Last Friday, I saw a preview performance of The Book Of Mormon, the Broadway musical written by South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Avenue Q's Robert Lopez. I wondered how Parker and Stone's tendency toward scatological sacrilege would work on staid, conservative Broadway, which has been playing it safe for a decade with revivals, reviews and adaptations of hit movies, books and albums. (Not to knock American Idiot, a raw, visceral theater experience. I'd trade every show running for one based on a Green Day album. Dookie: The Musical? We can dream...) Perusing the listings in the back of my Playbill, I realized that The Book of Mormon is currently the only first-run, non-adaptation, non-review musical on Broadway.
Is it as subversive as South Park? Unequivocally, The Book of Mormon is pee-in-pants funny, outrageous, shocking, which you'd expect. What you might not have seen coming are energetic and elaborate dancing, catchy tunes, insight into the nature of faith and the American hubris of spreading our brand of magic and lies all over the globe.
The plot: A pair of Salt Lake City teenage missionaries are sent to Uganda to convert the AIDS and poverty plagued locals to Mormonism. Their only tool is a slim volume -- the gospel of the American Moses, Joseph Smith. Passages from the Book are revealed to the audience slowly, each relevation nuttier than the last. Those who walked in with only a sketchy understanding of Mormonism will exit the theater more convinced of its absurdity. The missionaries -- played with convincing, hilarious fervor by Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells -- are like fish out of holy water. Their faith is shaken by warlords, disease and violence. I can say with complete certainty that no other Broadway musical in history has used baby rape and female genital mutilation as comic plot devices -- and none will again.
Without giving away too much, the big questions, according to the book of Parker, Stone and Lopez, are answered. "Does it matter if the gospel is true?" "Is any faith better than none?" "Can bullshit feed a hungry soul?" The missionaries eventually fulfill their destiny with the help of cameos appearances by Jesus, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, as well as Darth Vader, Frodo Baggins, Hitler and Johnny Cochran. At one point, Jesus says, "You guys!" in Parker's distinctive Cartman's voice, and the audience laughed knowingly. Atheists, South Park fans, the cynical, the perverse and culture vultures will roll in the aisles.
But what about the typical Broadway tourist from the God-and-guns-loving heartland? Those people might prefer The Lion King production instead. The Book of Mormon trashes Disney's Africa again and again, and gives us the South Park version instead. A big Act I number has a dozen Ugandans pointing their middle fingers to heaven, singing, "Fuck you, God, in the mouth, ass and cunt." Their twist on "Hakuna Matata." That scene was yet another Broadway first, as were the phrase "I've got maggots in my scrotum" sung a dozen times, something large inserted into -- and extracted from -- a teenager's rectum, and a window into Mormon Hell with dancing demons, coffee cups, gays, and Genghis Khan.
My poster blurbs: Mangles the envelope! A blessed relief from the revival rut! Eye popping lunacy! A devoted fan of musical theater, I'm praying The Book of Mormon will be a huge hit and lead the way for more original shows like it. But winning me over is like preaching to the choir. It remains to be seen if a wider Broadway audience will flock.