The Argument: Broadway smash The Book of Mormon makes believers out of musical theatre heathens

The Argument: Broadway smash The Book of Mormon makes believers out of musical theatre heathens

The Argument: The Book of Mormon
(Image: Courtesy of Mirvish)

The day tickets for the Toronto run of The Book of Mormon went on sale in February, a lineup formed outside the Princess of Wales Theatre at dawn. Many of those chilly diehards found that, before they’d even stepped up to the box office, the best seats had been snatched up in pre-sales to Mirvish subscribers and certain privileged credit card holders, meaning they’d have to be content with the balcony. Ticket seekers who chose to stay home and take their chances online fared no better: Mirvish’s ticketing site crashed within hours of going live. By the end of the day, only a smattering of tickets was left for the entire run, a pattern that repeats itself just about everywhere the touring production goes.

I admit: I don’t get it. I always find it strange when people choose to stand ­shin-deep in the snow to get tickets to anything. That level of fandom takes an enormous amount of both dedication and earnestness—coincidentally, the defining features of big Broadway shows. I lack both. Even the blockbuster musicals have never moved me. Les Miz is saccharine; Wicked’s music is bland. I was once dragged to something called Wonderful Town, and after two hours of people clinging precariously to scaffolding while they belted out songs about dating, I resolved to turn down invitations to musicals from then on.

I stood fast for several years, but The Book of Mormon wore down my defences. The show, a satire on religion and colonialism, packs every onstage moment with manic energy and seriously adult humour. Created and written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q, The Book is totally enchanting and fully deserving of all the hype that has been flung at it. It also made me do something I always find irritating: for weeks after seeing it, I kept humming the songs. This is a musical for people who hate musicals.

It’s fitting that the show has the power to convert doubters, since its plot revolves entirely around pesky Mormon prosely­tizing. The story meets young Elder Price and Elder Cunningham (in the Mormon church, all the men are called elders, and the women…not) just as they’re setting off for Uganda. They’re travelling as missionaries, embarking on the year of service devout Mormons perform in their late teens. Elder Price is less than thrilled with the assignment—for one thing, the missionaries already installed there haven’t managed to convert a single local to the church. For another, he had his heart set on being sent to Florida. But, with characteristic Mormon sunniness (cf. Mitt Romney), Price gives Africa a try. A breakthrough comes when the bumbling Elder Cunningham, with the help of a young local woman named Nabulungi, manages to sell some of the locals on a bastardized version of Mormon doctrine. Nabulungi has an agenda of her own: she wants these nice white boys to take her to “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (say it aloud) and away from the clutches of a brutal warlord.

The Book of Mormon walks a tightrope between the sentimentality of Broadway and the kind of slash-and-burn satire more native to its creators. “Eternal life/Is super fun,” the future missionaries sing in the show’s doorbell-ringing opening number. Turned down by a potential convert, one missionary cheerily shouts out: “That’s fine, good-bye, have fun in Hell!” Another song, “All-American Prophet,” lays out the church’s origin story: for the uninitiated, in the early 19th century, an upstate New Yorker named Joseph Smith claimed to have a divine encounter in the woods that led him to what he believed was a new New Testament, written on giant golden plates. Midway through the tune, Elder Cunning­ham asks the obvious question: “So the Bible is actually a trilogy/And the Book of Mormon is Return of the Jedi?”

Before The Book of Mormon opened, no one knew whether to expect protests, lawsuits or both. After all, Stone and Parker had once been the target of death threats for depicting Muhammad as a cartoon teddy bear on South Park. None of that happened. Instead, the Broadway production has earned over $150 million—not counting merchandise. Even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints seems pleased by the show’s success: it has taken out ads in the program for the Toronto production, as it did on Broadway, showing cheerful people superimposed with the text, “I’ve read the Book.” It is, almost, an endorsement.

Part of the reason The Book of Mormon works is that it somehow manages to mock its characters without quite hating them. The laughs are all at the Mormons’ expense, though they never feel mean-spirited. The Mormon faith is ridiculed in light enough ways—the Star Wars references, the riffs on the church’s origin story—that the meaning it has for its believers is never really called into question.

The show is almost, well, sensitive. Which is an awfully strange thing to say about a production that often reaches the outer edge of the possible when it comes to jokes about sex and racism—jokes I hesitate to set down in print, in case they make me look like a horrible person for having laughed at them. To wit: when confronted by the villagers with potential theological loopholes, Elder Cunningham is forced to improvise new Mormon doctrine that quashes the local enthusiasm for female circumcision. But when, in the musical’s big showstopper, Price belts out, over and over, “A Mormon just believes!” it’s hard not to start feeling a little of that fervour out in the audience.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that it works: Stone and Parker already had an Oscar-nominated song (“Blame Canada”) under their belts, and Lopez’s Avenue Q—a kind of R-rated Sesame Street—is the quintessential anti-musical musical, which celebrates the very form it’s mocking. Or maybe it’s just a surprise that someone like me—a Broadway skeptic, an atheist and an old-school feminist who’s never been big on offensiveness for offensiveness’s sake—fell for the show so hard. However it did it, The Book of Mormon has performed another miracle.

The Book of Mormon

Princess of Wales Theatre
April 30 to June 9