Responding to the Musical “The Book of Mormon”

 

An LDS ad at Times Square

 

An LDS ad on a New York taxi

 

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.

 

A scene from the musical “The Book of Mormon”

 

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.

 

Playbill Ad #1

 

“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.”

 

Playbill Ad #2

 

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.

 

Playbill Ad #3

 

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

 

 

Print Friendly

  • Jerry Argetsinger

    Daniel ~ We meet again. I did an early “Mormon Scholars Testify” piece for you long ago . . . I applaud this piece, but note that we have both been beating that drum. I reviewed the Broadway opening of “Book of Mormon” and titled my review “Collateral Benefits” http://www.affirmation.org/plays/book_of_mormon_musical.shtml Is HC responsible for Public Affairs in Rochester Stake, it was also my brainchild to invite the BofM cast to the Church history sites in Palmyra. As past director and costume designer of the Hill Cumorah Pageant we hosted them for the entire day and the article you reference is the result. Just wanted to let you know that even though we are not always on the same page, on THIS topic we are two peas in a pod. The musical works because it is a spot on satire of the Mormon missionary experience. Also, in literature, if your are going to have a redemptive ending, you Must give them something to be redeemed from. The play does that and ultimately sends a very strong positive message.

  • Matt Barclay

    Well written, Dan. I agree.

  • John Ziebarth

    One of my fellow teachers saw the “Book” play and loved it. She said she laughed for so long and so uproariously that it hurt. She asked why I did not want to see it. I told her that her favorite song was about the locals, being angry at god, were cursing Him. I have enough trouble getting on His right side-the sheep- that cursing Him was more likely to send me to the ‘goat’ side.

  • http://mhjasinski@comcast.net Lt.Kijhe

    The song about the locals …Google the lyrics “Hasa diga eebowai,’” but be aware they are foul. What if the word Mormons were changed to Jews, or blacks, or Muslems, or gays? Who would laugh until they hurt at that?

    Honestly, I cannot comprehend how anyone who cares at all about God, Jesus or Mormonism would pay to
    hear see this sow. How do I adjust my attitude to make this acceptable? Could someone please explain?

    • http://mhjasinski@comcast.net Lt.Kijhe

      The song, “Joseph Smith Amertcan Moses.” Deseret News calls the musical “edgy and irreverent.” There are better descriptors.

    • danpeterson

      I haven’t gone. I probably won’t ever go.

      I would only go, if I ever went, because it’s largely about my faith and my people, and because I like to be aware of what’s going on. Why? Because I’m a writer and commentator about what’s going on with regard to my people and my faith. I don’t recommend that anybody else go.

      • http://mhjasinski@comcast.net Lt.Kijhe

        I mean no offense, Dan. I’m puzzled that some LDS who have seen the show report it as funny and harmless. The songs are available on YouTube and the lyrics on Google. Other than in a theater, I can’t think of a place I could use that kind of language and not be fired or arrested for sexual harassment, yet some think this is edgy, irreverent, and hilarious. I’m showing my age. The official LDS response in England threads the needle.

        • danpeterson

          I’ve been puzzled by them, too. Perhaps the stupidest response came from one alleged Mormon who gushed something to the effect of “The Catholics have ‘The Sound of Music,’ the Jews have ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ and now WE have ‘The Book of Mormon’!”

          Utter rot.

  • http://mhjasinski@comcast.net Lt.Kijhe

    Sorry…Freudian slip…”pay to hear this show.”

    • Kent G. Budge

      I kind of liked “sow”. I think the Church has responded brilliantly, but I suspect (having not myself seen the show) that the truth is that no amount of lipstick could improve this pig.

      • danpeterson

        The question, of course, is not about improving the play. We’re in no position to do that. And, contrary to some of those here and on Facebook, it’s not about “endorsing” the play, which I certainly don’t.

        It’s merely a question of how to respond in a way that’s most useful to the Kingdom.

  • http://mhjasinski@comcast.net Lt.Kijhe