As opposed to Wicked, which I had simply put off seeing and it took me a while to finally just get tickets to, I had been wanting to see The Book of Mormon since moving to the area in the summer of 2011. The problem was that the musical, like Hamilton now (which incidentally I would love to see), was completely sold out for months at a time and the next available dates for tickets were so far in the future that I simply couldn’t fathom buying tickets for. Luck would have it, I checked a while ago and found tickets that were not too expensive and for a date that was close enough not to feel imaginary, and immediately jumped at the chance to see the smash everyone seemed to absolutely love. As I took my seat and waited for the lights to be turned on, I can honestly say that I was in no way prepared for the experience I was about to have.
The show is the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the irreverent and long-running South Park, and Robert Lopez, the man behind the musical Avenue Q, which beat Wicked for best musical at the Tony Awards and is actually the first musical I ever saw on stage, Off Broadway, in 2012 (he is also responsible for the music from Frozen, which got him an Oscar for writing “Let it Go”, and for the musical episode on Scrubs). For those unfamiliar with Avenue Q, it is basically Sesame Street for adult audiences, with songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet Is for Porn”. So between Lopez and the South Park guys the expectation is that the show will not be the traditional musical of the days of yore.
The show opens with a short forward, filling the audience in on some relevant Mormon history, but very quickly gives way to the opening number, “Hello”, which pokes fun at the door-to-door proselytizing many people associate with the faith. A group of young mormons are assigned the locations of their two year mission and Elder Price, the epitome of the good Mormon boy, is hoping to be rewarded for his years of diligent service with his dream assignment and a worthy companion. Unfortunately for him, he is paired with the juvenile and lie-prone Elder Cunningham and to make matters worse, the two are assigned the unenviable mission to Uganda.
In Uganda, the two missionaries meet the locals of the village they will be serving and are clearly culture shocked by the poverty and dire conditions around them. The locals introduce the two young men to a saying that brings them comfort through the song “Hasa Diga Eebowai”. This is definitely not “Hakuna Matata”, which the song is clearly meant to evoke. I will not spoil the surprise of what it means, but I will just say that the audience reaction was a mixture of uproarious laughter and utter shock and disbelief. People didn’t know whether to feel offended or to cheer. Which seems to be exactly the reaction the creators and cast desire, as this feeling remained consistent for the rest of the musical.
So much of the success of the show depends on not really knowing what comes next, and I don’t want to spoil it in any way, because I am so glad I knew absolutely nothing about what was coming, which made the experience all the more fun for me. I will say that I was in tears from laughing almost the entire run time of the musical and left in such a good mood. This is definitely not a show for the extremely devout or the easily offended, I am hard to shock and could not believe some of the things that occurred before my very eyes. It’s incredible that a musical this controversial has had so much success, won so many Tony Awards, and achieved blockbuster status, while poking fun at religion, female circumcision, homosexuality, and so much more. That said, there is a lovely message at the end of the musical and it does end on very hopeful notes. Even in its irreverence and over the top content I don’t think the show is excessively offensive or mean spirited, quite the opposite, actually. But, then again, I am not a Mormon…