Theater in New York

Theater in New York

Shall I count the ways in which I love “The Book of Mormon”? Well, there aren’t that many. The musical from Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of “South Park”) has been likened to the best of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the golden era of Broadway musicals. But the comparison is lame, because the music (by Robert Lopez, composer of “Avenue Q”) is lame. There are generic knock offs of bad Disney, “The Lion King,” Blood, Sweat and Tears, “Hair,” Paul Simon’s South African period, Barry Manilow, George Clinton, classic chorus line numbers, as well as “Ya Got Trouble,” from “The Music Man.” Among others. Sometimes parody is just a cover for lack of talent, taking the easy way out. Sorry. The guy writes melodies by the yard. It’s all shtick, music as commodity Broadway as commodity.

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, is “The Book of Mormon” funny? Yeah, a lot of it is, extremely so, including some of those tunes. Certainly the new musical (at the Eugene O Theatre) is outrageous and scurrilous, with Jesus and the Angel Moroni popping up like hill town hippies who’ve done too much acid, and with all the young Mormon guys in pressed white shirts, doing their song and dance numbers as they head off on their absurdist evangelizing mission to a squalid Ugandan village where everyone lives in fear of AIDS, forced clitoral circumcision or murder by warlords, and where one guy keeps singing about the maggots in his scrotum. To hear these subjects set to the melodies of bad Disney tunes is funny, or a challenge or an act of genius, depending on your perspective. Much of the time it feels like high school class night skits gone berserk. But then you get a tune like “Man Up” (what did Jesus do, after all, when nailed to the cross?) and “I Am Africa” (in which the white bread Mormon guys congratulate themselves for winning over the locals) and the absurdity becomes some kind of art.

Hats off to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints for rolling with the punches. I keep reading that this musical, deep down, is full of affection for the church. Seems to me that the “The Book of Mormon” is about the absurdity of religious mythology one myth is as good as another, it tells us. What’s important is the power of storytelling, the ability to believe in something, the willingness of good willed people from different backgrounds to come together. Or something like that. On the other hand, maybe it’s just a big buzz Broadway event and nothing more. I wound up sitting next to Rosie O’Donnell. It was one of those New York nights.

While lessons of life and eternity can be drawn from storytelling, some things really only matter if they are factually accurate. This is especially true in the case of religious matters. Only the factuality of this is relevant. I find myself on the opposite side of the issue from Parker and Stone

I no longer active in the LDS Church (I think all religion is based on a guess) but it hard not to cringe at The Book of Mormon as a reflection of the zeitgeist. The actual Book of Mormon is scripture sacred to Mormons. To appropriate the name of that scripture to make a musical that mocks Mormons is a bit crass. To have it done on Broadway ought to be offensive, not just to Mormons but to Broadway, itself. After 180 years, Mormons are used to being the butt of somebody jokes, but having it done on Broadway is like bringing a minstrel show to The Lincoln Center. Is this the latest development in Broadway commercialization from Disney cartoons to Who albums? If Mel Gibson could write music, would it be okay to make a musical version of The Protocol of the Learned Elders of Zion? What about Triumph of the Will or The Turner Diaries? It no secret that Mormons stand out in New York but to make a musical making fun of them and naming it after their scripture is hardly enlightened, cultured or art. It childishness. It could make a good episode of South Park but putting it on Broadway should be offensive to both Mormons and lovers of Broadway. If not, then perhaps notions of and multiculturalism are more easily preached than practiced.

I served a two year mission for the LDS church in the poorest region of the Philippines. I find it funny that two wealth white American boys, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, mock us for giving up two years of our lives on our own dime to serve people in devastated regions of the world. Their point is that Mormonism does nothing for these people. I beg to differ. It does wonders for them and it did wonders for me. I served thousands of Filipinos. I taught English classes, built huts, farmed, taught spiritual lesson, helped distribute humanitarian aid, spoke their language (Tagalog), and lived in utter poverty for two years. I understand what it is like to wash my own clothes by hand, be robbed, feel hunger, and work in extreme heat because of my mission. I wish the media would tell that side of the story not perpetuate a naive perception of two rich American boys who have never done anything for those in need of the world.

It been pretty amusing to read all the commentary on this musical it like a Rorschach test. If you not Mormon, you take delight in the brilliance of sending up the church while not attacking the of its members. If you an anti Mormon bigot, you find fault with Stone and Parker for saying anything nice about the Mormons. And if you a Mormon, you try to play to type and be nice about those funny guys who are savaging of your cherished beliefs.

After watching Kathryn Schulz excellent TED talk on being wrong, it seems hard to argue that Mormon missionaries like Taylor Willingham are wrong to do what they do. You can say that he knows less about being a Mormon missionary than the playwrights. You can say that he dumb he can write with coherence and passion. And you can say that he evil.

So what to do? Make fun of a caricature of missionaries like him. Discredit the supernatural origins of his religion. Yeah, that the ticket and that just what it seems Stone and Parker are doing.

Don worry about The Book of Mormon on Broadway, Brother Taylor you already know more about humankind and brotherhood and love and grace than any of those who are mocking our religion.

The Book of Mormon itself understands: mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness; And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto mean weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. Ether 12:26 27

This play is much more a commentary on the society that consumes it than the LDS Church.

The Book of Mormon itself understands: “Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness;led tube light And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto mean weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

Jesus groaned in his heart and wept and he knew he would be tortured and crucified and take on all the sins of the world and suffer unfathomably for all including those who, in absolute ignorance of Him, commit the sins of sacrilege and ridicule upon his name and his creation without repentance.

If the participants of this production could look into His living face for even one second there would be no consoling them in their torment and misery for what they doing. They, like Judas, would go out and hang themselves from a tree.

Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Be kind and loving to them, so they can perhaps see right from wrong. Have mercy on them for the disgrace they make upon themselves
Theater in New York