We’re all Mormons now
The West End’s newest musical combines a great night out with surprising theology
To get straight to the point: The Book of Mormon – is it good for the Jews? It’s a tricky question, given that, subverting all musical theatre stereotypes, The Book of Mormon has very little to do with Jews. Of the three named authors, only Matt Stone admits a hebraic heritage, and to go down this road would be seriously clutching at straws. The plot is entirely devoid of Jews, being composed of American Mormons and Ugandans, although in Arnold Cunningham we have an anti-hero with a distinctly nebbishe quality who, in Jared Gertner’s portrayal, sports what looks suspiciously like a Jewfro. No, The Book of Mormon has relevance for Jews only by way of analogy – about the necessity of rewriting religious texts, “making stuff up”. The Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements should block book tickets and take all their members as a post-Passover gift.
Let’s instead ask a more obviously applicable question: is it good for the Mormons? In general, yes. By the principle that it’s better to be mocked than hated or, worse, ignored, the Mormons should be pretty grateful, and the decision of the Church of Latter Day Saints to give implicit approval to the musical by taking out adverts in the programme (“You’ve seen the show, now read the book”) is vindicated. It should be said that an orthodox Mormon would find their beliefs thoroughly mocked, simply through being presented in all their glorious absurdity (“I believe/ that God lives on a planet called Kolob/ and I believe/ that Jesus has/ His own planet as well/ and I believe/ that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people”). Gentle though many of the show’s digs are, it’s hard to imagine a true believer in the revelation of Joseph Smith welcoming such sustained theological ridicule.
So on to (finally) the eminently more pertinent question. Is the show any good? The answer, as if anyone needed to know by now, is yes. It’s a fantastically well-crafted show with a tight, well-written book, punchy songs, excellent performances, and, naturally, great comedy. None of that should be taken for granted: musical theatre is a tough form to get right, and technically this show has it all worked out. It’s an extremely good night out, and by encore time the audience’s emphatic and rhythmic clapping indicates a renewed belief in something, even if just the notion that musicals have a future. But despite its many strengths, the high The Book of Mormon offers is a limited one. Its charm is watered by down by heavy-handed use of obscenities and over-repeated scatological gags. All of this is of course in the tradition of Stone and Parker’s South Park, but in The Book of Mormon, moments of subtle wit easily surpass those supposedly taboo-busting outbursts that are really only funny once. Highlights include “Turn It Off”, a witty satire on those who try to ignore difficult or unwelcome thoughts, and the brutally honest “You And Me (but mostly me)”, whereas “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (Fuck You God) is a one joke pony that flags as soon its Lion King-parodying nature become evident.
A more serious issue is a narrative one. The subplot concerns the villainous General Butt-Fucking-Naked (a thinly fictionalised Joseph Kony) who threatens forced circumcision of all females in the village. He is defeated in an unconvincing sequence where Mormon Arnold Cunningham pretends to have risen from the dead and, together with the newly converted villagers, threatens to use the power of Christ to turn the general into a lesbian. The show wants to play everything for laughs, which is fine on principle, and reminiscent of Little Shop of Horrors, in which the story of a horticultural killer is never taken seriously and is instead an excuse for endless Motown pastiches. The evil in Little Shop, however, is a man-eating plant. Once you make the evil real by bringing in Aids and female circumcision, playing everything for laughs, without a genuine resolution of the conflict, feels inadequate. The Book of Mormon wants to have its cake and eat it, mocking The Lion King for ignoring the real problems of Africa but brushing them aside when they get in the way of the necessary happy ending.
The main plot, however, is more satisfying, and offers a convincing and surprising moral. While the good looking Elder Price preaches theological orthodoxy to Ugandans, the villagers fail to see how Mormon teachings are relevant to them. The less charismatic Arnold finds success by improvising around the Book of Mormon in order to make the stories relevant to the Ugandan context, thereby gaining a range of new converts. When the visiting mission director declares the new teachings to be nonsense, the villagers point out that they had never taken them literally, not believing Salt Lake City (Sal Tlay Ka Siti) to be an actual place, and being sure that a tale of a prophet who has sex with frogs was a metaphor. When the Church closes down the mission in disgust, the assembled Mormons and villagers declare themselves all “latter day saints” and form a new sect based on the “Book of Arnold”. Orthodoxy and literalism fail; making stuff up provides salvation. In a world of forthright atheism coupled with increasing religious literalism this call for free-flowing invention is a potent one. Religious invention has always existed, but this is infrequently admitted, its ingenuity rarely acknowledged. The Mormon religion is a valiant attempt to relocate the locus of Christianity to America just as Jews in late antiquity rethought a temple cult for a new reality of exile and dispersion. Successful traditions rewrite themselves, finding the “word of God” to be surprisingly flexible; those that insist on fixed meaning eventually render themselves extinct. As moderns, we need a willingness to rewrite our stories and ideas as the need presents itself. In that sense, we are all Mormons, and tomorrow is a latter day.