Musings on “The Book of Mormon”

The Book of Mormon sign on the Eugene O'Neill Theatre marquee in New York

My first love was a Mormon. His name was Donny Osmond, and though I never met him, I loved everything about him — from his bright purple socks to his pearly white smile. 

Shades of The Lion King as Elders Price (Andrew Rannells) and Cunningham (Josh Gad) arrive in northern African for their Mormon mission (Photo: Joan Marcus)

My latest love is a musical called “The Book of Mormon,” which I saw at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway while visiting NYC last month. I stalked the tickets online and by phone day and night until a single seat popped up for the week of my visit.

“The Book of Mormon” stars Josh Gad (Elder Cunningham) and Andrew Rannells (Elder Price) — plus Nikki M. James (Nabalungi), winner of the 2011 Tony Award for best performance by an actress in a featured role (musical). Also Rory O’Malley (Elder McKinley) and Michael Potts (Mafala Hatimbi).

Crowds gathering before a recent performance of The Book of Mormon on Broadway

I sat in a center seat of the seventh row in the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, a small venue jammed packed with people who’d been clever enough to buy tickets before the reviews made headlines, paid dearly for tickets via the secondary market, or gotten lucky in the daily ticket raffle or standing room only line.

To my left was an actor well-known to “Law & Order” viewers, who was perfectly charming until I stepped on his feet making a run for my seat. A father and his teenage son, also visiting from out of state, sat to my right — and shared that they’ve long been fans of the television series “South Park.”

“The Book of Mormon” is the brainchild of Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone — who wrote the musical’s book, music and lyrics after meeting one night when Parker and Stone (creators of “South Park”) went to see “Avenue Q” (which Lopez co-wrote and conceived).

This doorbell that marks the Eugene O'Neill Theatre stage door is part of the show's impressive marketing campaign

His bio in “The Book of Mormon” playbill notes that “Lopez sang in church choirs throughout college and always suspected he’d return to sacred music.” Parker and Trey are best known for the profane. The show’s playbill notes that “It has been a long-time dream of Parker’s to write a musical for Broadway.”

The “South Park” duo hails from Colorado — Parker from Conifer and Stone from Littleton, a Denver suburb best known to some as the site of Columbine High School, where a tragic school shooting took place in 1999. If you’ve seen “South Park” or “Avenue Q,” you know what you’re getting into with “The Book of Mormon.”

Josh Gad and other cast members signed autographs after the show last Wednesday night

Apparently, at least one person in the audience came unprepared. Folks who waited in the autograph line after the show told me they’d heard a women protesting the show’s crude content — saying something like “You just don’t use the F-word on Broadway.” True enough for a time, but that time has clearly passed. And the “F-word” is mild compared to some of the show’s other language.

A truer test of this trio’s musical theater muster might be creating a show with less offensive fare. I’d have taken just as much pleasure from “The Book of Mormon” story were it told without colorful gestures, language and props — though it was clear from the steady hum of the audience that they were thrilled with every minute of it.

Andrew Rannells lights up the stage, and more than a few hearts, with his sparking smile and spectacular talent

“The Book of Mormon” pokes fun at American culture. The opening scene, which features a set full of signs for retail and fast food giants like Walmart, registers a high score on the mock-o-meter. The bright-eyed character with a pristine white smile, Elder Price, longs to live in a Disney-created paradise he simply calls “Orlando.”

The mock-o-meter also registers jabs at Americans who romanticize Africa — including obvious hits to “The Lion King” and celebrities who champion causes in other countries ala “We Are the World.” Changing the world, it seems, is easier than changing oneself. And here be the rub: For all its offense, this musical speaks the truth. The greater your ability to laugh at yourself, the less it hurts.

Tony Award winner Nikki M. James greets fans after a recent performance of The Book of Mormon

If an actual mock-o-meter existed, the needle would spin wildly out of control during depictions of the Mormon religion, known more formally as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. While Utah has the country’s highest population of Mormons, I’m told that Mesa — home to a beautiful temple and visitors center –ranks second.

The Mormon church has been relatively quiet, wisely I think, in their objections to portrayals of their faith in “The Book of Mormon.” The musical conveys all sorts of stereotypes about the religion’s founders, tenets and followers — but still manages to capture the earnestness of a people who desperately want to do right by God and each other.

“The Book of Mormon” is a powerful reminder of the ease with which we make assumptions. That God favors us over others. That others see us the way we see ourselves. That the afterlife trumps the everyday. That easy is good, and good is easy.

Nikki M. James, Andrew Rannells, Josh Gad and the cast of The Book of Mormon (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The show drew thunderous applause and a lengthy standing ovation. I didn’t want the experience to end, and was delighted when cast members shared in the audience afterglow by signing autographs and talking with fans. They’re a gracious bunch who seem genuinely grateful for their own “The Book of Mormon” experiences and those of us who travel from far and wide to see the show.

This sign reminds theater-goers that Mormons are more than musical theater fodder

Before jumping on the subway back to our hotel in lower Manhattan, I veered in and out of the crowds taking in all the noise and neon of Times Square. I stopped at Starbucks (which also registers on “The Book of Mormon” mock-o-meter), looking up at nearby signs while I waited for my drink.

I spied a giant sign featuring dozens of diverse faces and the words “I’m a Mormon” next to the mormons.org website. A fitting reminder that judging a person based on religious (or secular) beliefs might make for an outrageously funny piece of theater. But it’s never a good idea in real life.

– Lynn

Note: “The Book of Mormon” won the 2011 Tony Award for best musical, as well as several other awards

Coming up: Lynn & Liz see “War Horse” at Lincoln Center

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