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Divisive ‘Book of Mormon’ musical opens Tuesday in Utah

First Published      Last Updated Jul 31 2015 09:47 am


Musical » Salt Lake City run of the hit musical draws a self-selection of local theatergoers.

No matter your opinion about that profane, sweet little "Book of Mormon" musical — perhaps you've heard of it — there's a special thrill to a story about Mormon missionaries unfolding in front of a Broadway set depicting the Salt Lake LDS Temple spires that exist just two blocks away from downtown's Capitol Theatre.

"Clearly it's a little bit fraught and exciting to bring the show to Salt Lake City," says Megan Sanborn Jones, an associate professor of theater at Brigham Young University. After all, Salt Lake City, or in the musical's parlance, "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," isn't often referenced in the contemporary musical-theater canon.




But it's "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" — with lyrics about a magical place of waterfalls and flying unicorns, where the warlords are friendly, flour is plentiful and "roofs are thatched with gold" — that will be particularly rich for Utah theatergoers, says Clark Johnsen, a BYU graduate who was the only returned Mormon missionary in the show's original Broadway cast.

"Particularly delicious" for Utah audiences, he predicts, will be the moment when a character announces that Sal Tlay Ka Siti isn't a real place but a metaphor.

There's also the dramatic spell cast by watching a show about optimistic LDS missionaries in a theater filled with returned missionaries and the people who live and work with them. That begins with the opening number — "Hello!" — featuring new missionaries practicing door approaches, which will feel familiar to anyone who trained at the LDS Church's Missionary Training Center, Johnsen says.

"The inside jokes, of course, people will get those here," Jones says. "It's got a lot of Mormons doing Mormon things," in contrast to shows about polygamy, like HBO's "Big Love."

What should have special significance for Utah theatergoers are the idiosyncratic staging details. For example, she was delighted at seeing a prop of a blue trifold notebook, which recalled her mission, as well as a painting depicting Jesus Christ wearing a red robe.

"I was fascinated by this keenly observed outsiders' look at what they thought serving a mission would be like," she says, recalling seeing the show on Broadway during opening week in March 2011. "Clearly, great license was taken because it is a musical, and they are heightening everything for effect, for humor, for the sake of the musical story they're trying to sell."

The back story of the satirical musical by Trey Parker, Matt Stone ("South Park") and Robert Lopez (co-lyricist and co-composer of "Avenue Q" and "Frozen"), has a kind of "Hey, kids, let's put on a show" charm. The writers aimed to lampoon what they consider the ridiculousness of institutional American religions, while penning a love letter to musical theater, with songs nodding to "The King and I," "The Sound of Music," "West Side Story," "Wicked" and "The Lion King."

"But I also hoped the story could contain a lot of emotion — if not a love story, then a religious one," Lopez writes in the introduction to the musical's script. "After all, what is a church service but life stories and music in front of an audience?"

The show broke Broadway box-office records — with its aggressive pricing, seats sold for as much as $477 during high-demand seasons — and bowled over critics, as well as earning nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Cast Album. The phenomenon has continued with record-breaking sales on two national tours, an extended Chicago run and, in 2013, a London production.

"The Book of Mormon" is noted for its unusual mix of vulgarity and hopefulness. "They've done a neat balancing act between making some fairly sharp criticism and keen observations about the limitations of institutional Christianity," Jones says. "They are also delighted by the possibilities of the same."

The decision to see the show is more problematic for Mormons who might be offended by the show's brand of sacrilegious humor or the coarseness of its language. Even if they choose to stay away, the idea of a Utah run might seem troubling to some members. That's because the show is talking about their own people, says Jones, who studies the characterization of Mormons in historical and contemporary theater.

"The conventional idea of theater is that it provides catharsis," says Holly Welker, a writer who is editing a collection of essays about the musical. "I think the catharsis for a Mormon audience will be that much greater. But I seriously doubt that very many active members will attend."

That's also the opinion of Tim Threlfall, a BYU acting professor, who is knowledgeable about the musical, but chooses not to see it. He has read the script and listened to the soundtrack, and describes its tone this way: "Mormons, we seem kind of dumb, but we seem kind of lovable."

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AT A GLANCE

This ticket lottery might change your life

“The Book of Mormon” opens its first Salt Lake City run this week. Tickets are sold out, but a lottery will be held 2 ½ hours before every show.

Where » Capitol Theatre, 50 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City

When » July 28 through Aug. 9: Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 1 and 6:30 p.m.

Lottery » Sign up at the Capitol Theatre box office for a ticket lottery 2 ½ hours before a performance; only one entry per person. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random for one or two tickets. Winners of the cash-only tickets will pay $26 each.

For more locally flavored satire

“Saturday’s Voyeur” » Salt Lake Acting Company continues annual musical satire of Utah culture.

When » Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1 and 6 p.m., through Aug. 30; additional performance Saturday, Aug. 29, 2 p.m.

Where » Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City

Tickets » $45-$55 (depending on seating/group discounts available), at 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org


For more locally flavored satire

“Saturday’s Voyeur” » Salt Lake Acting Company continues annual musical satire of Utah culture.

When » Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1 and 6 p.m., through Aug. 30; additional performance Saturday, Aug. 29, 2 p.m.

Where » Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City

Tickets » $45-$55 (depending on seating/group discounts available), at 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org


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