Conceived as the love child of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of edgy cartoon series South Park, and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez, The Book of Mormon made its Broadway début in March 2011 and is set to open in the West End in early 2013.
The show tells the story of zealous missionary Elder Price and his incorrigible counter-part Elder Cunningham as they journey to Uganda on their mission to educate the natives on the virtues of their faith. The Elders must run a gauntlet of genital mutilation, political unrest and existentialism to succeed in recruiting new members to their church.
The premise for such a mainstream production might seem a bewildering choice but over the last decade the Mormon machine has been slowly gathering pace rising to over 14 million members worldwide. Stone and Parker’s own curious fascination dates back through their childhoods and early years of college — they grew up in Colorado, next-door neighbour to Mormon capital Utah — and struggled to understand the complexities of such piety.
But why is such a narcissistic hybrid of devout religion and cinematic idealisation so popular? And what makes this particular religion so interesting? Intrigue. The reason behind the shows conception and largely why The Book of Mormon continues to play to capacity houses. Mormons are inaccessible, shrouded in secrecy and misunderstood as an autonomous cult with a ‘Big Love’ for polygamy.
In truth they are distinctive and successful. They esteem family values and observe wholesome living through the strict doctrines of their scriptures as they strive to achieve their mantra ‘every Mormon a missionary’. But the show is parody, not reality and in the world of entertainment satirical insults and at times outrageous offensiveness prevail. Of course their objective was to criticise the literal credibility of the church whilst maintaining an admiration for the undeniable benefits of religious worship.
Whatever their intentions congregations of incredulous theatre-goers came in their droves to worship the newest offering of musical theatre where complicated religion is deftly articulated through show stopping, toe-tapping tunes. An impressive pedigree of highly revered comedic writing and a global fan base — the South Park enterprise is worth hundreds of millions of dollars — saw the production capable of sustaining and exceeding the notorious Broadway momentum. The show was nominated for a record 14 Tony Awards, winning 9 of them including Best New Musical and Best Original Score to become the most critically acclaimed new musical for years.
And it seems that even the Mormons themselves have a sense of humour, capitalising on the publicity by taking out full-page advertisements in the production programme featuring smiling, attractive faces quoting “The book is always better”. The reaction from the LDS church stated "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ”.
Perhaps then the real irony is that as The Book of Mormon continues to be the hottest ticket in town, Parker and Stone may unwittingly have become the most successful Mormon missionaries ever. Resist this show at your peril. The Mormons are coming and they’ll have you dancing in your seat.
- Sarah Bloomer
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