♛ Spoiler Alert: I’ve tried to avoid spoilers here, but it’s not easy. Read at your own risk! ♛
I saw the musical the “Book of Mormon” last weekend. Prior to being offered a ticket, I was lukewarm about seeing this show even though it’s won lots of awards. I am a fan of “South Park” and its creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but I wasn’t sure I would appreciate an entire production dedicated to lambasting a single religion. Turns out I could appreciate it. It was hilarious.
BUT. The show wasn’t really an indictment of Mormonism. I mean it was, given the title and all, but from my perspective it was really more a commentary on all religion (not just organized religion), on missionary work, on the commercialization of Africa, and about how wanting to feel special, or to prove we’re special, is often our motivation for just about everything.
As I said, there were lots of scenes where the show poked fun at the “discovery,” rise, and spread of Mormonism. The scenes were pretty much like, “Ha! Isn’t it ridiculous that some guy thought an ancient tribe of Israelites lived in America?” And sure, that is not a scientifically or archeological based belief. Then it was kind of like, “Isn’t it crazy all these people believe this story with absolutely NO PROOF of any of it?!”
Uuuhhh. Hmm. Don’t get me wrong, I thought this was part of what made the show so endearing and funny. I just kept wondering if anyone else noticed the burn on all of us who choose to believe. I think I’m less sensitive to this kind of mocking because I am Pagan. I don’t mean to be a cynic, but a not-so-small-number of people react with discomfort and judgement when I identify myself as Pagan. Since I’m used to ignoring digs, the parody didn’t bother me as much as it might other people.
Without having me show people the plates?*
They’ll have no proof I was telling the truth or not
They’ll have to believe me just…’cause
Oh…I guess that’s kinda what you were going for”
John Smith’s character’s dying word
The show also dug its heels (and hoofers) into proselytizing. Although, I guess the gaff was more about going on a mission than about spreading faith. The “elders” who are paired for their two years of mission work (a practice for young Mormon men and women) are woefully underprepared for the reality of their host country, Uganda, Africa. Their experience being “fish out of water” is much of the fun. [Though Jax shared with me the major criticism she heard about the show is that this is not factual — that Mormon missionaries are as prepared as anyone going on mission, if not better prepared.] The visual of two Pollyanna young men in white short-sleeved shirts, black slacks, and black ties in the center of an impoverished African village was a great source of goofiness. The writers did not fail to comment on the naiveté of the idea that if we can just convince others to believe what we believe it will make their lives better for others. I was impressed the writers did not shy away from the real hardships in Uganda, like drought, famine, genocide, AIDS, and female circumcision. Pretty heavy stuff for a comedy, I know, but they make it work.
Perhaps what I most loved about the Pollyanna-poverty contrast was the numerous opportunities it presented for referencing “The Lion King” (TLK). I am not anti-Disney; I *heart* TLK. But this was a great running gag. The premise was that the Pollyannas’ only “real” encounter with Africa was TLK movie (or musical). Indeed, the jokes about TLK start even before the elders arrive in Uganda. My favorite (and likely the favorite of many) was the parody of “Hakuna Matata” from TLK.
Cunningham: Hasa Diga eebowai?
Mafala: t’s the only way to get through all these troubles. And, there’s war! Poverty! Famine! But, having a saying makes it all seem better.”
Even more than the TLK fun, I was struck by — what appeared to me — the writers’ commentary on the commercialization of Africa. Not in the sense that Africa has commerce. In the sense that mainstream society has co-opted African imagery for entertainment without Africa reaping any benefits of said co-opting. Think TLK, the Madagascar movies…just ask the Oracle for “movies set in Africa” and you’ll see what I mean. Now, it may well be that Africa hasn’t benefited from this exposure because it is not consistently safe to travel there. This interpretation may be a stretch, but I keep coming back to it, especially when I think of the number, “I am Africa,” which is primarily performed by elders dressed all in white; the last line of which is “Africans are African, but we are Africa!” Nice. Here’s a video of the song performed by high school students. <♫>
My last take-a-way from the show was its commentary on how feeling special and unique and important is a prime motivator for everyone in everything. Granted, every show needs a protagonist, and often that protagonist is special and unique and important in the narrative. This is made blatantly apparent by the protagonists’ main number where he sings about the great things he and his companion (his paired elder) will do while they are on mission. The song is titled, “You and Me (but Mostly Me).” What’s neat about “Book of Mormon” is that main guy becomes the side kick and the side kick becomes the main guy. This is not an easy transition for either of them, but it’s a delight for the audience.
Finally, the overall execution was just great. The music impressed the hell out of me. It was fun, melodic, singable, clappable. It was terrific. The storyline wrapped up nicely, with a solid happy ending that isn’t sappy or inauthentic. Rather than being a musical that rips on Mormonism, I think it ends up being a piece that is a nod to their optimism and sincerity. I was glad to read the Church of Latter-day Saints didn’t make a ruckus about the show. Hell, they took out ads in the programs!
Have you ever seen the “Book of Mormon”? What did you think? Have you ever watched a show or movie about faith that you were suspect of beforehand, and then you loved it?
* If you’re not sure what the “golden plates” references, check out the Wikipedia entry on Mormonism.