Elders on Broadway: My Thoughts About The Book of Mormon, the Musical

by Glen Nelson

April 2011

I have resisted writing about the Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon. I’ve been approached by newspaper and television producers to discuss it from the point of view of an LDS person who makes a living in the Arts, resides in New York, and sees a lot of theater. But criticism isn’t really what I do, aside from the occasional Facebook post saying that I enjoyed something or other; so I didn’t want to weigh in. I also didn’t like how the reaction of Church members to the show was seen as some kind of spiritual litmus test by their peers of their degree of belief in the gospel. That irked me, and I didn’t want to have to calibrate my reaction to that kind of skewed expectation. Maybe I was waiting for the froth of interest to die down in order to write about the show in a more reasoned way and not merely pushing back against the volleying hype and critical reaction to the show.

This has certainly been an unexpected phenomenon in the Mormon community. I’ve received letters from friends all over the country, members as well as people who know almost nothing about the Church, all curious—what is this musical about? Almost all of the people in the media who initially spoke about the musical from an LDS perspective in interviews with newspapers, television, and radio are close friends of mine. I pointed journalists to them, knowing that they are articulate members likely to have something interesting to say. I hesitated to disagree with them.

But I’m going to write about it now. My two cents, I guess.

I saw the show with my wife on a Friday night, eight days after its opening night. A friend who is a member of the Church bought the front mezzanine tickets and invited us as his guests. (Ticket prices range from $69.00 for rear mezzanine to $142.00 for the orchestra.) Ultimately, he changed his mind about wanting to see it and gave away his tickets. We went by ourselves on his dime. My wife’s Church calling is Public Relations at a regional level, and she thought it would be helpful to know what everybody was talking about. I was just going along for the ride.

At the time, it was impossible to be a Mormon in the city, working in the Arts, without having followed the ramp up to the show. I read the interviews in Playbill magazine, other general interest magazines, and the newspapers. I saw the interview on Jon Stewart. All of which I found curious because it seemed that the show’s creators were doing major damage control regarding the Mormon issue. There were also articles in the local press about the musical, dangling its naughtiness as a tease to prospective ticket buyers. That’s nothing new.

It was not a slam dunk idea, and the word of mouth that the articles generated was significant and positive. The show was the third major musical this season to open cold in New York, without a run in another city first to test the waters. The other two were cautionary tales of theater-producing woe: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a critically intensely-reviled—The Times said, “’Spider-Man’ is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway; it may also rank among the worst.”—but at least so far commercially popular musical. The fallout from the critical drubbing of Spider-Man is that director was just fired (the show, after repeated postponements in months of preview performances is soon to close down for major rewriting before trying again, something that almost never happens on Broadway). The other cold opener was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a musical that looked incredibly promising on paper but simply wasn’t good enough to make a go of it (I sort of liked it though).

That was the environment that BoM stepped into. It featured nobody famous on stage and a couple of writers that had never written a Broadway musical before, although their long-running tv show South Park gave them some Broadway street cred. Sometimes, the Broadway community can be quite cold to newcoming composers, however famous they might be elsewhere—Paul Simon and Barry Manilow spring to mind.

As we walked into the Eugene O’Neill theater that night, which is one of Broadway’s perfect spaces—not too big, not too new—the first things I noticed were the noise level and the audience’s demographics. Friday night shows are like parties anyway, but this crowd was much younger, more boisterous, and already eager to have a great time. I’d say the audience was twenty years younger than most Broadway musicals attract, maybe more. Even rock-based shows like Green Day’s American Idiot, Rent, Tommy, and Spring Awakening had audiences that were considerably older than BoM, at least when I saw them early in each of their runs. When the lights went down, there were hoots and hollers. It hit me: this was a South Park audience. I’m sure that some of them had never been inside a Broadway house before.

By now, the plot of BoM has been told enough times that I don’t have to go into many details here. LDS missionaries sent to Uganda face impossible social issues for which they’re totally unprepared. After various shenanigans, all ends happily with the conversion of an entire village and, perhaps, the Ugandans’ metamorphosis into Mormon missionaries themselves. That’s the plot.

From my point of view, the critical reaction has been odd. The Times, which is usually pretty tough on shows, called it “heaven.” In fact the raves are pouring in. They are almost unanimous in agreement that BoM is fresh, brilliant, innovative, and fun. Almost everyone, by the way, also writes something in their reviews noting that the show is uplifting, even hinting at a spiritual awakening of its audiences. It’s no surprise that with that kind of critical reaction and great word of mouth, the show is selling out, actually about 102% each week, since it has standing room availability. On my way past the theater this afternoon in the rain, a line of twenty young people was already forming in hopes that returned tickets for this evening would become available. Fat chance.

I point out the critical reaction because in almost none of these news publications were the texts of the BoM songs printable. In their reviews, the critics talked about crudeness but couldn’t get any more specific. The New York Times doesn’t allow the F-word in print, for example, and the language in BoM gets a lot more raw than that. In The New Yorker magazine which has a liberal policy on language, I read some complete lyrics to the show before I attended, so I knew that I was in for harsher language than a F-bomb. And so it was.

I mention this emotional thing about reacting to the reactions of others because that is at the core to much of what I’ve read about the BoM, particularly as it is connected to the Church. How offensive is it? Is it mean? How raunchy is it? How is the Church portrayed? How much damage will it do? These are not the same questions you ask about Chicago, a musical that has its own small touch of Mormon-baiting.

Those questions have merit, I guess. The musical’s opening night was only four days after HBO’s Big Love aired its Church-bashing finale—in which a Mormon neighbor kills the lead character of the show who is a polygamist. Big Love didn’t do any favors for the Church, let’s say. It wasn’t a show I watched after one episode. I was nervous about BoM and wondered if I’d be spending dinner parties for the next year talking about it uncomfortably with friends.

The Book of Mormon, the musical is mostly what everybody says it is. Its tone is sweet and its delivery calculatedly offensive. I sat by an African-American woman who winced throughout the show when Ugandans were stereotypically portrayed. An older man in the row in front of me was clearly offended by the language and the onstage sex acts. He didn’t applaud for those songs, I noticed. And I sat on my hands for a couple of numbers too. When the character of Jesus is portrayed in pretty ugly ways in the song about his upcoming crucifixion in the song, “Man Up,” some people in the audience cheered and a few others sat, battered and shell-shocked. I would say the vast majority let it all roll off of them though, and they just had a good time. They reacted to Mormons in the show the same way I have in the past to jokes that started like this: a priest and a rabbi walked into a bar…. Throughout the show, they laughed a lot, much more than most Broadway performances I attend. There was a standing ovation at the curtain, of course; that doesn’t mean much these days. They loved it.

So what do I have to say about the show itself? First of all, BoM wasn’t written for me. I’m not its target audience. That is, the show and its creators couldn't care less how I react to it, being LDS. Another way of saying it is BoM isn’t provocative, after all is said and done. It isn’t trying to pick a fight with anybody. Maybe it has a beef with Uganda, a nation whose anti-gay policies are heinous (homosexuals can be jailed for 14 years and if a current bill is passed, be executed in certain circumstances), but even that intent might be a stretch. At intermission, my wife asked me if I wanted to leave. I said that I thought I could stay because I had heard so many people talk about it being uplifting, and frankly I hadn’t seen it. I stayed, and I’m glad I did.

I have two general comments. The first is about how the show presents the Church, and the second is about the business-end of it. As strange as it sounds, the show is very warm to the Church. The word that keeps coming to my mind is affectionate. Before I saw the musical, I thought the creators were doing such extensive posturing in the media in order to avoid a backlash from audiences who might think they were attacking us. The show’s creators repeatedly say they love the Church; they think we’re all nuts, but that we’re nice nuts. After seeing the show, I take them at their word on that. Furthermore, that is the message of BoM. All of the crude language and vulgar acts come from other characters in the show, not the Mormons. The missionaries and their families are presented as sweet, naïve, generous, open, do-gooders. There are lines in the show about the Mormons just being nice. It’s almost a mantra. I think the writers mean it sincerely.

There’s a scene in which the Ugandan villagers are all in white clothing being baptized. Strangely enough, it’s quite moving. And I’m not the only one who thought so. The audience got very quiet at that point. The show ends on a Mormon-induced euphoria, an interesting mirror to the opening scene that introduces missionaries at the MTC. At the end of the show, I felt like it was “cool” to be Mormon in the eyes of the audience. I imagined that my friends and neighbors were going to ask me about the show, and I would say, “I was a missionary like that. They sent me to places like Uganda and I was over my head with issues of poverty, devastation, disease, and hopelessness. I didn’t know what to do either. I simply tried to make the world a tiny bit better, and I think the people I taught changed for the better.” And indeed, that is what has happened. My wife, who works in Sales, has been inundated with questions about the musical; it's all people can talk about when they hear she's LDS. Being able to talk about it knowledgeably has been invaluable. My guess is that if real Mormon missionaries were parked outside of the Eugene O’Neill theater every night, that they would have many great conversations with people who had otherwise never thought about the Church in a positive way. Such positive chats would be considerably less likely after Angels in America currently running Off-Broadway on 42nd Street.

The Church has absolutely nothing to fear from The Book of Mormon musical. That opinion is the base of why I’m writing this. I think that anything people of our faith write in the mainstream press at this point—those silly articles about how they haven’t seen the show, and won’t see it, and want to justify how the Church is helping the people of Africa—is unhelpful, maybe even damaging in the long run. It is a defense that follows no attack. If we are a major world religion, we could do a lot worse than this. Ever heard of Nunsense, one of the longest-running shows in history? This musical calls for no Church response.

Many times in the performance, I thought to myself, as an overview of Joseph Smith began, or when diorama figures from the real Book of Mormon popped up, Here we go. This is where it gets ugly. But you know what? The show never goes there. It easily could have. And at the same time, they get into serious theological, cosmological stuff, most of it flying over the heads of the audience. Doctrinal inaccuracies? There are almost none.

I’m glad I went. I might even purchase a couple of the songs from iTunes when the cast album comes out. Still, I can’t recommend the show to anybody. It’s just too much. I was frequently uncomfortable watching it. But that’s a different thing than saying the show is hurtful or willfully antagonistic to the Church. It simply isn’t.

The Book of Mormon musical is a hit. I want to add a comment about that. More accurately, it is a hit right now. But Broadway shows don’t make money here. They make it on the road. Shows can play for a couple of years and barely make their investment money back. BoM has a large cast, that is, large weekly overhead costs. If it keeps selling out, it will return a profit, but that’s the gamble. The logical question is how can that show possibly tour the country and make money? Where will it play? Who will tolerate the language and pay the ticket prices? I was wondering how they can even come up with a number to perform on the Tony Awards ceremony in June. By bleeping, I’d guess, or by altering the lyrics. But cities around the country aren’t like New York, and the size of the houses are a lot bigger elsewhere. Whether BoM can swoop into a regional town and play for a week seems iffy to me. And licensing down the road? Schools can barely get through A Chorus Line without trouble from censors. It’s not a given that this show is going to pan out for its producers.

Some people are predicting a Tony Award for Best Musical for BoM. It isn’t unlikely. The only doubt I have about it is the fact that when Avenue Q, another slightly naughty musical, sort of an R-rated Sesame Street--the two shows share members of the creative team--won a few years ago, it did it  in part by promising a national tour. But the week after it won, Avenue Q pulled the rug out from under those theaters and signed a contract to go to Las Vegas exclusively (which turned out to be a mistake when the show for which a casino built a new theater, quickly closed, losing the entire investment). It’s possible that the same theater owners will remember that slap and think twice about voting for BoM. The award is all about commercial viability. Last year, the edgy American Idiot lost to a tamer, friendlier Memphis. It’s also possible that voters will go with another show such as Catch Me If You Can, which I think sings, dances, and acts circles around BoM, but it lacks a cool reputation. And cool sometimes matters. I haven’t seen Sister Act yet, but my friends liked it a lot too. Time will tell. Still, a Tony Award is no guarantee to success. It doesn’t hurt, obviously.

I have two major criticisms of the show, and they are significant: the music and the performances. Maybe I’m missing the point and shouldn’t expect a musical to be about great music and about singing, but I’m not willing to give it a pass just because it’s satire. The show is written like a string of little comedy sketches. The music has a college-revue quality to it. It’s certainly not inventive compositionally. It nearly feels uncreative to me. The lyrics are so prominent (and clever) that the music almost disappears. It reminds me of The Producers and Spamalot, both of which were written by funny people who weren’t theater writers either. But here is the other criticism. Mel Brooks’ songs were made great because of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Spamalot, ditto, and featured great comic actors like Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, and David Hyde Pierce. BoM falls short here. The performers are strictly B-listers. They look like they were gathered from cruise ships and Disney outdoor summer stages. Relative to the other shows currently playing right now, BoM is blandly cast.

I lay the blame on the creators rather than the performers, however. The show coasts on shock value, which will lose power over time as such things always do. The compositional technique in BoM just isn’t there yet. The work is almost boring, really, in its musical predictability. My wife commented that it sounded to her like a roadshow. The more earnest songs struck me as sounding like the campy “Liken the Scriptures” videos that my kids love and watch on Sunday mornings. The BoM songs are formulaic and without invention. The counter argument is that it’s all satire and so the rules of quality don’t apply. I disagree. At the very least, the direction is the opposite of fluid, and it highlights its structural flaws.

Still, the songs are very funny to audiences, and they all land, as they say around here. BoM works although it doesn’t work for me.