WC probably owes an apology to Ryan Anderson. Ryan was a Latter Day Saint, an LDS member dispatched by WC’s Mormon classmates to try to convert WC to the Mormon church back in high school. At Ryan’s insistence, WC read most of their holy book, and told Ryan it was a bunch of really stupid, really silly, racist stories. WC enjoyed the debate – WC always has enjoyed debate – but Ryan likely was offended. Like any LDS missionary, he was too polite to admit it or let it show. WC offers his belated apologies, Ryan.
WC thought of Ryan Anderson Wednesday night as he watched the musical, The Book of Mormon, which is on tour and in Boise for a few nights. The show won a boatload of awards, critics’ praise and made a ton of money. Think South Park meets The Lion King meets West Side Story. With lots of f-bombs.
The South Park reference isn’t casual; the co-director, -lyricist and -composer of The Book of Mormon is Trey Parker, who gave us South Park and Team America. In an early scene in the musical we follow two young LDS missionaries, a zealot and a klutz, as they go to a primitive village in Uganda to convert the locals to Mormonism. The zealot asks a local, “When you’re in bed at night, don’t you sometimes feel something moving inside you?” “Yes,” says the local, “I have maggots in my scrotum.”
The joke is very South Park, but it captures in a cheap laugh the conundrum of religious missionaries of all types. They are there to save the locals’ souls; the locals would prefer more mundane help. You know, medical treatment for the the maggots in their scrotums. How do you sing and dance your way around that one?
The musical does it by offering something to offend everyone. It is vulgar, irreverent, mocks the whole missionary thing, is absolutely merciless in poking fun at LDS and is very, very funny.1 When Ben Brantley reviewed it for the New York Times back in 2011, he said it was
[B]lasphemous, scurrilous and more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak. But trust me when I tell you that its heart is as pure as that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show.
What’s pretty amazing is how well Trey Parker and his crew manage a sustained assault on religion in such a sunny way. The musical embraces as it mocks. One of the show-stopping tunes is “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which in a Busby Berkeley-style dance and chorus routine imagines a Mormon Hell, complete with dancing Starbucks coffee cups. Because, well, Mormons.
The actors in the traveling show were very good; especially Kevin Clay, playing Elder Price, Conner Peirson, playing Elder Arnold Cunningham, and Kayla Pecchione, playing Nabulungi. Excellent work by the whole cast, but those three leads really stood out.
The musical finesses the theological condundrum it proposes.2 The villagers come to understand the LDS teachings as a metaphor, not literally true. And the villagers themselves become Mormon missionaries, proselytizing The Book of Arnold. As in Elder Arnold Cunningham.
Schism, too? Sure, why not?
WC has friends for whom the American musical is a kind of quasi-religion in itself. Be assured that The Book of Mormon mocks their religion, too.
It’s a lot of fun. Highly recommended.