'The Book of Mormon' musical: 'Tartuffe' of the 21st century?

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This is a long post aimed at being a one-shot analysis of the soundtrack to The Book of Mormon musical from the perspective of a faithful Latter-day Saint.  The views are solely my own, and I don’t mean to offend.  Also, it is only a review of the soundtrack, as I have not seen the production.

The soundtrack to The Book of Mormon musical is so utterly offensive, I am sure that there will even be a few people who find this very review to be almost as offensive as the show itself, even without any of its foul language — because it (SPOILER ALERT) will be revealed in a couple of paragraphs to be quite glowing.

Thinking about that potential negative reaction from my peers doesn’t make me at all pleased, even though by now that kind of reaction is probably breakfast food for the show’s creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q).

But, here it comes: I love what I hear in this soundtrack, and it only solidifies my desire to see the show on Broadway.

The written word has had a long history of pushing people’s buttons, on and off the stage.  Molière’s Tartuffe outraged audiences to the point that all performances of it were banned during the years between 1664 and 1669.  The reasons were, like with this show, religious in nature.  Mormons are not incapable of criticizing religion; I enjoyed BYU’s performance of Tartuffe last year very much.  I thought the cast was great, and the script was hilarious and useful, even for a religious audience.

The Book of Mormon musical’s attitude toward religion, like Tartuffe‘s, is positive, even as they both point out areas where religious institutions and religious people fail.

Its message is therefore totally unthreatening to Mormons, and in my estimation, the show has a thing or two to say that could make us stronger.

Let’s go one more time with the Tartuffe connection (this is, after all, a literature-themed blog).  That show ridiculed religious hypocrisy.  The Book of Mormon ridicules religious naiveté.  But I see nothing in this album that portrays Mormon characters (or any other characters, including the Africans) as stupid, and that’s a big difference.  When these fresh-faced elders are forced to confront what they don’t know, they go on complicated and satisfying journeys, and end up — organically, yet wonderfully — in a very faith-promoting place.

The beautiful and catchy music are kind of essential elements to these songs, but I will present a few excerpts from the lyrics nonetheless (you can download the songs on iTunes now, but that’s as far as my missionary efforts toward purchasing an album will go):

From “Two By Two”

The most important time of a Mormon kid’s life

Is his mission.

A chance to go out

And help heal the world,

That’s my mission.

Soon I’ll be off in a different place,

Helping the whole human race.

I know my mission will be

Something incredible…

Where’s the joke?  Well, there is none.  In this song, as in the entire show, the missionaries in are portrayed as totally sincere, which, having been on a mission, I can verify is almost always true.  Missionares want to do good.  I love missionaries.  Even when they are being selfish, as Elder Price is for much of the soundtrack, it’s not a mean-spirited selfishness, and it’s anything but greedy.  Selfless selfishness?  It’s incredibly hard to describe what mission life is like to one who has never gone, but this musical captures something true about it in a way that neither pro- nor anti- Church art ever has.

From “Turn It Off”

I’ve got a feelin’,

That you could be feelin’ –

A whole lot better than you feel today.

You say you’ve got a problem,

Well that’s no problem,

It’s super easy not to feel that way.

When you start to get confused

Because of thoughts in your head –

Don’t feel those feelings -

Hold them in – in – stead!

Turn it off!

Like a light switch,

Just go ‘click’,

It’s a cool little Mormon trick.

We do it all the time.

When you’re feeling certain feelings

That just don’t seem right,

Treat those pesky feelings like

a reading light-

And turn em off!

This is one of the nastier lyrics, set against one of the happier tunes.  I say nasty because the lyrics certainly jab.  But in our culture of the Church, putting things we don’t understand “on the shelf” is a big part of our fast-track-to-testimony-building.  Real spiritual understanding doesn’t come from “turning it off,” in my opinion, and faith only grows when it is allowed to stretch.

Before my own mission, I confronted head-on the difficult questions I had about the Church.  I used — like many Mormons before me and with me — the gifts of prayer, study and faith to seek truth.  Answers came, and much more meaningfully than can be given with the flip of a switch.

How grateful I am that I didn’t just “turn it off” or put my doubts “on a shelf!”

Hopefully a song like “Turn It Off” will inspire people who are putting a lot of things on shelves to have the courage to take some of them down and deal with them, realizing that they have nothing to fear from the truth.

From “All-American Prophet”

MORONI: I am Moroni…

The All-American angel!

My people lived here long,

Long ago!

This is a history of my race

Please read the words within

We were Jews who met with Christ.

But we were

All-American

But don’t let anybody see

These plates except for you…

They are only for you to see…

Even if people ask you to show

the plates to them.

Don’t.

Just copy them on to normal paper.

Even though this might

make them question

If the plates are real or not…

This is sort of what God is

going for…

(JOSEPH SMITH, AT DEATH): Oh God why are you letting

me die

Without having me show people

the plates?

They’ll have no proof I was

telling the truth or not

They’ll have to believe it just…cuz.

Oh.

I guess that’s kind of what you

were going for.

Here, Parker, Stone and Lopez have decided to portray the story of Joseph Smith as a little bit zany, but still possibly true!  Most importantly, they portray religious truth as unprovable.  Even within our Church culture, we sometimes pretend that we have tangible evidence that “the Church is true,” but the fact is, religious truth is not provable, and as the song says, ”that’s kind of God is going for.”  It’s not to say that we believe in false things.  Joseph Smith himself wrote,

“Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth: consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth, and truth greatly prevails over priestcraft….The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.” —  Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith p. 264

So if the musical is trying to say it’s ok for religious people to openly believe dumb things that are obviously false, then I disagree.  But I don’t think that is what it is saying.  I think it is saying, some truth has no tangible proof, but it still may be true, and through faith good things can come.  I’ve been thinking, for example, a lot about the idea of grace, and the Savior’s power to heal and make us stronger.  I have experienced this power in my life, yet, I have no proof that it exists.  My life is simply better because I believe it with all my heart.

The biggest show-stopper number on the album portrays this idea in a humorous way:

From “I Believe”

I believe!!!!

That Satan has a hold of you.

I believe!

That the lord God has sent me here!

And I believe!

That in 1978 God changed his mind about

black people!!!

(Black people!!!)

You can be a Mormon!

A Mormon who just believes.

The Book of Mormon Eugene O'Neill Theatre Cast List: Josh Gad Andrew Rannells Nikki M. James Rory O’Malley Michael Potts Scott Barnhardt Justin Bohon Darlesia Cearcy Kevin Duda Asmeret Ghebremichael Brian Tyree Henry John Eric Parker Jason Michael Snow Benjamin Schrader Michael James Scott Brian Sears Lawrence Stallings Rema Webb Maia Nkenge Wilson Tommar Wilson Production Credits: Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker (Direction) Casey Nicholaw (Choreography) Scott Pask (Set Design) Ann Roth (Costume Design) Brian MacDevitt (Lighting Design) Brian Ronan (Sound Design) Larry Hochman (Orchestrations) Stephen Oremus (Music Supervision) Other Credits: Lyrics by: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Robert Lopez Music by: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Robert Lopez Book by: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Robert Lopez

Satire is the art of using hurtful words and ideas to inspire people to be better and do good things.  Maybe it only appeals to a certain type, but I am definitely that type.  I need to laugh if I am going to put down my defenses in order to look at reality.  How many times have I heard about AIDS in Africa, and done nothing?   The most explicitly offensive song on the album has a reflective and insightful line: “If you don’t like what we say / Try living here a couple days.”

(By the way, that awful song ends up being a total set-up for the very last song; one of the last lines in the show is “Thank you God,” showing the villagers’ conversion to a religious and more peaceful life.  I mean, just in case anyone thought that kind of blasphemy could be made up for.)

We all have built up defenses against ideas that make us sad.  We just “turn it off” rather than look at the problems straight in the face.  It needs an edge if it’s going to cut through the defenses people build so that they don’t have to think about such real problems as female circumcision, AIDS, warlord violence, infant rape—this musical does attempt to tackle these issues.  Can we imagine tackling such heavy subjects without using anything explicit or coarse?  Any attempt to sugar-coat the musical would undermine those ideas.  And even though the South Park guys seem to love sophomoric potty humor on their TV show, their humor is far more meaningful here.

The show crosses over the line of  the sacred, but in every instance that it does, it ends up flashing its legitimately signed warrant.  And once over the line, it performs only respectable—if uncomfortable—business.  It never just lingers there.

And the vulgarity?  The penetrating offensiveness?  It digs so low, and then lower, and then lower — but it does so with such zeal and purpose that it manages to dig so low in the earth that it actually pops up on land again, on the other side of the planet.  Nobody really believed that was possible.  But now, I believe.

The Church’s official statement in reaction to The Book of Mormon musical was polite (am I reaching too far to call it permissive?).  The show has been praised by many, but only a few Mormons.  Well, count me in as one of the praisers.


Original comments:

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  3. Anna Raysays:
  4. May 17, 2011 at 5:22 AMLove it, Derrick. Can’t respond well now because I’m at work, but I’m with you. Great review.
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  7. Bryan Kerrsays:
  8. May 17, 2011 at 10:38 AMGreat review Derrick.
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  11. Sam McGrathsays:
  12. May 17, 2011 at 11:22 AMDerrick, I saw this post as I was listening to The Book of Mormon musical (again). NPR did a story on it and has their music online to listen to (http://www.npr.org/2011/05/09/136054170/first-listen-cast-recording-the-book-of-mormon). I have to say that I agree with you. I think its pretty good. I was nervous about the musical, thinking that it might be like the Mormon episode of South Park, but I was pleased with how the missionaries are portrayed and the way they deal with our religion. Like you, I found a lot that rang true with my mission. If members of the church want to hate this musical, I couldn’t blame them, but it definitely shouldn’t be because of how the church is presented. Very good review.
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  15. Gideon Burtonsays:
  16. May 18, 2011 at 8:58 AMI enjoyed reading the guest blog post by Michael Otterson (head of church public affairs) on the Washington Post blog, On Faith. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/why-i-wont-be-seeing-the-book-of-mormon-musical/2011/04/14/AFiEn1fD_blog.html)As someone who has taught Mormon literature and Mormon film for a long time, I can tell you that Mormonsploitation books and films are a well established tradition, and a sign of the maturity of our culture is our ability to shrug off things that would in past decades have caused great consternation.As a devoted Mormon, I’m pleased to have our faith, missionaries, and book of scripture given new attention, even if that attention is obviously a mixed blessing. At the same time, I think it is a shame that we have such an amazing heritage of literature and art (and film) within our culture that many Mormons who hum along to Parker’s musical will never bother to know or enjoy. We are willing to look past the blemishes and blasphemies of pop cultural representations of our faith while rolling our eyes at the artistic efforts among our own people. (I’m not accusing you of this, Derrick, just making a general observation).
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    • Matt Kulischsays:
    • May 19, 2011 at 1:25 PMMy issue with Otterson’s article was precisely the disconnect he seemed to quietly pass off as truth: that he can use “I” in a public forum and still remain the Head of Church Public Affairs.As Head of Church Public Affairs, and one who used his title in the publishing of the article, surely he forfeits the use of the “I” precisely by choosing to subtitle his title? He represents and thus speaks for the institution. And as a reader, I’d be hard pressed–with the title in mention–to consider him as anything else but the institution. Which makes the article, not his opinion, but the toutings of thinly-veiled instruction.So when he says, “Why I won’t be seeing the Book of Mormon musical,” I give a hearty crinkle at all the bad readers who think he’s speaking for himself…
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  19. janeannechovysays:
  20. May 19, 2011 at 9:21 AMThanks for this, Derrick. I saw the show in previews in March, and reviewed it for fMh: http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=4017One note–your picture is miscaptioned. The missionary in the picture is Elder Price, played by Andrew Rannells.
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  23. Hollysays:
  24. May 19, 2011 at 9:31 AMThat’s not Elder McKinley in the photo up there. That’s Elder Kevin Price, played by Andrew Rannells. He’s clasping hands with General Butt-f**king Naked, played by Brian Tyree Henry.Elder McKinley is the gay DL who sings lead on “Turn It Off.”
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  28. Kaytesays:
  29. May 19, 2011 at 12:12 PMWonderful review Derrick! I can’t wait to see the musical as well. People can’t be afraid to have a sense of humor about their culture/religion.
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  32. Alysays:
  33. May 23, 2011 at 3:41 PMDerrick, this is a great review and I really appreciate your honesty as well as personal thoughts. I’ve been a little bit afraid of listening to the soundtrack [and obviously actually viewing the show as well], but it’s nice to see that there are good things about the show.
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  36. Austinsays:
  37. June 25, 2011 at 3:21 AMWonderful review Derek. I was lucky enough to see the musical, and frankly it’s the first truly great musical of the 21st century. It was wonderful, and as you said, it didn’t offend the church.
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  40. Katherinesays:
  41. April 9, 2012 at 12:18 AMI found your review interesting and good. Have you read this article? Gives good insight I think.http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/22/opinion/22brooks.html
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    • Derrick Clementssays:
    • April 23, 2012 at 5:40 PMThanks Katherine! Yes that was an interesting article. He raises a useful criticism of the idea that religion can have value without being based on actual fact or literal truth. And his overall point, “Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last,” is one that kind of feels true to me–but it also terrifies me. I believe that the chips fall pretty strongly on the side of not literal the more one studies a particular religious story or foundation. So I am definitely not as quick as Brooks to wave away, as he puts it, “the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments.”A great poem that we read in my Transatlantic Literature class last semester is “Church Going” by Philip Larkin. In it, he explores “When churches will fall completely out of use / What we shall turn them into” and poses the poignent question, “superstition, like belief, must die, / And what remains when disbelief has gone?”I love that poem and think it goes toward a similar message as this musical. Here’s a clip of Larkin reading his poem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDp234p_fCMI would go so far as to say that world Brooks describes–a world in which only highly dogmatic, rigid religions can survive or inspire–is a horrible world, and if that is the world we live in it is no wonder there is so much suffering. Essentially, in my view, people will “sure knowledge” in something that may actually be false, but they BELIEVE is true, is much more damaging than any good that may come from the motivation that comes from perceived absolute truth. For every hungry person that religious person feeds, he lets at least one gay person or questioner (to address the types that are explicitly addressed in the musical) fall through the cracks, and often in terrible ways. Out of ignorance. If the underlying belief is absolutely true, then great, (and many religious people believe that their underlying beliefs DO represent absolute truth), but rigorously challenging that belief is–I believe–absolutely essential. And that is what this musical does well. It raises questions about the underlying beliefs of Christianity and Mormonism–but as we are taught from the scriptures, the Holy Ghost will help us come to the truth, and our beliefs DO stand up against rigorous criticism, as long as the believer is willing to change, repent, and alter their beliefs as they go along. That is because, and this is MY underlying assumption: people do not have absolute clarity when it comes to truth. All we can do is do our best to grasp and shape it, wrangle religious truth into literal words so that we can do something with them. Or as Paul said, “we see through a glass, darkly.” So many people, including Mormons, stop seeking once they “get their answer” that the Church is true. Or they think seeking means they need to keep asking that same question “is the Church true?” over and over again. That, to me, stinks of self-delusion and insincere seeking (they already know the answer, and pray again and again until they get the answer they already know–they don’t have a question in reality). Or in other words, they “turn it off!”So for me, a highly believing, active, member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I really appreciate the message that non-literal, spiritual truth CAN win out. If Brooks is right, we’re going to continue to have terrorists and other violent, destructive, fundamentalists. I am afraid he is, but I hope and believe that he is not. Still though, he really does raise a great insight, as you say. And I appreciate you sharing it!
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  44. Seansays:
  45. April 23, 2012 at 12:43 PMFrom my standpoint, this play is quite derivative. Yeah, its snarky and satirical, and they do their best to entertain/offend you, but it just doesn’t have substance or any message based on fact. If you liked the musical, I highly suggest you read the real Book of Mormon. As always, the book is much much better!
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    • Derrick Clementssays:
    • April 23, 2012 at 5:19 PMSean, to me the musical goes far beyond entertaining or offending, in the way it prods the audience to re-think what they believe, and to consider the origins and the power of faith. Many have commented on how much the play actually promotes faith (as in the line, “I guess that’s kinda what you were going for…”). I am a person of faith myself (Mormon) and although I have still not seen the production, buying the soundtrack and the book and reading the whole script was and continues to be a rich experience for me. Definitely different than the book it’s “based on”–which I also love and consider to be valuable scripture. But while it may not be perfect, this musical is a brilliant contribution to the religious conversation. I’m happy that my religion was able to fit so nicely as a vehicle to discuss the ideas they discuss in the musical. Thank you very much for your comment by the way!