Previewing Book of Mormon

23 Aug



Once upon a time, circa 1996, I lived in Astoria, New York, and shared my one-bedroom/study garden apartment with a nice Mormon lady from Arizona. L’s first order of business upon arriving in the Big Apple for a job at the same start up where I worked (at a start-up that has since shut down) was to tap into the local Mormon community.

It wasn’t unusual to come home to find L and a couple of Elders, what the Mormons call the young men on their missions, sitting in the living room or around the dining room table, discussing scripture, discussing New York, discussing how much the boys missed home. For a Catholic girl from Rhode Island whose only exposure to Mormonism were public service announcements that concluded with “A message from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” this was a startling introduction to both the religion and evangelism. Slightly stunned that I didn’t own a bible, the Elders gave me one – along with a Book of Mormon. The bible passages had extensive footnotes that corresponded to passages in the Book of Mormon and vice versa. It was a tad bizarre.

But what I learned was this: 1) these were young men in a strange place, alone, often lonely and we provided them hospitality, great Italian food and cheer; 2) they sincerely believed in their mission to spread the world of Christ as they believed it; and 3) I was never, ever meant to be a Mormon. They were always slightly disappointed, when I’d ask questions about why was this special undergarment necessary or what was so wrong with caffeine, not because I was considering becoming a Mormon, but because I found it fascinating. Not eating meat on Fridays during Lent is one thing; giving up caffeine, not so much.

I’m equally fascinated by Book of Mormon, brainchild of  Trey Parker and Matt Stone, (in)famous creators of South Park, the smash Comedy Central cartoon with its foul-mouthed foursome of Cartman, Stan, Kenny and Kyle. Anyone who watches the sitcom – or hasn’t been hiding under a rock in a cave at the bottom of the ocean for the last 14 years it’s been on the air – knows the Parker/Stone duet leave no sleeping tiger unpoked.

Their hit musical, penned along with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez,  rolls into town September 3 – 15 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. The story of two Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to preach the news of Jesus Christ, Brigham Young and the Latter Day Saints, the show garnered a slew of awards and praises when it opened on Broadway two years ago, cleaning up with nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Stephen Colbert was quoted calling his own Christmas special a few years back “strangely sincere and sincerely strange.” The more I delve into Book of Mormon, the more that quote comes to mind. It’s an irreverent piece, laced with sometimes not-so-gentle stereotypes on everything from Mormons to belief to corrupt governments. But, it’s a refreshingly old-fashioned musical in a world of jukebox shows and megawatt laser magic. Charting the coming of age of two missionaries, Elder Kevin Price and Elder Arnold Cunningham, it looks at how we view faith and how the views we hold dear are not necessarily true – no matter how close we hold them in our hearts.

Paying homage to classics like The Sound of Music and The King and I, with a nod to the absurdity of The Producers and Monty Python, Book of Mormon brings a new host of hummable tunes and discussion points. There’s a clever narrative running through “I Believe,” Elder Price’s ballad of self-reassurance, and I’ve listened to “Hello,” the show’s opening number and send-up of door-to-door evangelism, and “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” Price and Cunningham’s duet as they set off to set the world on fire, so often that I’m grateful I own them digitally on iTunes and not on a CD, for surely it would be worn through.

Now, Book of Mormon is hardly the first time religion and commentary have collided on stage. Tevye talked to God – nay, complained to God – and tweaked his own Judaism in the much-beloved Fiddler on the Roof. Nunsense lovingly roasted Catholic fundraisers, even as it offered a stunning lament about the differences in the Church pre-and post-Vatican II. That’s just two. There are myriad more.

But here comes a show praised for both its spirit and its satire. Vogue called it “the filthiest, most offensive and – surprise – sweetest thing you’ll ever see.” The Washington Post said its spirit “is anything but mean.” The Church of Latter Day Saints even took out ads in the Playbills in some cities along the tour, encouraging audiences to learn more about the Mormon faith.

Can satire and religion live comfortably side by side, at least for an evening? We’ll find out. But every time I see the television commercial with those well-scrubbed Elders in their black ties and white shirts, wielding the Book of Mormon, I think fondly of a little garden apartment in Astoria, where some true believers gave me a bible – one that still sits on my living room bookshelf – and taught me that learning about a faith so far removed from your own is never a bad thing.


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