The Book of Mormon Musical and Being Offended

The Book of Mormon

Jonathan May

The Book of Mormon was written by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez.

It took about three years for The Book of Mormon to arrive in Memphis from its original Broadway premiere. I didn’t listen to one second of the music during that whole time because I wanted to be surprised by the lyrics and story. Needless to say, the story itself is fairly simple; two young Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda for their two-year stint. Having lived in Zimbabwe as a child of Christian missionaries, I can safely say the experience the two have upon arrival is eerily and comically perfect. Africa, though presented by some of its worst qualities, shines through as a tough place where real shit goes down, which it is. Therefore the jokes about men raping babies made most in the audience uncomfortable because, deep down, they knew (or became aware of then) that things like this happen.

I was insanely entertained by the whole show, being a fan of South Park. Those who would claim that the show just attacks Mormonism are simply missing the point; the show ultimately posits an absurdity in holding any system of religious belief. Parker and Stone, like many before them, make the point that religions are nothing more than metaphors by which to guide one’s life. This idea comes up often during South Park: that strict dogmatism often leads to unhappiness. So while Mormonism is the prism through which this idea is viewed, I argue that the musical deals ultimately with much more than the one religion. People who take offense at such things often miss that the creators of South Park have taken great care over the years to offend everyone equally, regardless of belief-oriented affiliation.

The Book of Mormon parodied many elements and traditions of musicals, as the creators are wont to do. Many of the songs contains leitmotifs or riffs from other famous musicals in order to further the meta-narrative quality of the production. By no means is this a family show, in the traditional sense. Cursing and “real talk” are par for the course, and no one shies away from all possible outlets of sexual and religious conflation for comedic effect. (One line that stands out, regarding baptism, is when a female character states she is “wet with salvation.”) If you are easily offended, I don’t know why you would consider going in the first place, but you should go. It’s easily the funniest Broadway show I’ve ever seen, and it does challenge one’s sense of humor. I laughed out loud steadily, but several moments gave me pause.

The realistic portrayal of the hardship of missionary work and the even harder quotidian circumstances for Africans undeniably make this musical what it is; without those, it might amount to nothing more than the sum of its jokes. But the leads (the two Mormon missionaries and the young African woman they attempt to convert) and their doubts are some of the strongest moments of this unforgettable show.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

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