Now comes a book that takes the satirical ‘Book of Mormon’ seriously

First Published      Last Updated Jul 30 2015 03:18 pm

Stage » Now comes an anthology that takes the satirical comedy seriously.

The creators of "The Book of Mormon" may have written the book on making a hit musical borrowing the title of Latter-day Saint scripture.

Now comes a book of essays by writers and scholars analyzing how the raunchy, satirical play fits — or doesn't — in the traditions of the contemporary musical canon.

The book, edited by Holly Welker and Marc Shaw, is tentatively titled "Essays on The Book of Mormon musical," with a catchy subtitle that plays on multiple levels: "This Book Will Change Your Life." The show opens in Salt Lake City this week.

The idea for the book, set to be published next year by Rowman & Littlefield press, grew out of a 2011 Sunstone Symposium panel where Welker and Shaw presented papers about the musical. The book's writers include several returned LDS missionaries and at least one practicing Mormon, Gerald Argetsinger, editor of the 2013 fiction anthology "Latter-Gay Saints."

When Welker attended the Tony Award-winning Broadway play, written by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez, she noted how her story — that of serving as a sister missionary — was completely absent from the plot.

"One of the things I was struck by is the invisibility of Mormon women, and the fact that the play mirrors the work it's named for in that there are so few women who have names, and they drive so little of the action," says Welker, a writer who recently moved from Salt Lake City to Tempe, Ariz.

The musical also sparked what she terms her post-mission post-traumatic stress disorder, sparked by the crisis of faith she suffered while serving in Taiwan as she realized she no longer believed in the doctrine she was teaching or what she had come to consider the cultural arrogance of proselytizing.

"The reason I am invested enough to want to write about [the musical] is it did get at something authentic about a mission for me," Welker says. "They are supposed to be the crucible that forges your faith, but for many people they destroy your faith."

As a writer, she was also intrigued with how the script offers little explanation of the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, against the counsel of Wallace Stegner. Author of such Western literary classics as "Mormon Country" and "The Gathering of Zion," Stegner claimed it was difficult to write about Mormons because you have to stop and explain everything.

"One of the things I loved about the musical is it proves him wrong," Welker says. "It explains so little. It doesn't really spend much time on Mormon theology."

Shaw, as associate professor of English and theater at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., thinks the book should attract readers in and out of academia because of the widespread attention sparked by the musical. He's interested in the layers of provocation that the creators wove throughout the story, which are resolved by its ending.

"Depending on who you are sitting in the theater, you might focus or analyze one or more aspects of religion, theater, history, race, gender, satire comedy and performance traditions," he says. "Our book embraces that interdisciplinarity."

While it's "of the moment," "The Book of Mormon's" themes are rooted in American literature and religious studies, as well as the image of Americans abroad. "And perhaps like never before, 'The Book of Mormon' mixes the sacred and profane, a part of theater for centuries," he says.

In his essay, Shaw draws upon Jon Stewart's comments about how the musical satirized religion while celebrating it, in what the comedian called "a sweet yet really hard-edged" way. He compares that to the concept of "negative capability," the term poet John Keats used to describe Shakespeare's writing, in the way the playwright's "uncertainties, mysteries and doubts" didn't necessarily reach conclusions at the end of his works.

Shaw finds a similar tone of unresolved opposites in "The Book of Mormon." "The musical is set in a world of extreme uncertainty, like the photo negative of Disney World, a simulacrum of Uganda, [but] not actual Uganda, where everything is exaggeratedly not awesome: disease, warlords, anything worth cursing God about," Shaw writes. "But the musical uses that metaphorical backdrop to demonstrate that through community-building (even creating theater) day to day, a new (but never perfect) world can be."

In his essay, Wade Newhouse considers the musical in the light of "postsecular" literary theory, as a pivot between individual identity and a group identity.

The play might end with a big show-stopping, hopeful Broadway song, but the last line continues its profane tone, with a Ugandan character still raving about the "maggots in [his] scrotum." Neither religion nor the Broadway musical format fixed that, Newhouse says. "It ends on a beautiful, long, high note — a great musical note — but one you can't sing in the car with your grandmother."

Argetsinger, a theater professor in Rochester, N.Y., is the former director of the LDS Church's "Hill Cumorah Pageant," while his wife, Gail, was the longtime costume designer. In his essay, he explores how the musical's creators researched and parodied the pageant in the show, including copying the staging and costumes in the Broadway musical.

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More about ‘Essays on The Book of Mormon’

The collection grew out of a 2011 Sunstone panel with a great title: “Made-up Missionaries, Fake Faith, and Concocted Conversions: The Alchemy of ‘The Book of Mormon’ Musical.”

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 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

Salt Lake Acting Company continues “Saturday’s Voyeur,” its 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