this century”—admittedly, only a decade and change, and measured against a Broadway overrun by revivals and TV/movie-inspired mediocrities.
Its debatable disrespect (sacrilege?) bugs me not, as is. But rename it The Torah? Replace shiny-eyed missionaries with scraggly-bearded, yarmulke-wearing, Hebrew prayer-singing dancing rabbis—especially if concocted by mocking non-Jews?
Die, godless scum. Observant or not, you heap vile ridicule on my tribe, and I’ll have Most Wanted posters plastered at every Jewish deli. You’ll never eat pastrami in this town again.
Therein lay the folly of declaring something uncontestably offensive. Nothing is more personalized than our sensibilities, nothing more individualized than our threshold for offensiveness—and, paradoxically, nothing more hypocritical than group-kvetch when what was brilliant parody aimed at others’ beliefs becomes satirical sludge when aimed at ours.
Cultural hypocrisy is—dare we say—practically a religion.
So, what to expect from this 2011 Tony winner (nine of them, including Best Musical) from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Avenue Q co-writer/composer Robert Lopez?
In general: Two naïve, painfully earnest teen missionaries from Salt Lake City head to Uganda to convert the natives, but their faith takes a pummeling by the disease, poverty, famine and violence that somehow diverts the natives from appreciating their beatific smiles and sagacious, soul-saving life lessons.
In particular: Female genital mutilation and baby rape serve as comic plot points. Production numbers are set to songs including “All-American Prophet,” “Making Things Up Again,” “Baptize Me” and “Joseph Smith, American Moses.” Another, “Spooky Mormon Dream Hell,” imagines a nightmare vision riddled with prancing demons, gays and Genghis Khan. Jesus drops in, as do Brigham Young, Frodo, Darth Vader, Johnny Cochran and Hitler. Don’t miss lyrics such as I’ve got maggots in my scrotum. Or sight gags, including a teenager’s rear cavity invaded by a sizable item.
Profound philosophical questions are posed in dialogue such as, “Can bullshit feed a hungry soul?” and, “Does it matter if the gospel is true?” While the characters are sweetly likable, what informs their lives—in essence, who they are—is savaged.
Initial reaction from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was admirably even-tempered. “Parody isn’t reality, and it’s the very distortion that makes it appealing and often funny,” wrote Michael Otterson, the church’s public affairs representative, in a 2011 Washington Post article. “The danger is not when people laugh, but when they take it seriously.”
How to combat it? Impishly. In numerous cities, the church bought ads in the playbills touting the genuine Book of Mormon, with taglines such as: “The book is always better.”
Let’s admit that in a contradictory culture both obsessively sensitive (chastened celebrities, politicians, talk-show hosts and sports team owners issuing daily mea culpas over verbal and Twitter transgressions) and depressingly rancid (nine out of every 10 online commenters), Mormons are among the last acceptable targets of ridicule that won’t get most people’s skivvies in a twist.
Can you imagine, say, a musical satirizing traditions and beliefs of Native Americans when the words “Washington Redskins” become a PR hell for the NFL? Or a musical needling Mexicans in an era when two TV newscasters were shamed last month into apologizing for wearing sombreros and feigning festiveness during Cinco De Mayo (with one, ABC’s Lara Spencer, excoriated for calling it “Cinco De Drinko”)?
Compared to … what was that God quote again?
Without a President Romney at America’s helm to lend gravitas to the perception of Mormonism and to “heighten awareness” and “start a national conversation” (the most pretentious, meaningless tropes in American discourse today), no Mormon lobby will hijack the media’s attention.
Freedom of speech has always been as messy as it is indispensable, but rarely have we been as culturally confused as we are now. Even in the realm of satire, parity—the everybody’s-fair-game ethos—is an abandoned ideal.
Remember when it wasn’t? Remember the 1970s, when Mel Brooks shotgunned every racial and ethnic sensitivity in sight in Blazing Saddles? When Norman Lear used All in the Family’s Archie Bunker to denigrate every group except WASPs—but used Archie’s mere existence to upend WASPs most of all? Outraged activists protested here and there, but the entertainment value—and larger truths about the absurdity of bigotry—triumphed.
With The Book of Mormon (and South Park), Parker and Stone are the Brooks/Lear spiritual heirs, maneuvering through a societal minefield unlike those before. The cost is obvious—we’ve lost that offensive inclusiveness, if you will.
While The Book of Mormon is ballsy, it’s also safety-coated, confining its bomb-throwing to a group largely undefended in a culture that otherwise treats bullying like war crimes. Yes, the show disembowels religious faith and those who think the Bible is closer to a documentary than a fantasy anthology. Yet Jews, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims don’t absorb the brunt of its giddy scorn.
Only one group is saddled with that—the one whose possible objections are least likely to dent the box office and get show creators interrogated over their insensitivity by CNN’s Don Lemon, while earning plaudits from critics who probably wouldn’t be so sanguine if the target field was larger, the targets more likely to bite back big-time.
Couldn’t they write a musical that ripped every faith a new one, given that the supposed silliness of religion en masse is their point, and they all wear their dogma like halos? Of course they could have. Of course they didn’t. Equal-opportunity offensiveness is simpler on South Park, where meeting the fairly low bar of basic-cable ratings is nowhere near as financially perilous as a Broadway musical, juggling impatient investors with trying not to alienate people to whom you wish to peddle $100-plus tickets.
As a theater nerd, I join others of my species in appreciating The Book of Mormon’s success, both straightforwardly and ironically.
All too rare is the musical that crashes through the insulated world of Broadway to achieve the status of a cultural happening, even to those who consider being forced to sit through a musical an act of the devil. Les Miserables and Wicked were worldwide blockbusters, but don’t slip into coffee-break chitchat the way The Book of Mormon does.
Perspective, though, demands a nod to a smaller-scale, pre-musical work that hit the church like a live grenade a dozen years earlier. In 1999, gutsy playwright Neil LaBute, the Prince of Dark Themes and a church member himself, had the first staging of his Bash: Latterday Plays, a searing series of one-acts that put a Mormon spin on classic Greek tragedy. (It has been staged by Las Vegas community theaters several times.)
More gasp-inducing in its fang-baring depiction of Mormons than anything in The Book of Mormon, with no lighthearted snark and satire to soften its barbed edges, it centers on freshly scrubbed Mormons amiably confessing to hate crimes, infanticide and murder, somehow squaring them with their beliefs. Breathtakingly bold, it triggered swift retribution against LaBute from the church via disfellowship, a measure just shy of excommunication, persuading the playwright to depart the church.
Now that’s paying a price for your art. Predictably, it only reverberated among boots-on-the-ground theater loyalists and religious observers. Relative to LaBute, though, Parker, Stone and Lopez are just controversy-courting dilettantes—until they start swinging some iron balls and write a new musical called The Koran.
Then Mel Brooks and Norman Lear will bow down in awe.
Book of Mormon
June 10-July 6, The Smith Center, $39-$150, 749-2000, TheSmithCenter.com.