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article imageOp-Ed: Touring 'Book of Mormon' blends bad taste with genuine heart

By Jeff Cottrill     Mar 28, 2013 in Entertainment
Edgy, un-PC humour isn't in vogue this year. Neither is irony, it seems. One wonders if that could become a problem for 'The Book of Mormon' (the Broadway musical, not the religious book) as touring productions reach audiences outside New York.
As you've undoubtedly heard, The Book of Mormon is the monster-hit stage show by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, written in partnership with Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez. This musical comedy tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to the war-torn hell of northern Uganda and learn horrid new life truths at which their scriptures never even hinted. The show won a whopping nine Tony Awards and has consistently sold out Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre for more than two years now. It also began a run in London's West End in February, and there's a version in Chicago running until September. A touring production, now in Pittsburgh, has already hit Denver and Detroit and plans to reach Boston, Buffalo, Cleveland and Washington by the year's end. (It's also in my hometown, Toronto, from April 30 to June 9.)
But while worldly New Yorkers and Londoners are relatively difficult to shock and offend, how will conservative Ohians and politically correct Canadians handle this vulgar, subversive and blasphemous show?
I don't mean to generalize about smaller cities or jump to conclusions about comedy trends, but I'm guessing that some might not be so eager to support Mormon these days – not after all the militant overreactions to last month's Academy Awards controversies, after which Seth MacFarlane became the poster boy for misogyny and rape culture and The Onion had to apologize for a bad joke for the first time in its existence. Even before that, SNL's “Djesus Uncrossed” parody caused a bizarre level of outrage that seemed more typical of 1979 than of 2013. (You'd think the show had never poked fun at religion before.)
Nobody wants to laugh anymore, unless it's at The Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men. More importantly, nobody wants humour to remind them of the darker aspects of human existence. And The Book of Mormon, apart from the obvious blasphemy, sullies itself with references to many tragic subjects at which we're not supposed to laugh: AIDS, infant rape, female genital mutilation, war, famine, brutal warlords, homophobia, cancer, domestic abuse, dysentery and tap-dancing.
That's right: Mormon goes over the line, many times. It's also got cameos by Jesus, Darth Vader, hobbits and Hitler. And it's the best thing that Parker, Stone and Lopez have ever created.
The secret of The Book of Mormon's success is in its unexpected heart, in the way it balances cynicism with compassion. The musical is satirizing a religion, but it's not satirizing the people who follow that religion. What it really is is a sort of sequel to (or spinoff of) the 2003 South Park episode All About Mormons, in which eight-year-old Stan befriends Gary, the new Mormon kid in town. Gary's family virtually kills Stan with kindness, until Stan snaps and rebukes them for their absurd beliefs. But while Gary never gets angry or arrogant, he still nabs the last word.
“Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense,” Gary says. “All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you're so high and mighty, you couldn't look past my religion and just be my friend back. You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.”
Full disclosure: I've always had something of a love-hate relationship with South Park. When the show is at its best, like in All About Mormons, not only is it very funny, but it also makes very valid moral points. Yet there are episodes when Parker and Stone clearly remember how to shock and offend the audience, but seem to have forgotten why. Without a clear or worthy point to make, it's as if they're being jerks just for the sake of being jerks. And they're smart enough that they don't have to do so; some of the better South Park episodes (like Season 7's Casa Bonita, or Season 8's AWESOM-O) work because they rely on character comedy, without needing to resort to the scatological or offensive.
But The Book of Mormon works because Parker and Stone know exactly why they want to shock you. They want to contrast the sunny, uninformed religious idealism of Elders Price and Cunningham with the nightmarish world of Ugandan violence and poverty – thereby showing how useless their Mormon dogma looks in the face of third-world suffering. The message: organized religion needs a damn good reality slap. So you're not laughing at infant rape, female circumcision or AIDS; you're laughing at the extreme culture shock that these naive missionaries experience when they realize that the real Africa is nothing like The Lion King.
Of course, the Ugandan villagers feel no use for religious influence of any kind, and they greet the Elders with a Lion King-esque number about their dismissal of it: “If you don't like what we say / Try living here a couple days / Watch all your friends and family die / Hasa Diga Eebowai!” I'll leave it to you to find out what “Hasa Diga Eebowai” means.
Matt Stone has called Mormon “an atheist's love letter to religion”, and one of the musical's messages is that religion could be a positive influence in the world if scriptures were taken not literally but metaphorically, as stories intended to teach morals indirectly. We see this through the character of Arnold Cunningham, a nerdy, socially inept missionary who has never read the entire Book of Mormon and annoys Elder Price with his made-up motto, “Tomorrow is a Latter Day!” Over the course of the play, Arnold discovers his creative side and gains self-confidence as he veers from the proper text and invents new stories to keep the Ugandans interested – and to teach them more important lessons. If Jesus got his moral messages across through fictional parables, why shouldn't Arnold?
Other than religion, there's another satirical target in Mormon, one that shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the South Park movie. Like that film, it's a parody of musicals themselves. It's no secret that Parker is a huge musical-theatre geek, and Mormon abounds with references to Disney, Wicked, Bye Bye Birdie, The Sound of Music, The King and I, Annie, The Pajama Game, The Music Man, even Sunday in the Park with George. And Lopez, who satirized Sesame Street's educational songs so brilliantly in Avenue Q, surely had a hand in this as well.
My favourite song, the Irving Berlin-influenced “Turn It Off”, is a catchy riff on the “nifty little Mormon trick” of shutting out unwanted thoughts and emotions – whether that's fear, grief or even homosexuality: “Imagine that your brain is made of tiny boxes / Then find the box that's gay and CRUSH IT!!” It's a tune that's both hilariously on-target and remarkably sad.
And Mormon wouldn't be anywhere near as good as it is if it “turned it off” in the same way – if it censored itself out of worry that it might offend or alienate its audiences. The politically-correct groupthink of our age (and the eerily cultish witch-hunt mentality that it sometimes breeds) may have its noble intentions, but it often limits our ability to express ourselves. In what kind of a world would you rather live: an Orwellian dystopia where you can't say anything honest because everybody's looking for an excuse to be offended, or one in which musicals like Mormon can provoke discussion and reaction that might enlighten us in new ways?
Please don't let your prudishness, or your knee-jerk PC outrage, scare you away from The Book of Mormon. Art and comedy, like religious scriptures, shouldn't be taken too literally. And sometimes they have to shock and offend you to get their points across. In fact, many of the best works of art and entertainment do exactly that.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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