Now playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theater on Broadway.
Religion has always been one of the more interesting satiric targets of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. Take “Red Sleigh Down,” a shockingly violent 2002 episode in which Santa Claus and his reindeer are shot down over Iraq. The South Park boys convince Jesus (an occasional recurring character) to save Santa, who is enduring subplots straight out of Three Kings, and together they manage to extract the prisoner. As they make their escape, however, Jesus is killed, and back in the United States, a distraught Santa Claus tearfully tells the people of South Park—as he decks the town out in holiday finery and distributes toys—that from that day forward Christmas should be a day to remember Jesus and his sacrifice, for that’s what made all this Christmas joy possible. It’s an essentially conservative message (not at all unusual for the show, incidentally) delivered in this most audaciously warped way possible, somehow managing to be both sacrilegious and reverent.
That kind of sweetly profane, irreligious religiosity is also what you get from The Book of Mormon, Parker and Stone’s new musical with Robert Lopez, one of the creators of Avenue Q (which was more than a little reminiscent of South Park itself), and as a musical, it’s an unqualified success. Parker, Stone, and Lopez clearly know the genre (South Park has been evoking it and riffing on it for years), and although they have fun alluding to classics like The Sound of Music and The King and I, they don’t get bogged down in meta cleverness. The Book of Mormon isn’t staged in air quotes; it’s a full-throttle, unabashed musical, with tuneful songs and energetic choreography invariably presented with skill and verve.
As for the satire, it isn’t always so sure-footed. The two central characters, a pair of young Mormon missionaries sent to spread the word in Africa, are sharply realized, but Africa itself is treated with murky, problematic inconsistency, and the conclusion lapses into sentimentality, unwilling to face head-on the ramifications of its critique of religion. I understand why, but it still leaves me dissatisfied. As much as I applaud the heartfelt performances and the witty, nimble lyrics, I can’t quite shake the feeling that the creators of South Park have gone soft.
After a brief prologue introducing the basics of Mormonism (I’m nearly positive that Parker provides the prerecorded voice of Jesus—the vocal cadences were all Cartman*), The Book of Mormon introduces us to enthusiastic but overconfident Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and unctuous, pathologically insecure Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), mismatched missionaries dispatched as a pair to a rural village in Uganda. The terrible conditions there are discouraging, but they have one possible convert in Nabulungi (Nikki M. James), a naïve young woman who soon dreams of escaping to the promised paradise of Salt Lake City.
Let me get this out of the way first: the portrayal of Africa in The Book of Mormon makes me deeply uncomfortable. The writers clearly are trying to critique the rosy, “Hakuna Matata” Africa of The Lion King, which is perfectly valid, but to my mind, they go too far in the other direction, depicting an Africa so ravaged and overwhelmed by hardship, and so lacking in resources—even emotional or spiritual resources—to combat those hardships, that everyone has fallen into belligerent nihilism. I understand this is satire, and I don’t necessarily expect a truly well-rounded vision of Africa, good and bad, but imagining the Ugandans as blank slates of despair was a bit much. The Book of Mormon might be a musical rather than a book, but it still called to mind Binyavanga Wainaina’s caustic essay “How to Write About Africa” all too well.
Of course, Africa itself isn’t really the point (which is another issue entirely, but I won’t get into that here). This is the story of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, and it’s well told—by turns cutting and gentle, and always hilarious. The pompous Price could have been insufferable, but Rannells plays him with such giddy earnestness that he’s impossible to truly dislike, and even his paean to his own awesomeness, “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” is kind of endearing. Similarly, Elder Cunningham’s shuffly, sweaty shtick grates at first, but Gad’s impishness shines through, and “Making Things Up Again,” the moment when Cunningham’s evangelism goes completely off the theological rails, is one of the highlights of the show.
In fact, the musical numbers are strong throughout, choreographed with cheeky show-choir flair and eccentric creativity by Casey Nicholaw (also Parker’s codirector). It’s easy to get pulled in by the mischievous spirit of “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” or the guileless yet jaw-dropping perversity of “Joseph Smith American Moses,” basically The King and I’s “Small House of Uncle Thomas” with a markedly South Park sensibility.
The digs at Mormonism sometimes feel a bit cheap (it’s just too easy a target, though god knows the precepts of virtually any religion sound absurd when stated baldly and unsympathetically), but the riffs on religion in general are often smart and perceptive, and Elder Price’s journey into disillusionment is dramatized with insight and compassion. As irreverent as they can be, the musical’s creators clearly don’t want to come across as mean-spirited or hateful—which is admirable, I suppose, but it leaves their ending mushy. “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day” seems to be making the point that religion can be great if it doesn’t require adherence to dogma or focus on an afterlife or even belief in God, but seriously, if none of that comes into play, it’s not religion, and it’s condescending and disingenuous to pretend otherwise. If you’re going to argue in favor of secular humanism, argue in favor of secular humanism; don’t back down at the last minute with what the creators themselves call “an atheists’ love letter to religion”—especially when, to make that love letter work, you have to undercut your own characterizations and introduce a cutesy, pandering call-back to the opening number.
Parker and Stone have made their career out of having things both ways—both teasing and embracing, radical and conservative, nasty and sweet—but sometimes the incongruence is too much. This is one of those times. The Book of Mormon is fun and well-made—I enjoyed it tremendously—but ultimately, it lacks the courage of its own convictions.
– – – – –
*Sean tells me that the voice of Jesus was not prerecorded, that he saw Trey Parker enter the theater before the show. This was news to me, which is a little annoying because I totally tried to super subtly point out to him that Twilight girl Kristen Stewart was in the audience—and just as sullen-looking in real life as on screen! But whatever. Suffice it to say that giving Jesus the voice of Cartman might not be a regular thing.