I know, I said a year and a half ago that I wasn’t going to see The Book of Mormon. But then it came to Chicago and, in spite of the fact that it is sold out through at least March, a friend set me up with a ticket.1 So I’ve now seen the show.
I’m not going to review it, though. It’s already been widely reviewed, and frankly, I don’t have the musical theater chops to provide a credible review.2 There are plenty of reviews, both professional and amateur, scattered throughout the internet.3
I am, however, going to address its portrayal of Mormons, how well it manages to paint us. It’s a real issue. Parker, Stone, and Lopez are trying to create real (albeit caricatured) Mormon characters. If the characters aren’t Mormon, the play doesn’t work. No conservative evangelicals in Mormon drag will work here. At least one review has already addressed problems with the musical’s portrayal of Mormons, and Mormonism, but I’m going to look at it with a slightly different taxonomy. Specifically, there are things that The Book of Mormon gets wrong for narrative purposes; I’m willing to overlook those problems (though some of them were initially jarring). But there are other things it gets wrong that have no point.
I should say, they get a lot of things right, from missionary motives (for good and ill) to familial support to recognizing that missionary companions have to stay together (and, generally, the breadth of rules that exist for missionaries) to an obsession with the nice-ness of Mormons (an obsession that also plays out in South Park).
- The missionaries find out where they’re going to serve and who their companion will be at the end of the MTC. This one was jarring, coming, as it does, at the end of the first song. But it’s a narrative necessity—we need to have some idea of who Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are to understand why they react to their call and companionship the way they do. The constraints of theater would make it unwieldy to meet the missionaries before they get their calls, see them get their calls, then go the MTC, then sing their first (remarkably catchy) song, etc.
- It’s not completely clear, but it looks like in the world of The Book of Mormon, missionaries keep their same companion for the full two years. Though not necessary, getting into the intricacies of transfers would have added unnecessary (from a narrative standpoint), and distracting, detail to the show.
- Elder Price at one point has a (justifiable) meltdown and leaves the house to find the mission president and insist on a transfer from Uganda to Orlando. While no missionary would believe, for one second, that he or she could be transferred from one country to another, Elder Price just experienced extreme trauma, and could be forgiven for not thinking clearly.4
That said, there are problems that are (a) so specific that they must be deliberate, but (b) serve no narrative purpose. And those just bug me. A few:
- When missionaries are assigned their companions, the unembodied voice of (presumably) the MTC president tells them that their new companion will be their “brother.” Only we don’t say that. We say companion. Full stop.
- Late in the show, the mission president comes with who I assume were his APs. The APs don’t really do anything except trail the president and occasionally say, “Praise Jesus” (or maybe “Praise Christ”). No Mormon in the history of Mormondom has ever said that.5 Not only does it serve no purpose, but it’s not an accidental expression. It is essentially all these characters say, and it is so not Mormon that it seriously bothered me.
- The big one for me: for some reason, the MTC of the musical lasts for three months. The play says it. Out loud. On purpose. Not three weeks. Not two months. Three months. I mean, we only catch the missionaries on the last day of the MTC; there’s no reason for it to be assigned a length. But if you’re going to assign it a length, make it something real.6
On the Fence
I’m on the fence about “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” A couple missionaries mention their Spooky Mormon Hell Dreams, and then Elder Price has one. On the one hand, Hell doesn’t play a role in Mormon theology, or in the way we talk. I can’t imagine that many (any?) Mormons have dreams about Hell.
On the other hand, Parker and Stone can’t address religion unless they also include Satan (ideally with an electric guitar), Hitler, and Dahmer. And the song is excellent (as are the dancing Starbucks cups). The dream doesn’t really serve any narrative purpose, and the play could easily exist without it. But, on the other hand, it contributes to the show in a way that Three Months and Praise Jesus don’t. So make of that what you will.
- It turns out that the cost of a free ticket on opening night to a sold-out show is the worst seat in the house, a seat I hope nobody has ever paid money for. Behind a tall guy. Still, it was free, so no complaints. ↩
- For instance, it turns out that a central moment in the second act is a direct homage to “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from The King and I. And how do I know this? Not because of my familiarity with The King and I (though I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it). No, because, after seeing the musical, I read some reviews, all of which seemed to mention the reference. ↩
- Okay, quick review: it is often hilarious, though sometimes the jokes miss. The music is catchy, though, if certain songs get stuck in your head, you’ll probably want to hum them, not sing them. Should you see it? It depends on your level of tolerance of horrible, horrible language (and some blasphemy). Basically, if you’ve seen South Park, and you can imagine what it would be like if there were no network toning it down, you have a good idea of the level of offensiveness of the play. ↩
- Mission story: although no missionary could believe he or she could waltz into the mission office and demand a transfer to another mission, much less another country, it’s not inconceivable that a missionary could believe that he or she could make it to another mission. Once on my mission, my housemate and I were each training new missionaries. My housemate’s companion decided, on like day 2, that he didn’t want to be in Brazil, and never ended up unpacking his bag. After about six weeks, and going through the mission president and some Area authorities, he managed to create an illness that required him to go back to the U.S. He had visa-waited in the U.S.—Idaho, maybe?—and believed (whether it was true or not) that this mission president there had told him that, if Brazil didn’t work out, he’d be welcome to come back to that mission. I don’t know what happened to him after he left Brazil, and I don’t know what the mission president had said to him, but I do know what he believed he’d heard. So Elder Price’s desire to go to be transferred from Uganda to a U.S. mission is possible, even if his technique isn’t. ↩
- I probably exaggerate a little. But seriously, that’s not the way we talk. ↩
- I just Googled “MTC length.” The Wikipedia article says 3-12 weeks. But seriously, have you ever met anybody who was at the MTC for 12 weeks? Because I haven’t. And I suspect that, had they talked to any Mormons about it, they would have heard three weeks or two months. ↩