BWW Reviews: Caustic, Hilarious BOOK OF MORMON at Hippodrome
Not for nothing is The Book of Mormon, its national tour perched at Baltimore's Hippodrome for a short while, a big hit. In one sense it has everything: snappy songs an audience can go out humming, great dancing, humor that is both broad and edgy if sometimes gross, and some wonderful roles. At its heart, however, lies an awkward match between subject and treatment.
The subject, religion, and indeed that of one specific denomination, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, is given a frequently caustic satirical once-over, and, once the process is complete, the image of Mormonism (and by implication all religious faith) has been so scalded the show no longer feels entirely like a good-time Broadway musical. And despite all the plaudits the show has won (both Tony and Drama Desk best musicals, among many others), the uneasy fit between subject and treatment is a real problem.
The treatment is exactly what one would expect of the creative team, which includes Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the geniuses behind Comedy Central's thoroughly curdled South Park, a show that specializes in scabrous attacks on orthodoxy of all kinds. Few things are as disposed to orthodoxy as Mormonism, and hence, given who the creators are, it is a foregone conclusion that Mormonism is going to be roughed up. As most theatergoers know coming in, the arena for that roughing-up will be a proselytizing mission on which immature young Mormon men with the unlikely honorific of "Elder" are sent. And of course their faith is completely unprepared for the harsh realities they encounter. A lot like the hero of Candide who starts out with a naive belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, these Elders are slapped in the face by war and pestilence and ignorant superstition, not to mention the doctrinal and attitudinal weaknesses of their own beliefs. Like Candide, they will find that their initial convictions must be abandoned and something new put in their place.
This kind of plot, however, is not one that naturally winds up with everyone singing jubilantly at the end, which is one thing most big hit musicals require. Also, from a thematic standpoint, it paints the show into a difficult corner. I have seen various commentaries on the show that assert that the treatment of Mormonism is "affectionate." I'm not sure how affectionate it is when you have lyrics like
That Satan has a hold of you
That the Lord, God, has sent me here
And I believe!
That in 1978 God changed his mind about black people!
Nor am I in any doubt that it's downright hostile when the story of Joseph Smith's finding the Golden Tablets is retold with what amounts to rolling eyes on the subject of why the tablets were never found. This is a frontal attack on the Mormon faith structure, accomplished mainly by harping on things about it that seem ridiculous. And when the missionaries, the vectors of this rendered-ridiculous faith, are set loose in a country where their earnest but clueless activities endanger the population (putting villagers at risk of being shot in the head or subjected to female circumcision), I'm sorry, it's about as affectionate as Christopher Durang's takedowns of Catholicism.
So, after trashing Mormonism, and by implication most other faiths (since most have foundational myths about as likely-sounding as the LDS ones, and taboos that are no less but also no more sensible than those which restrain the Mormons), there are two natural places to end up. One would be in some kind of self-centered secular and existential humanism that takes the place of religion - where Candide arrives with his singular focus on making his own garden grow, or where John Lennon arrives after discarding all other forms of faith: "I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that's reality." The other would be a much bleaker existential despair, Camus territory. But Parker, Stone, and their collaborator Robert Lopez don't want to go either place. So they have to fudge it.
I won't give away what they do, except to say that it's a huge spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down and philosophically confused and illegitimate (probably), but at least permissible in dramatic terms. There is some kind of reason for the whole cast (and hence the audience) to be exultant at the end.