Ordinarily I wouldn’t review a Toronto play. But one of the many great things about The Book of Mormon is that it features no Toronto talent whatsoever (as in days of olde, we provincials are being treated to a touring production, with a foreign cast). So praise be to God (to coin a phrase). I can actually review this play because no one I know is in any way connected with it.
The Book of Mormon is a fascinating cultural phenomenom. Why is this potty-mouthed musical about Mormons such a mammoth hit with old, Blue-haired Ladies? What in the name of hell (to coin a phrase) is going on?
First, The Book of Mormon puts the word ‘comedy’ back in musical comedy. You see, a musical comedy is not just a play laced with pretty songs (sorry, Andrew Lloyd Webber). The songs have to be funny (or at least witty). Rodgers and Hammerstein often ride the fine line between sentiment and comedy. But at the heart of the American musical lie songs like “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No!” and “Doin’ What Comes Naturally’ (a song which by the way is as dirty – at least by implication -- as anything in The Book of Mormon). Parker and Stone have written a smart, entertaining and truly witty musical comedy, so we can all breathe a brief (and perhaps illusory) sigh of relief.
But what is the goddamn play about? One might be forgiven for being uncertain. The publicists for the touring show are certainly doing their best to confuse us. They seem to view Torontonians as a passel of hay-chewing rustics in a know-nothing hick town. A tiny piece in the Globe’s Friday May 3rd issue – planted by the play’s publicists, no doubt -- suggests that The Book of Mormon is a pro-Mormon, religious musical. The brief article informs us that the young stars Mark Evans and John O’Neill visited Rochester, New York – apparently an historic Mormon place -- and that the visit “gave them new respect for what they’re preaching onstage.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a canny display of misrepresentation in the history of theatrical publicity.
The Book of Mormon does not preach Mormonism though, understandably, the publicists would like to fool all The Blue Hairs into thinking it’s so. No, the show is a very funny, didactic satire of all organized religion, bigotry and of the institutionalized ignorance that is so often attached to fundamentalism. At the climax of the play the two heroes go so far as to question whether religions need rules, beliefs, or even faith in God! And during the course of the play Christian white fundamentalists learn about life and the human spirit from the non-white people they are seeking to teach.
So why in the name of heaven (to coin a phrase) are The Blue Hairs buying it? Why don’t they get the real message?
Let me tell you, three things really help a lot to sell this wildly inventive experiment in theatrical hucksterism to small town hicks everywhere:
1. The people who swear, use foul sexual language and have AIDS in the play are black, not white – them, not us. (Usually the characters in American plays who swear, use foul language and have AIDS are gay. But I guess we’re finally getting tired of that tired old trope).
2. Most Christians have no idea of what what their religion actually says. And frankly, most of them don’t care. Once I got dressed up in drag and interviewed a bunch of young Catholic women (don’t ask, it’s a long story). I asked them -- how can you reconcile being a young modern woman with the Catholic church’s stand on abortion? All of them basically agreed on one rule of thumb: “There’s my religion, and then there’s my life. Never the twain shall meet.”
3. Finally, the theme of The Book of Mormon is that the specific beliefs of any religion are less important than the fact that people believe in something – anything -- whether we’re black, white, Christian, or ‘pagan.’ The Book of Mormon is a success partially because it has the same theme as many other hugely successful American musicals – The Music Man, and 110 in the Shade (to name two). These musicals posit that the shyster/huckster figure (exemplified by Mormonism in The Book of Mormon) is an okay guy, because we all need a little magic, and we all need ‘a dream.’ It’s not the content of the dream, but the fact that you dream at all, that’s important.
Okay now that I’ve explained the whole Goddamn Jesus thing for you (to coin a phrase), I hope you’re happy.