It’s been more than eight years since the bawdy “Book of Mormon” musical premiered and proceeded to mock, malign and mangle the preachings and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints en route to box-office records and Tony-winning glory.
But a lot has changed — in the Utah-based faith and the country — since straight-laced Elder Price first swooned on stage about his dream mission to Orlando and his nerdy but lovable sidekick, Elder Cunningham, started fibbing his way to conversion after conversion in, of all places, Uganda.
Now, as the Broadway blockbuster returns for the third time to the heart of Mormondom for a two-week run at the Eccles Theater in downtown Salt Lake City, a question emerges: Is it still funny and relevant — for members and nonmembers alike?
Back in 2011, when “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker teamed up with Robert Lopez of “Avenue Q” fame and took the theater world by storm, the country was in the midst of a “Mormon Moment.” HBO was airing its “Big Love” series about modern polygamists. Mitt Romney made history by becoming the first Latter-day Saint to secure the presidential nomination from a major party, and the church itself boosted its brand with two campaigns: “I’m a Mormon” ads and a “Meet the Mormons” movie.
In response to the musical, the church issued a single statement: "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."
It capitalized further by taking out ads in the playbills for the show (there is none from the church in this month’s Utah run), putting up billboards in places like Times Square, and stationing missionaries outside of theaters where it was playing.
Since then, Russell M. Nelson has succeeded Thomas S. Monson as church president, and insisted on dropping “Mormon” as a nickname for the faith and its followers.
The church produced historical essays — long in the works — that addressed some Latter-day Saint teachings that the play satirizes, including the idea of becoming gods and having their own planets (“I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob,” Elder Price croons in the show-stopper “I Believe.”)
And some of the faith’s most successful proselytizing efforts have been in, frankly, Africa (including Uganda).
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been embroiled in headline-grabbing debates about racism and sexism, including the powerful #MeToo movement, decrying harassment and assault by powerful men.
“The musical emerged at the beginning of a particularly turbulent few years for the church — the publicity surrounding Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency and a resurgent feminist movement,” says historian Matthew Bowman, “in short, an era in which the faith was dramatically confronted with the demands of pluralism: cultural, ethnic, ideological.”
Through a “rather garish parody of African culture and of Mormon culture, the musical lampoons the church's ability to deal with that pluralism,” says Bowman, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. “The show seems to be saying that the church's deeply ingrained American squareness makes that … impossible.”
Elder Cunningham, the endearing liar who hasn’t actually read the church’s foundational text, wins over the Ugandans by embellishing the scripture with references to “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
The musical seems to suggest, Bowman says, that Mormonism would need “the vivid creativity and adaptability of Joseph Smith in order to successfully become a true world religion.”
On that score, Bowman is optimistic.
Though not nearly “so dramatic as Cunningham's innovations,” the historian says, the church’s “institutional tweaks of the past few years seem to gesture in that direction.”
At the time, she interviewed Lopez, the lyricist, and told him that his “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” though funny, was “theologically inaccurate since Latter-day Saints don’t believe in a traditional hell of fire and brimstone.”
He replied that it was intended, Riess recalls, “as a song about dealing with guilt, which everyone deals with, rather than a belief in hell per se.”
Lopez had never met a Latter-day Saint until he was in college. When he did learn about the religion, he was “simultaneously fascinated and weirded out,” she says, “like, ‘how do people really believe these things about ancient America, golden plates, and what he called ‘special underwear?’ ”
Anyone’s “literal beliefs are going to sound strange to outsiders,” the writer told Riess. “Once you strip away the need for scripture to be logical and accurate, stop wondering whether God actually exists, and look at religion for what it is and how it works, a truly amazing miracle reveals itself. And at that moment, I guess, I started realizing the absolute insane sacred genius of Joseph Smith."
So does it still resonate with audiences?
“The show’s depiction of Africans as backwards, rural and naively accepting of a very American version of Christianity has not worn particularly well,” Riess says. “Even in just eight years, increasing globalization has made it possible for people in the global south to tell their own stories, and not simply be objects in white hero myths, which is the case with this show.”
On top of that, the production’s characterizations of women “are either almost nonexistent,” she says, “as is the case with white American Mormons, or sexualized, as is the case with the story’s main African convert.”
Vulgar but valuable?
KUER religion reporter Lee Hale, who saw the musical in Utah two years ago, also winces at those aspects of the show.
“Being in a #MeToo world and a media landscape,” the millennial journalist says, “means being respectful of gender roles and different cultures.”
Though Hale believes the “Mormon-y” segments like the scenes at the Missionary Training Center and interactions between the missionaries “are still hilarious,” he says, “the play hasn’t aged well.”
“The hard part for me was how vulgar it is,” he says. “The problems are bigger today. I don’t think the stereotypes still have legs.”
Kent Christensen, an artist who teaches at Utah Valley University and the University of Utah, saw the show years ago — and found it offers a valuable perspective on the church, religion, and their strengths and foibles.
“I’m guessing we are less able to appreciate a different view of our own culture now than we were in 2011,” Christensen says. “It seems like we haven’t become better at broadening our perspectives.”
He speculates that the musical’s astounding success may have been a “tipping point” for Nelson’s push to excise “Mormon” from the church’s popular lexicon.
Christensen believes the church’s 17th president used the perceived “hijacking” of the word “Mormon” by “unworthy entities like fringe groups, gay advocates and the ‘South Park’ writers,” he says, as “a perfect opportunity to make a formal, dramatic and reactionary attempt at decommissioning a largely beloved word that has been part of the movement since the very beginning.”
For her part, Riess says, she would probably laugh out loud at the musical — still.
“There is something timelessly hilarious about a life-sized Starbucks cup that dances in and out of the nightmares of a guilt-ridden Mormon missionary,” she says. “Despite its crudeness and profanity, the show says that Mormons are good people who are willing to give up two years of their lives to go across the world in order to help other people.”
That, Riess says, is not exactly “a critical message that damages either the church or its members.”