Updated for fifth anniversary.
The Book of Mormon opened today in 2011. It won 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Its original leads — Andrew Rannells, Josh Gad, Nikki M. James — have moved on, thrust closer to stardom. Its co-writer Bobby Lopez has since won an Emmy, Grammy, and Oscar to add to his Tony, and was the co-composer of the must successful animated musical of all time, Frozen.
Costing about $9.1 million to mount, The Book of Mormon earned nearly $250 million on Broadway alone (with an unprecedented top ticket price of $477) within the first three years, and that doesn’t count the grosses from its productions in Chicago and on national tour. When it opened in London in 2013, it broke box office records for the highest single day of sales in both West End and Broadway history. “It has never had an unsold seat in any building in which it’s played,” producer Scott Rudin has said.
Here is my review, dated March 24, 2011:
It was inevitable that “The Book of Mormon” would be a “happy musical,” according to one of its creators, Trey Parker, because “Mormons are so happy-go-lucky optimistic people; they kind of have that cheesy factor…Disney/Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
Few Mormons would likely be happy with Parker’s description of them, and fewer still with the musical, now opened at the Eugene O’Neill, that Parker has put together with his “South Park” partner Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” composer Robert Lopez. “The Book of Mormon” is also sure to offend or at least discomfort Disney, the Government of Uganda, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, people who don’t like humor that used to be called unprintable, and the devout of any faith.
Yet in an almost surreal way, “The Book of Mormon” is indeed a happy musical, the kind of traditional sweet and sassy Broadway entertainment that offers a generous and strategic mix of gorgeous sets, razzmatazz dance numbers, catchy tunes, a clever story, and well-timed hilarity.
That “The Book of Mormon” has moments of vulgarity and in-your-face satire should come as no surprise to those who have seen or even heard about the previous output of two-thirds of the team, Parker and Stone — “Team America: World Police,” say, or “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” Their new musical is similarly profane.
What may amaze theatergoers, though, is that this musical about two young Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda could in many respects just as easily be called “The Book of Broadway”
The opening musical number, a highlight entitled “Hello” in which the clean-cut white-shirt-and-narrow-tied members of the Church of Latter Day Saints ring doorbells to introduce themselves and their holy scripture (The Book of Mormon), seems influenced by the telephone opening of “Bye, Bye Birdie.”
The duet between the two missionary roommates, “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”
could have been inspired by “I Believe in You” from “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” in which the character sings to his mirror.
The overall plot of the musical seems a cross between “The Odd Couple” and “The Music Man,” with some detours through the aforementioned Rodgers and Hammerstein.
In none of these echoes are the creators of “The Book of Mormon” committing the sin of theft; they are worshipping at the altar of The Great White Way.
And very white it is in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Andrew Rannells (“Hairspray,” “Jersey Boys”) plays a young fastidious member of the Church of Latter Day Saints whose name is Elder Price (I am not sure we ever learn his first name.) Elder Price wants nothing more than to serve his church as a missionary….in Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. That is not what is in store for him. He is going to be sent on his two-year mission to Uganda.
And he will be sent there paired with Elder Cunningham (first name Arnold), a fat but enthusiastic slob who uses the word “awesome” a lot, has a tendency to lie, and knows far more about “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” than he does about Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or the sacred texts of their faith. Elder Cunningham is played by Josh Gad (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) in what is likely to be a star-making performance.
Once arrived in a small village in Northern Uganda, they do not receive an enthusiastic greeting from the villagers – dressed by the sharp-eyed costume designer Ann Roth in outfits half African/half Western that make it clear above all how poor they are. Just in case that’s too subtle an indication, one villager pulls a dead donkey across the stage. The villagers soon offer what the missionaries take to be a welcoming African-inflected song and dance, “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (homage to, and subversive spoof of, the “Hakuna Matata” song in “The Lion King.”) But then they tell the Mormons what “Hasa Diga Eebowai” means — (in the words of Elder Cunningham, using a euphemism) “F.U. Heavenly Father.”
And away we go….
The villagers have plenty of cause to be bitter: poverty, AIDS, violent strife by an evil warlord who kills under the slightest provocation and plans to circumcise all the women. Some of their afflictions are previously unimaginable.
“I have maggots in my scrotum,” one man tells Elder Price
At a loss, Elder Price tells him to see a doctor.
“I am the doctor.”
Faced with all the daunting problems, the other missionaries offer a suggestion to the two newbies in song: “Turn It Off,” which ends with a old-fashioned soft-shoe number complete with red-sequined satin vests — a song-and-dance to tuning out the world’s problems.
Neither of our heroes can just turn it off. His pristine white shirt splattered with blood from a spontaneous execution, Elder Price sputters in shock “Africa is nothing like The Lion King,” and vows to leave, imagining himself in Orlando, until a dream — “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” in which he is cavorting with the three most evil men in history (Hitler, Genghis Khan and Johnny Cochran) — scares him into staying.
Meanwhile, Elder Cunningham takes a different tack. He gathers the villagers together and preaches from The Book of Mormon. The problem is, he himself has never read the text, and he stumbles upon a passage about how the Lord God took people who “were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome” and because they were evil, as a curse, “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”
Elder Cunningham then decides to use what he knows – nerdy sci-fi adventure stories – to invent on the spot his own brand of Mormon theology, and the natives are hooked. This leads to what is sure to be the most talked-about scene in the musical, “Joseph Smith American Moses,” in which the newly-converted Ugandans offer the Mission President visiting from Salt Lake City their own over-the-top blasphemous, intensely obscene and hysterical interpretation of the origins of the Church of Latter Day Saints (yet another page from the Book of Broadway — a bow to the dance choreographed by Jerome Robbins, “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” from “The King and I.”)
Even while it satirizes, “The Book of Mormon” has some wonderfully sweet moments — a result, I suspect, of the leavening influence of Bobby Lopez, who with his collaborators turned “Avenue Q” into a musical that had just the right balance between outrageous and adorable.
Just such a moment is the duet between Elder Cunningham and the villager Nabalungi (played beautifully by Nikki M. James,”The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “All Shook Up”), a soulful melody in which the Mormon is supposed to be baptizing his convert, but, hilariously and brilliantly, the ritual has all the trappings and emotions of a sexual encounter.
On the other hand, the warlord (played by Brian Tyree Henry), while listed in the Playbill discreetly only as “General,” is very explicitly named on stage, “General Buttfucking Naked.”
It could surely be scientifically proven that “fuck” will always get a laugh out of a Broadway audience, as long as it is not uttered in anger or as a dramatic climax. Think how much greater the titters over “Buttfucking,” repeated numerous times. This is not “The Book of Mormon” at its finest.
It also needs to be said that, while it is clear that “The Book of Mormon” is taking aim at all organized religion, still the musical’s creators make an uncomfortable choice in singling out the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a relatively new religion that is a cheap and easy target. Mormons are the object of contempt by followers of more powerful religious orders whose views Parker and Stone and Lopez would find just as repugnant and ridiculous.
But “The Book of Mormon” has enough heart (its leads are characters, not caricatures), makes pointed commentary about organized religion in such insightful and entertaining ways (while acknowledging the human need for the spiritual) and has such a clever twist at the end, that — dare I say it — it redeems itself, gloriously.
The Book of Mormon
At the Eugene O’Neill Theater
Book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone.
Directed by Casey Nicholaw
Set design by Scott Pask, costume design by Ann Roth, lighting design by Brian MacDevitt and sound design by Brian Ronan. Orchestrations are by Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus. Music direction and vocal arrangements are by Stephen Oremus
Cast: Josh Gad as Elder Cunningham, Andrew Rannells as Elder Price, Nikki M. James as Nabalungi, Rory O’Malley as Elder McKinley and Michael Potts as Mafala Hatimbi, with Lewis Cleale, Scott Barnhardt, Justin Bohon, Darlesia Cearcy, Kevin Duda, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Brian Tyree Henry, Clark Johnsen, John Eric Parker, Benjamin Schrader, Michael James Scott, Brian Sears, Jason Michael Snow, Lawrence Stallings, Rema Webb, Maia Nkenge Wilson and Tommar Wilson. The production will also feature Graham Bowen, Ta’Rea Campbell, Jared Gertner, Tyson Jennette and Nick Spangler.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission