If theater is your religion and the Broadway musical your sect, you've been woefully faith-challenged of late. Venturesome, boundary-pushing works such as Spring Awakening, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Next to Normal closed too soon. American Idiot was shamefully ignored at the Tonys and will be gone in three weeks. Meanwhile, that airborne infection Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark dominates headlines and rakes in millions, without even opening. Celebrities and corporate brands sell poor material, innovation gets shown the door, and crap floats to the top. It's enough to turn you heretic, to sing along with The Book of Mormon's Ugandan villagers: "Fuck you God in the ass, mouth and cunt-a, fuck you in the eye."
Such deeply penetrating lyrics offer a smidgen of the manifold scato-theological joys to be had at this viciously hilarious treat crafted by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, of South Park fame, and composer-lyricist Robert Lopez, who cowrote Avenue Q. As you laugh your head off at perky Latter-day Saints tap-dancing while fiercely repressing gay tendencies deep in the African bush, you will be transported back ten years, when The Producers and Urinetown resurrected American musical comedy, imbuing time-tested conventions with metatheatrical irreverence and a healthy dose of bad-taste humor. Brimming with cheerful obscenity, sharp satire and catchy tunes, The Book of Mormon is a sick mystic revelation, the most exuberantly entertaining Broadway musical in years.
The high quality of the writing, design and direction (the latter duty shared by Parker and the seasoned Casey Nicholaw) should surprise no one: Parker and Stone have been honing their musical-theater chops for nearly two decades. The team's student film, Cannibal! The Musical, was made in 1993, and in 1999, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was aptly (if cheekily) hailed as the year's best new musical. More recently, Team America: World Police paid snarky homage to Rent with the parody ballad "Everyone Has AIDS." As for Lopez, his long-running puppets-behaving-badly hit speaks for itself. These song-and-dance pranksters were destined to one day mock the Church of Latter-day Saints, an institution that, like the Broadway musical, is a singularly American invention.
Starting off in (where else?) Salt Lake City, Utah, The Book of Mormon follows a mismatched pair of proselytizers, Elders Price (Rannells) and Cunningham (Gad). The former is the clean-cut ideal of a Mormon doorbell-pusher: white-bread, well-groomed and safely asexual. Cunningham, however, is a fat, slovenly manchild who tends to lie. Despite Price's callow wish to be assigned missionary work in Orlando, Florida, the two are sent to save souls in war-torn, AIDS-ravaged, poverty-stricken Uganda. The dawning horror on Rannells's face and the spastic, gleeful incomprehension on Gad's upon hearing the news is priceless. The evolving friendship between their two characters lays the emotional foundation for the show, and gives even the cruelest jokes about disease, racism and homophobic self-loathing a sweetish, innocent finish. That human dimension reminds you that the long-lived comic genius of South Park (heading into its 15th year) relies on children blinded by navet, but who can see through society's lies.
Likewise, by smashing together two disparate worlds—prim, über-Caucasoid Mormons and long-suffering, hope-starved Africans—the creators can lampoon Western illusions about that complex, troubled continent (the anthem "I Am Africa" is sung by distinctly pale cast members), while scoring laughs off the sort of horrors that should never be put on a Broadway stage ("I have maggots in my scrotum" is a recurring lament). We chortle disgustedly at an African man who thinks raping a baby will cure his AIDS (a documented crime), but truly grotesque is the notion that a couple of Bible-toting white boys can be of any real help.
In fact, the uses and abuses of faith, the strange persistence of these ancient (or in the case of Mormonism, not so ancient) bedtime stories, is a central theme. Religion, the creators firmly point out, is showbiz, and the satire bites into both the absurdities of Joseph Smith and his angel Moroni, and the intoxicating frivolity of musicals. Of the dozen or so classics referenced by musical pastiche, sight gag or laugh line, there's Wicked, Pacific Overtures, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Music Man, The Lion King (naturally) and The Producers.
Such a magpie aesthetic makes perfect sense for a show that examines, with impressive insight, cultural transmission, adaptation and assimilation. "It was a bunch of stuff you made up," Price says to comfort Cunningham, who fabricates a wildly blasphemous version of Mormonism for the natives. "But it pointed to something bigger." Just so, The Book of Mormon is more than a collection of offensive jokes about female genital mutilation, bestiality and Mormon kitsch; it's about our ineradicable hunger for narrative and mystery—no matter how weird, sick or damnably fake.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote
Running time: 2hrs 35mins. One intermission.