Mormons respond to ‘Book of Mormon’ musical coming to Fresno

Morgan Mortimer, a Mormon missionary from Clovis, is serving African villagers at the Mozambique Maputo Mission.
Morgan Mortimer, a Mormon missionary from Clovis, is serving African villagers at the Mozambique Maputo Mission. SPECIAL TO THE BEE

Anyone planning to attend the award-winning “The Book of Mormon” musical in Fresno next week — a satirical performance riddled with profanity about Mormon missionaries in Africa — should be prepared to see missionaries, real ones, as they approach the William Saroyan Theatre.

They won’t be picketing, just politely offering information about what their religion is really about.

Since the Broadway musical opened in New York in 2011, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has encouraged its members to conduct themselves with “dignity and thoughtfulness” in their response to the show that one British reporter described this way: “I believe it could be the most expletive-driven, jaw-droppingly shocking and gasp-inducingly offensive show the West End (in London) has ever witnessed.”

President Jeffrey D. Clark, who presides over the Mormon church’s California Fresno Mission, home base for 160 missionaries from around the world, said a number of missionaries will be handing out copies of their sacred text outside the theater.

Mormon missionaries have done the same in many other cities where the musical has toured. Based on their experiences, Clark expects to give away between 1,000 and 1,200 copies of the Book of Mormon — what Latter-day Saints consider a companion text to the Bible — during the show’s six-day stay in Fresno that begins Tuesday, July 14, and continues through Sunday, July 19.

We don’t want to harass anybody. We just want to be available.

Jeffrey D. Clark of plans to hand out copies of the Book of Mormon outside the William Saroyan Theatre

Debbie Mortimer, a public affairs assistant for the church in the central San Joaquin Valley, said of the musical: “We’re not really saying we’re against it. We are just saying, ‘Hey, if you want to know the true story of the Book of Mormon, we’d love to tell you that.’”

Mortimer admitted she once saw the popular musical comedy “Nunsense,” which poked fun at Catholic nuns. In that light, “The Book of Mormon” coming to Fresno doesn’t seem so bad.

“I thought, ‘All right, I went to that and had a good laugh and hopefully some Catholic people did, too,’” she said. “Never for one second did I think it was the way nuns really were.”

In response to “The Book of Mormon” musical, the Mormon church started an educational social media campaign. Members are encouraged to share photos and information about their religion using the hashtags #therealbookofmormon and #thebookisbetter.

And, as they have done throughout the musical’s tour, the church has purchased ads in the play’s printed programs that will be handed out before each performance in Fresno. The advertisements, which include a link to the church’s website, encourage audience members to learn more about the Book of Mormon scripture with statements like, “You’ve seen the play … now read the book” and “The book is always better.”

Clark said there are about 45,000 Latter-day Saints from Modesto to Porterville.

There are about 85,000 Mormon missionaries serving in about 425 missions around the world.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offered a brief official statement about the musical around the time it opened on Broadway in 2011: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

Clark and Mortimer haven’t seen the musical — and neither has an interest in seeing it. Mortimer said the play is essentially “R-rated” and Latter-day Saints are discouraged from partaking in entertainment that is profane or sexually explicit.

But some Latter-day Saints have expressed more interest in the musical — or, at least, its actors.

Billy Tighe, who plays the lead role of Elder Price in the national tour coming to Fresno, was tickled after one performance in London when he ran into some surprise visitors.

“Mormon missionaries came to the stage door and just wanted to talk to other Americans,” he said.

Michael Otterson, managing director of public affairs for the Latter-day Saints, is not as interested.

In a 2011 article titled, “Why I Won’t Be Seeing the Book of Mormon Musical,” he said the show’s creators (also creators of the animated “South Park” sitcom) spent seven years writing and producing the musical — what Otterson contrasted to the work of Mormon missionaries in Africa over seven years.

He said that work included helping provide clean drinking water to more than 4 million Africans in 17 countries, giving 34,000 disabled children wheelchairs and vaccinating millions of children against killer diseases like measles.

It costs missionary families an average of $400 to $450 a month to serve. Elders (men) go for two years and sisters (women) for 18 months.

Jeffrey D. Clark of the cost of going on a mission

“Of course, parody isn’t reality,” Otterson wrote of the musical, “and it’s the very distortion that makes it appealing and often funny. The danger is not when people laugh but when they take it seriously — if they leave a theater believing that Mormons really do live in some kind of surreal world of self-deception and illusion.”

Mortimer said her nephew from Clovis, Morgan Mortimer, is serving his mission in Africa — an experience that is “completely opposite” to the portrayal in “The Book of Mormon” musical.

“He’s having a very spiritual experience,” Mortimer said. “He’s serving the African people, not just baptizing them.”

While the church isn’t “opposed” to the musical, she stressed, “we would like the truth to be known about what these guys (Mormon missionaries) are really like.”

Bee reporter Donald Munro contributed to this story. Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

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