The Book of Mor(m)on



Went to see The Book of Mormon last night. I’ll be reviewing it on William Crawley’s BBC Radio show on Sunday morning, but thought I’d blog a few thoughts here too.

Firstly, it’s a great musical. I’m no great fan of musical theatre to be honest [in mathematical terms, it’s non-additive 😉 music (fab) + theatre (fab) doesn’t mean musical theatre = double fab] but, within its genre, The Book of Mormon is fine work. Brilliantly choreographed, some excellent numbers, fine singing performances and it zips along at full pace without the songs feeling too awkward.

It’s also, in parts, hilarious. Yes it is crude and ‘offensive’ – more on that later – but the comedy isn’t just about that, it’s also silly and sweet in places too, with some good physical theatre, all performed on a good set.

I don’t want to spoil the show for people, so don’t read this section if you’re going to see it and don’t want to know what happens. But any discussion of the buzz around it does need proper context… so hear goes.

Spoiler Start:

Broad-brush: think South Park performs a musical of Things Fall Apart. The story follows two young Mormon guys, sent to rural Uganda to do two years’ mission. They form an odd couple: the top-of-the-class Mormon jock, paired with the needy geek who thinks them being sent together is awesome.

Arriving in Uganda they find the mission has had precisely zero converts, and the village hosting them under threat from a local warlord, General Butt-F*cking-Naked, who is threatening to circumcise all the women/girls in the village.

When the General shoots a villager in cold blood, Jock-Mormon decides to flee to Orlando, and tells his geeky partner what he really thinks of him. One girl in the village is prepared to give Mormonism a go though, thinking it will get her out of Uganda and to the utopia of Salt Lake City.

The show really turns on this: geeky Mormon begins explaining his faith to her, but, in desperation to succeed in converting someone, starts adding in all sorts of embellishments to the story, drawing in elements of Star Wars, The Hobbit – and explaining how founder Joseph Smith was cured of AIDS by ‘f*cking a frog.’

The villagers, poor and desperate, believe all of this and end up being baptised – which saves the mission from embarrassment during a visit from the head Mormon who’s come to inspect them.

Geeky Mormon’s cover is blown though when the villagers put on a theatrical/dance interpretation of what they have learned about Mormonism, which leaves everyone aghast. In the mean time, Jock-Mormon has been assaulted by the General, and is ready to give up his faith. But, seeing the villager’s version, he understands that, no matter how nonsensical, it made them happy anyway, so they should just run with it.

In a mirror of the Joseph Smith story, he and Geeky Mormon thus start a new faith, based on the inspired writings of Geeky Mormon, and thus the show turns full circle.

[Spoiler End]

So, apart from technically as a musical, critically, is the show any good?

Part of the trouble of going to a ‘hot ticket’ show like this is that the audience can be very self-congratulatory. They got a ticket to the toughest-to-get-tickets-for show in town… and are going to over-enjoy it beyond what it might necessarily deserve. The reception was rapturous – but clearly the audience wanted (needed?) it to be rapturous. So, in one sense, the ovations needed to be taken with a pinch of salt.

In truth, I think it’s actually far weaker than it would like to think it is, especially for a UK audience. This is important. If you are going to see it, you are going to see an American show that deals with a very American religion that’s actually very peripheral in the UK (though how different this would have been if Mitt Romney had been elected.) Nothing wrong with that – but it does mean that the targets it sets up to attack, and the context to those targets, are not necessarily transferable. Religion in America is orders of magnitude more embedded in society than it is now in the UK, and the fun poked at Mormonism doesn’t feel that risqué at all.

In fact, I kept waiting to be offended. Yes the language is strong, and yes it can be obscene in some ways, but on a surface level it’s really not that shocking – and the apparent ‘offence’ can function to bolster that which is being attacked. Indeed, the circle of the narrative here is really very orthodox: it’s good old downfall and restoration. Yes, Mormonism comes in for a good mocking, but that it is shown as part of a very human cycle of attempting to understand the world and creating stories with which to do so means that it is, in many ways, given a nod and a wink, even if it is all a bit barking. Indeed, seeing the show and watching the video below, the odd thing is is that Mormons actually come off pretty well… and the creators just don’t really want to expose them as dangerous or mad – quite the opposite, ‘wow, they’re so nice, and they have a successful thing going!’

The good friend and theatre director I went with turned to me at one point and whispered ‘what would be really radical would be if the General just turned round and shot them all now.’ And she was right. Though the piece has been purported to be an attack on Mormonism and religion in general, it actually shies away from engaging with religion and critiques of it in any serious way. There are opportunities to do so. One brilliant song sees the villagers outline their response to famine, drought, AIDS, child rape and sexual violence with a traditional chant that the Mormons think must be about ‘in God’s strength we soldier on,’ but actually ends up translating as ‘f*ck you God.’ And yet this move to anger at God, or questioning God’s existence in the midst of this suffering, is never explored.

That’s fine – it’s a fun musical, so it might have been a wrong move to try – but that does mean that any claim to be a serious engagement with religion or theology has to be dismissed. As one critic has pointed out‘the show concludes with the glibly predictable moral that it is better to believe in something, no matter how absurd, than to believe in nothing at all.’ Hence it doesn’t pursue the possible avenues that open about the nature of truth and the place of myth and story in the development of cultures. It’s just not an intelligent or challenging production in that way, which was disappointing.

However, as I’ve said, it is definitively an American piece – and in the context of American society, may still provide high challenge to the still highly religious climate there. More worryingly though, we did leave feeling rather uncomfortable about the politics and drives behind the piece.

I’ve spent some time in East Africa – not loads, but I’ve visited on three or four occasions and my brother has lived there for 20 years or more. I couldn’t help wondering if any of the writers had been there, or what percentage of the audience had either. Towards the beginning of the show (see pic above) it pokes fun at the ‘Lion King’ view of Africa (note the wrong-continent tiger), but then proceeds to paint an equally myopic view: all backward impressionable poor people with AIDS, in need of help from Westerners. Yes, it’s meant to be funny and caricatured, but actually it doesn’t quite feel like that has been done from a wise point of view, and nowhere is this caricatured challenged, which leaves one wondering whether or not an audience who have likely never seen any different saw it that way or not.

As I keep on reminding my students, Africa is a continent of scores of different countries and cultures, with huge socio-economic and political differences. To just talk about ‘Africa’ is just never good enough, and it felt that the black actors in the play might not really be doing people a great service in performing these gauche stereotypes without challenging people to think different.

All that said, it’s a great evening out, and a lot of fun. Just don’t believe the hype about any brilliant critique of belief or religion as myth, as you’re just not going to get that here. (You’ll just have to read After Magic for that instead 😉 )


Here’s the writers talking about it: