The Saints Take Broadway

The Book of Mormon

a musical by Robert Lopez, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone, directed by Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw
Eugene O’Neill Theater, New York City
fenton_1-071411.jpg
Joan Marcus
Rema Webb, Andrew Rannells, and Josh Gad in The Book of Mormon

Hearing that the same men who brought us South Park were mounting a musical to be called The Book of Mormon, we were tempted to turn away, as from an inevitable massacre. How could the Mormon faith, with its wobbly stories of golden tablets dug up and then lost to view, its pseudo-archaeological racism, its prevarications over the practice of polygamy, its almost exact resemblance to a cult, stand up to all that gleeful juvenile ragging? But then something mysterious happened, and the show that opened in March at the Eugene O’Neill Theater drew praise of a glutinous and sickly kind from the grayer eminences of the press—from David Brooks of The New York Times, for instance, who spoke of the “jolt of energy” that surges through the audience during the first number, “a jolt of joy, gratitude and laughter” at the realization that the production was going to live up to its reviews.1

Gratitude, eh? A family night out on Broadway can set you back a thousand dollars, and the emotion you are supposed to feel, on not being positively ripped off, is gratitude? And this gratitude, it turns out, is prompted by a show with a message that, as Brooks put it, while “many religious stories are silly,…religion itself can do enormous good, as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally.” This sounds like meager recompense for such a handsome outlay. What happened to the no-holds-barred humor of South Park? What happened to the fearless tramplers on taboos? What about all that smut and all that juvenile glee? And how did the Mormon religion manage to defeat satire?

The satire is there, the smut, and all the glee, but by the end of the evening—strangely enough—no offense has been given and no damage has been done, and nine Tony Awards, including for “Best Musical,” lie ahead. No offense has been given, to be sure, because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints made a conscious and sensible decision not to take any such offense. It is as if they decided in advance, whatever the show came up with, to enter a plea of nolo contendere, or to couch any riposte in the very mildest of terms.

The Washington Post gives a regular platform to the Mormon Church’s head of public affairs, Michael Otterson, a master craftsman of the Utahan bland style. From Otterson we learn three things we should know about Mormons, “which are neither trivial nor stereotypical.” The first turns out to be that they follow Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The second is that “Mormons are friends of the family,” by which they mean, ideally, husband, wife, and children; what they emphatically do not mean (not that Otterson spells this out) is two parents of the same sex. The third nonstereotypical characteristic of Mormons: they like helping people—cooking meals …

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  1. 1

    Creed or Chaos,” The New York Times, April 21, 2011.