Very nearly two and a half years ago, I used a column in the Deseret News to suggest how Latter-day Saints ought to react to the then-still-forthcoming Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.
I actually discussed two different plays, though I named neither of them. One apparently sank like a rock; at least, I’ve heard nothing more about it. But the musical by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez has become a massive international hit in New York City, London, and many other major cities.
I’ve been delighted, in the intervening months, to see that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has responded very much as I had hoped it would: At the beginning of the show’s Broadway run, the Church placed ads around Times Square and on taxis. Now, it’s taking out full-page ads in the playbills or programs given to all members of the audience.
“You’ve seen the play, now read the book!” ”"The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening,” said an official Church statement, “but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
This is brilliant.
There’s a certain insouciance to it, a refusal to become riled, that has, I think, played well nationally and internationally. (More than a few writers have noted it.) It comes across as sophisticated — just the way, I suspect, the play’s audiences believe themselves to be.
There is much in the play to which we could take exception. It is, for example, notoriously foul-mouthed. And it portrays us as lovable but naïve doofuses. But it goes after everybody – and, in the end, though we’re depicted as doofuses, we’re happy, nice, well-intentioned, and . . . well, lovable.
Not bad. We can work with that.
Now, we’re beginning to read articles about how one young Boston university student was converted to the Church as a result of seeing the play, and telling us that members of the national touring company, taking time to make a side trip to Palmyra from a run of performances in Rochester, gained considerable appreciation for Mormons and Mormonism.
I still haven’t seen the play. I’m not altogether sure that I care to see it, although I have no deep principled objection to doing so — the mockery of my faith would no doubt irritate me; the language, though, would be like fingernails on a chalkboard to my ears — and although I’m curious. (I did, years ago, manage to see the first part of Angels in America on Broadway, which used Mormons as a foil for quite different and much less amusing ends; I couldn’t fit the second part into my schedule, though my wife attended it without me.) Anyway, seeing it has hardly been an option, thus far, even had I wanted to. Tickets are almost impossible to get here in New York, and, though, last November, I stayed in a hotel in the same building in Chicago where the musical was soon to open, I was gone before its opening and had to content myself with a performance of Jules Massenet’s Werther by the Chicago Lyric Opera.
But the Church has, I think, offered a textbook example of how to respond to elite mockery and derision: Take it head on, but skillfully. Wise as serpents and harmless as doves.
In my Deseret News article (see link above), I predicted that potentially useful conversations about the Church would result from The Book of Mormon. I had one on the flight from Tel Aviv to New York yesterday: The woman who was seated next to me, finding out that I live in Utah, almost immediately brought up the play, which she had seen. She isn’t religious, and found it uproariously funny. She had brought her parents, though, and they hated it. But we had a good conversation about Mormonism. Who knows what seeds such exposure and such conversations may sow?
Years ago, while I was on a lecture tour in Australia and New Zealand, quite a number of people — typically the educated professionals, government officials, and legislators who made up the bulk of my audiences — seeking to make conversation, would tell me something like “I know quite a bit about your church; we watch Big Love.” I’m not sure that The Book of Mormon represents progress on that front. But it’s potentially very helpful. We should take things as we find them, and go from there.
Posted from New York City