If you’re looking for a left-wing rant on how stupid and inbred Mormons are, this isn’t right for you. The Book of Mormon is perhaps the perfect ‘grown-up’ musical.
I saw The Book of Mormon for the first time last Wednesday, as part of a sold-out matinee showing, which is testament to the fact that the production hasn’t waned in popularity since it first landed at the Prince of Wales in 2013. With its lottery system offering 22 front row seats for £20 every show (odds are particularly good on Wednesday afternoons), it promises an affordable, anarchic, and hilarious musical production.
After a boisterous, gently funny, and catchy opening number in the form of ‘Hello’, our story follows two Mormon missionaries: the handsome and ‘smart’ Elder Price, and the dopey and unloved Elder Cunningham (more obsessed with pop culture than his mission), as they journey round the world to spread the word of The Book of Mormon. Unfortunately for Price, who has grand delusions of spending the next two years in the superficial paradise of Orlando, the pair are sent off to grubby and dangerous Uganda – where the Mormon Church hasn’t managed to convert even one of the locals yet.
By this point, the most surprising aspect of the musical is the music itself. The songs and lyrics are very smart, with numbers such as ‘You and me (but mostly me)’ and ‘Turn It Off!’ that have catchy, upbeat melodies, excellent lyrics and – at points – surprisingly dark content. There’s commentary on how the church interacts with LGBT issues and race relations, among other issues – although the pot shots are very rarely lethal.
Indeed, as our protagonists get to Uganda, they quickly realise that life isn’t going to be quite as easy as they had imagined, as they are immediately presented with people such as an African warlord who is hellbent on circumcising every woman in the village. This leads to the first of two major musical numbers that directly ape well known songs from other productions. ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ has a melody and thematic arch directly lifted from The Lion King’s ‘Hakuna Matata’, except, this time, the title means ‘Fuck You God’. Middle-finger and thrusting dance moves are accompanied by a slew of should-I-be-laughing jokes about baby-rape, AIDS, poverty, and FGM – and lyrics such as ‘Fuck you God in the ass, mouth, and cunt; Fuck you in the eye/ Fuck you in the other eye’. It sounds far more horrific than it actually is – and causes genuine hilarity in the audience, who are taken aback by the sudden onslaught of profanity. The storyline continues much in this way, with the missionaries trying to convert the village residents, and leads to a hilarious finale in which the villagers put on a show for some visiting elders. It’s pretty much the best possible cathartic ending to what has been an overall exemplary experience.
Other highlights include ‘I Believe’ – an inspirational number with melody directly lifted from Wicked’s ‘Defying Gravity’ – and the bizarre second act opener ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’, in which Hitler, O J Simpson’s lawyer, and some renowned murderer-rapist, dance around a burning Orlando while having sex with each other and berating Elder Price for his selfishness. The cast seems just as confused as the audience. The set design is also fantastic, with the Ugandan portion filled with dust, ragged sheets, houses made of mud, and the sporadic addition of a carcass for comedic effect. Fantastic visualisation of Salt Lake City, an airport, and hell, prove that this musical is a cut above the rest.
The overall impression is perhaps different to what one would expect. If you’re looking for a left-wing rant on how stupid and inbred Mormons are, this isn’t right for you. In fact, although the characters are gently self-mocking in their naivety, the script itself never excessively bemoans their faith or their convictions – and even The Church of Latter-Day Saints released a praising statement on the show. As far as the show’s creators Stone and Parker are concerned, all religions are equally stupid in their facts, but the musical tells us that it doesn’t matter as long as something deeper and more magisterial is created, which makes everyone happy and brings people hope. And, indeed, that’s how the Book of Mormon ends: with an overwhelming sense of happiness from both the characters and the audience – and a feeling of warm animosity towards the missionaries whom we might have smirked at from the outset.
To the perpetual millennial question: Is it offensive? I suppose it can be offensive if you’re looking to be offended. There’s a lot of poking fun at religion, but it’s not really in a mean-spirited way. There’s a lot of stereotyping, particularly of Uganda, but it’s done as a satire to meet the expectations of what the West sees as Africa. And there’s of course a lot of joking around about sensitive topics. But there’s nothing in here that’s particularly insulting to anyone individually. That said, it’s definitely not one for the kids, and woe betide the unlucky parent that has to explain to their child exactly what a ‘fuck frog’ is.
The Book of Mormon is perhaps the perfect ‘grown-up’ musical. The set is beautiful, the music is as catchy as can be, and the storyline is incredibly unique. However, most of all, it’s funny as fuck; it has an endearing irreverence that leaves you feeling not spite and sneering superiority, but a glowing happiness – and a willingness to step out of the theatre on new feet.
It is, as the New York Times said well before me, the best musical of the century.