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Goodbye, 'Big Love'...Hello, 'Book of Mormon'
Friday, March 25, 2011
"Big Love," HBO's series about a fictional fundamentalist Mormon family, wrapped up this week. But Broadway has a new show that takes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as its subject. "The Book of Mormon," a musical written by the creators of the hit TV show "South Park," opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Thursday night.
"The Book of Mormon" starts off in--where else?--Salt Lake City, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is based. A group of teenage Mormons, or elders, have graduated from missionary school and are being sent off to proselytize in places as far-flung as Japan and Norway.
"We're fighting for a cause but we're really, really nice," sings the group of clean-cut young men wearing crisp white shirts and black ties, trousers and nameplates. "We are the soldiers of the army of Jesus Christ...of Latter-day Saints!"
Two of them, Elders Price and Cunningham, played with aplomb and wit by Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, are sent to Uganda. (Clark Kent comes to mind when Rannells enters the stage; Gad channels a young Chris Farley when he utters his first line.) Full of hope that they will share their teachings abroad, the pair hops on the plane.
"I'm sure 'The Book of Mormon' will do these Africans a lot of good," one of them says. "Tomorrow is a Ladder Day."
But when Price and Cunningham arrive, they find a village beset by rape, genital mutilation, AIDS and scorpions. Neither knows how to react to such alien surroundings.
"Africa is nothing like 'The Lion King,'" says Elder Price, who dreams of--and sings about--being sent to Orlando, Fla. to spread the word instead of Uganda. "That movie took a lot of creative license."
Elder Cunningham rather inappropriately, but predictably, falls for Nabulungi, a pretty, light-skinned villager played by Nikki James. "She is such a hot shade of black and white, she's like a latte," he says.
Trey Parker, one of the creators of the musical, said the mission that many Mormons go on when they turn 18 inspired the show's creators and made for a perfect coming-of-age story.
"In our instance, there's these two kids that live in Salt Lake City that are suddenly paired together, don't really know each other," Parker said in a video on the musical's Web site. "And they're sent off to Africa, across the world, into a place that is as far from Salt Lake City as they can get, trying to instill everything they've learned into people who are dealing with poverty and war and AIDS and all of that."
One of the other creators of "The Book of Mormon," Matt Stone, said that the problems Elders Price and Cunningham have in Uganda occur because the missionary tactics they were taught in Utah aren't easily translated abroad.
"Your religion is there to solve these problems for you, and then you go to some places like Sub-Saharan Africa," he said. "Now, it's like, take those same lessons and have them solve some of these problems. And you realize you have nothing in your tool kit."
Parker and Stone don't hold back when it comes to making light of Mormons. Many scenes in the play feature irreverent takes on Joseph Smith (the Rochester prophet who unburied golden plates that later became the Book of Mormon), Jesus Christ and Brigham Young, who established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. The show is also packed with explicit language--probably a good idea to leave the kids at home for this one!--and in-your-face slurs that play on gender and race stereotypes.
Mormons aren't the only ones who are ridiculed in "The Book of Mormon." In the first act of the play, Elder McKinley, played by Rory O'Malley, teaches the others at the missionary base in Uganda how he's kept his love for other men in check.
"Turn 'em off like a light switch," he sings, clapping lights on and off and tap dancing with the other Mormons in a pink- and orange-sequined vest. "Don't feel those feelings, hold it in instead."
Act II of the play pokes fun at Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, Starbucks and maple-glazed donuts, among other things, during a "spooky Mormon hell dream" that Elder Price has. The Ugandans confuse typewriters for cell phones. All the white women are played by men in costume.
Parker and Stone decided to make "The Book of Mormon" after they met Robert Lopez, one of the creators of "Avenue Q." All three shared an interest in bringing the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith on Broadway. It's not the first musical Parker and Stone have worked on. They made "Cannibal: The Musical" in 1993 and "Team America" in 2004. Their movie "Orgasmo," made in 1997, also references Mormons.
Although much of their new musical has the potential to make audience members squirm with lines like "You go baptize these Africans," Dwania Kyles said she wasn't offended by "The Book of Mormon" because it was so over the top. "These are the 'South Park' boys," said Kyles. "They just put it out there and it's ridiculous. In your face."
Hayley Watson, who also saw the show in previews a few nights before it opened, agreed. "I thought it was hilarious. It really kept my attention," she said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not, as an institution, usually call for boycotts.
"When the comedy writers for 'South Park' produced a gross portrayal of Church history, individual Church members no doubt felt uncomfortable," the church wrote on its Web site in 2009 over a "South Park" episode called "All About the Mormons," which was about characters Stan and his dad meeting a Mormon family who moved to town. "But once again it inflicted no perceptible or lasting damage to a church that is growing by at least a quarter of a million new members every year."
This week, the Church said it had ramped up campaigns to dispel myths about members of its church, such as "I am a Mormon," a multimedia campaign that allows anyone to go online, choose a Mormon by age, gender, ethnicity or geography and have an online chat.
Top photo on right: From left, Rema Webb, Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad perform in "The Book of Mormon" at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus) Bottom photo on left: Andrew Rannells performs in "The Book of Mormon" at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus)