Hello! My name is Elder Munro, and I would like to share with you the most amazing musical.
Whoa, there, please don’t slam the door. I’m not what you think. As you can tell from my slouchy, no-raises-for-a-few-years journalist garb, I’m not wearing a crisp white dress shirt and tie or name badge. I’m not trying to convert you to a religion.
Instead, I’m your special emissary sent to help you decide if “The Book of Mormon” — the musical, not the holy text — is for you.
I can wear several hats. If you’re the type for whom explicit language or pushing boundaries when it comes to religion doesn’t bother you — if you think an unbleeped Amy Schumer comedy routine about, say, having sex with a rabbi is tame — then you don’t need me. You’re ready. Consider me an enthusiastic evangelist for this hilarious show, which I experienced a few years ago on Broadway. (I haven’t yet seen the national tour opening in Fresno on Tuesday, July 14, but I have high hopes for this Equity production featuring seasoned veterans, including an actor who played Elder Price in the London version of the show.)
Go ahead and invite me in for tea, and we’ll sit around singing verses of “Hasa Diga Eebowai.”
On the other hand, if you’re unfailingly dead-set against profanity and what some folks might consider cheap shots at religious beliefs of all varieties — not just those of the followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — then I can make this simple. Don’t go. Nothing I can say will make you change your mind. In fact, I’m kind of scared that if you do go, your head will explode. You might as well close the door in my face.
Could I have a glass of water first, however? It’s hot out here.
But if you are wavering — if you want to see a show that four years later is still one of the hottest tickets on Broadway but are unsure if “South Park”-style humor is really your thing — then hear me out.
I want to share with you some of the tenets of “The Book of Mormon,” Broadway-style.
YOUNG AT HEART
First off, keep in mind that “The Book of Mormon” is told from the point of view of a couple of 19-year-old guys. And young men — even extraordinarily clean-cut ones — can get a little rambunctious sometimes.
The Mormon missionary characters in the show, who get sent to Uganda to convert the poverty-stricken people there, are scrupulously G-rated in terms of dialogue and lyrics.
And yet it’s easy to get the feeling that the excremental storm of profanity into which they wander, courtesy of those people, reflects the repressed sensibilities of men barely out of adolescence. (Is it any wonder that “Star Wars” references and hobbits keep popping up in the show?)
Repression is a favorite theme of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the “South Park” creators who dreamed up the musical. (They co-wrote the show with Robert Lopez, who put an adult sheen on “Sesame Street” in “Avenue Q.”) Language, sexuality and even the frank discussion of bodily functions are all plunked down matter-of-factly in front of Elders Price and Cunningham, who actually seem fairly blase in terms of how they are affected by the naughty linguistic transgressions of the natives.
There’s a sort of colonial veneer coating the book and lyrics of the show as well, which also can make it more palatable for a potentially queasy audience. The missionaries are outsiders thrust into a strange and foreign land, and to put it bluntly, it takes a certain degree of brazenness to waltz in somewhere and declare that your way is best.
The Ugandan characters swear up a blue streak, but because they aren’t doing it in their native language, they’re responding on the missionaries’ terms, which seems quaint. There’s a certain innocence to their exclamations. So, too, with the lost-in-translation Mormon beliefs that the converted Africans end up singing about. Nothing’s funnier than a great big misunderstanding.
PUT IT IN A SONG
Which brings us to a second major tenet of the show: Great music and sparkling comedy can soften the explicitness.
In other words, you can get away with more when your storyline is as funny and the songs as clever and soaring as they are in this show. (The first two numbers, “Hello!” and “Two By Two,” rank up there among the all-time list of musicals in terms of snagging audiences with a snazzy opening.) From the sweet (yet caustically anti-colonial) “Lion King”-mocking “We Are Africa” to the “King and I”-infused “Joseph Smith American Moses,” reminiscent of that musical’s “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” the witty allusions help cushion the graphic language.
So, what I guess I’m trying to say is that you have to look at the raunchiness of “The Book of Mormon” in context.
OK, I’m still on your doorstep. A good sign. Ah, you’d like to invite me in? Many thanks.
Now then. Let’s get to the real core of the show — the insight that makes it much more than an exercise in seeing how much bad language and pokes at organized religion you can get away with on Broadway.
For all its silly excesses, “The Book of Mormon” explores what it means to believe.
Religion doesn’t look for approval from an empirical world. Faith is the fuel.
The show takes great fun in highlighting what some people who identify themselves as “mainstream” Christians would consider wacky declarations of faith. (“Let me take you back to Biblical times: 1823!” Elder Price says at one point to a big laugh.) Little slivers of the LDS faith are served up for comic purposes, and I can see, yes, where Mormons could take umbrage.
But the show’s most meaningful theme is this: All religions are based upon certain dogmatic building blocks. For a nonbeliever, those blocks can appear silly and whimsical, especially out of context. Virgin births, burning bushes, reaching enlightenment, sacred cows, reincarnation, the Quran — all require faith. Otherwise they can become mere punchlines.
In the triumphant song “I Believe,” Elder Price sings:
You cannot just believe part-way
You have to believe in it all
My problem was doubting the Lord’s will
Instead of standing tall
Does “The Book of Mormon” convey this meaningful message about faith in a sophisticated and measured way? Heck no. Like an elementary school fit of lunchtime giggles, it laughs so hard at the subject that milk comes out its nose. Despite the wallop of immaturity, though, the show manages a sweet, silly thoughtfulness and all-inclusiveness that actually offers a lot for the religious among us — along with those whose proclivities don’t run in that direction — to grab onto.
Some critics when the show debuted thought it copped out at the end by succumbing to this sweetness, but I see it a different way. Without the philosophical tilt toward spirituality, the show would have been little more than an extended “South Park” episode. It’s relatively easy to shock; to tweak and then unite is a much greater accomplishment.
Well, thank you for the cookies, and for showing me the photos of your kids, and I think your cat has fallen asleep on my lap. I think my work here is done. Only you can decide if “The Book of Mormon” is for you. That’s what’s nice about religion and musical theater: They can both send you straight to heaven.
‘The Book of Mormon’
- Tuesday, July 14-Sunday, July 19
- Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St.
- www.ticketmaster.com, (800) 745-3000
- Ticket lottery: Entries will be accepted at the box office beginning 21/2 hours before each performance. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random for a limited number of tickets priced at $28 each.
- Show contains explicit lyrics