Wednesday, April 27, 2011

THEATER: The Book of Mormon

Lo, and it was true that Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and Robert Lopez fill the book and lyrics of The Book of Mormon with references to fucking magical frogs (as opposed to virgin babies), fucking God in his various holes (including his cunt), and colorful characters like the crazed General Butt-Fucking Naked (which refers to the fashion in which he likes to slaughter people). Yea, but the true revelation -- racily given unto the audience -- was that the creators of South Park and Avenue Q had more than obvious jokes about overzealous Mormons and delusional Ugandans. Thus did the laugh-out-loud funny give way to the transcendental humor, in which the leaden salespitch of religion gave way to the golden tenor of the Broadway musical, and we were all saved from Yet Another Broadway Musical. Funnier than Spamalot, deeper than The Producers, The Book of Mormon is wedged between the winking sarcasm of Urinetown and the earnestness of The Drowsy Chaperone.

Long-term fans of Stone and Parker are no doubt unsurprised by this notice: their ability to hide deeper meaning in over-the-top premises and vulgarities has sustained South Park for fifteen years, taking it from the outright humor of an alien anal probe (or singing piece of fecal matter) to the absurd cracks at legalizing pot ("Medicinal Fried Chicken"), a damnable paparazzi ("Britney's New Look"), and bizarre economy ("Margaritaville"). But they will be cheered to know that tourists and theatergoers alike are getting the message beyond the buried gold plates and the maggots in my scrotum: "It was made up," realizes Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), reuniting with his prevaricating partner Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), "but it pointed to something bigger." One hopes, too, that they walk out of the theater prepared to call an end to the American exceptionalism that The Book of Mormon mocks in its sanitized references to The Lion King and the song "I Am Africa," in which the missionaries naively purport to be not only in the same boat as their Ugandan neighbors -- but to be more authentic than they are. (The only downside to some of these agenda-driven songs is that they are less catchy than their anthemic brethren.)

As they did when "mocking" Scientology, The Book of Mormon simply presents the Mormon beliefs more or less as they are, trusting that the tale of ancient warring Hebrew tribes and Joseph Smith's communication with the angelic spirit Moroni (Rory O'Malley) will do their work for them. (It does.) This tricky bit of sincerity is the show's saving grace, particularly in the way the creators use it to subvert musical traditions, like the "love story." Here, Elder Cunningham and the village elder's daughter, Nabulungi (Nikki M. James), sing a terrifically euphemistic song that gets them both good and wet ("Baptize Me") . . . which turns out to be entirely literal. The same cannot be said for the Act II's climactic "Joseph Smith American Moses," in which Mafala Hatimbi (Michael Potts) leads his tribe in what they believe is an "accurate" musical portrayal of the religion they have now pledged themselves to, for though they sing of increasingly absurd things -- like hobbits and Ewoks and all the other embellishments Cunningham has passed down to them in good faith -- they, unlike the horrified visiting Mormons, understand the meaning and power of metaphor. 

There's the real mark of faith, then: not so much the religion's past (its beliefs and lore) but its future (its actions). This is what we're taught by Price's breakdown in a "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" littered with leopard-printed devils who tap dance with silvery canes and top hats, to say nothing of a dancing quartet of Hitler, Jeffery Dahmer, Johnny Cochran, and Genghis Khan, or the twirling coffee cups and maple-glazed donuts. (The musical will forever be alive and chorus-line-kicking in dream sequences.) When he wakes up, it's to belt out "I Believe," which more or less dismisses the inanities of his religion in order to double-down on the faith that comes from believing in doing good nonetheless. And though this revelation doesn't have the result he's hoping for, it works wonders for The Book of Mormon, which is constantly pushing further than you thought it would -- even after explaining the English translation of the catchy, Hakuna Matata parody, "Hasa Diga Eebowai."

It takes a solid foundation in order to make those leaps of faith, and Parker, who co-directs with choreographer Casey Nicholaw, successfully provide that grounding. The framework of a Broadway musical is established from the very get-go -- a spotlight rising on the top of the proscenium, a curtain rising to reveal a chorus of polite doorbell ringers -- even as inexpensive scenic backdrops (Mormon headquarters is littered with fast-food chains) knock the needlessly lavish expense of other musicals. (At the same time, Ann Roth is tasked with designing a wide range of pop-culture costumes from Star Wars, each of which appears for roughly five seconds.) What appear at first to be shortcuts -- like a clap-on/clap-off lighting effect in the song "Turn It Off" -- reveal themselves to actually be stage illusions. (The second time the lights "clap on," the chorus's clothes have changed.) 
 
In other words, The Book of Mormon is far more than it might seem -- not just in terms of being deeper than the blatant jokes, but in an homage to Broadway that runs far beyond simply name-checking other shows or dance techniques. Like all religious texts (and Broadway shows), it could stand a little editing, but let's not hold that against it, especially as it isn't holding anything back.

1 comment:

Tobin Vance said...

Where I grew up in Southeast Alabama (i.e. Florida), we would often see neatly dressed men (not unlike Mormon Missionaries) standing on street corners on Friday and Saturday night, shouting at passersby that they "Where going to hell" and "would burn for all eternity" while shaking bibles at them.
I'm the grandson of a Southern Baptist preacher. Real hellfire-and-brimstone, drinking and smoking is bad M'kay Southern Baptists. That to me makes this, as Broadway Shows go, really really funny. I've also been a big fan of "South Park" since it's beginning. Being a long-time South Park fan myself, I'm not surprised the play has won so many awards. I think Stone and Parker are proving that you can like musical theater and still be cool. Rock on.
If you can get away to see this, do so. I saw it this summer when I was in New York. I was able to get the Book of Mormon tickets without any trouble. Go see it. You won't regret it.