I can now die happy for I have seen The Book of Mormon, and with the original cast.
Don’t ask how I got tickets. Let’s just say I no longer have possession of my own soul once I die and leave it at that. But I’ll tell you, eternal damnation is totally worth it.
Anyone who has followed Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s career know about their fascination with Mormons: the South Park episode All about the Mormons clearly spelled out some of the issues the pair has with the religion while not going into full blown mockery; and of course, there is their movie Orgazmo where Parker plays a Mormon missionary sent to Hollywood who ends up as a big time star in the pornographic film industry.
It’s also not surprising that they did a musical. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut is a musical, sending up everything from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Les Miserables:
Team America had some choice songs, such as “America, Fuck Yeah,” and Kim Jong-Il’s torchsong, “I’m So Ronrey”.
And there are too many South Park episodes that have songs and musical numbers to count. One of my favorites it Cartman’s little Sea People ditty:
So, not out of left field at all. Add to this Robert Lopez, co-creator and writer of that great puppet musical Avenue Q, and there’s the definite possibility for greatness, which the show so easily fulfills. And with 9 Tony awards including Best New Musical, I am not alone in believing this.
Enough cannot be written about the cast of Book of Mormon. Josh Gad is the obvious scene stealer as Elder Cunningham, the schlub who doesn’t really fit in with the other missionaries whose “shirts are pressed and our haircuts are precise”. Plus there’s that nasty penchant for making things up, conflating the stories in the Book of Mormon with the stories he learned from Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings,and other sci-fi/fantasy masterpieces. His big song, “Man Up” is the most South Park of the bunch, with a definite nod to some of the music from Team America.
Andrew Rannells, now appearing in a role on HBO’s Girls as Lena Dunham’s college boyfriend, is remarkable as Elder Price. The golden boy who sets out to convert the world to the Mormon religion, little aware of what the real world is like and how it will test his faith. When you learn about his dream city, it all falls into place – exactly who and what he is. Of course, he isn’t quite on board with being sent to Uganda for his mission, and isn’t quite on board with his mission partner, Elder Cunningham. Cunningham just wants a best friend. The song “You and Me (but mostly me)” really spells out their relationship at the start:
By the end of the show, Price will have a crisis of faith and Cunningham will rise to the occasion, but how it all happens is the gold.
Apart from Gad and Rannells, two other cast members really stick out. Tony winner Nikki M. James as Nabalungi (or Neosporin, the variety of other names Cunningham will call her over the course of the show) plays daughter to the chief of the village where Price and Cunningham are sent to proselytize. She keeps a sweetness and innocence in the most horrifying of circumstances and her big song “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” is as touching as it is funny, a rare feat. The other cast member to watch is Rory O’Malley as Elder McKinley, the not-so-closeted gay missionary whose amazingly upbeat “Turn it Off” is a tricky song that hides terrible things in life and a terrible way of dealing with them within a jaunty tap number:
You can say a lot about the show’s shock value. From “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a song that is as far from Disney’s “Hakuna Matata” as you get to the crowing set piece, “Joseph Smith American Moses” that takes great liberties with the story of Smith and the beginning of the Mormon religion, the show is packed chock full of offensive material. But that’s sort of besides the point. It’s not there to be offensive, but to shock in all the right ways. Although the show clearly takes issue with some of the “proof” behind the actual Book of Mormon, it’s more about faith and religion in general. The song “I Believe” is the greatest summary of blind faith and devotion I can think of and Rannells sells it 100%:
With “I Believe,” Rannells has managed that sublime combination of humor, earnestness, and corniness that is so necessary for Elder Price’s journey and eventual redemption. (His “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is also pretty spectacular.)
How does religion and faith function in our lives and can it function in a bubble are all things the show attempts not to answer, but bring into conversation in the most inspiring of ways. The show’s music is infectious – I seriously cannot stop listening to the soundtrack. And yes, it is full of the high and low brow humor that you expect from the creators of Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo.
I am actually sad I cannot see the show again right now.
An added bonus for those who either can’t get to the show or just want to relive parts of it, Broadway.com did a fantastic series of short videos, 28 in all, covering everything about The Book of Mormon, from creation to casting to design. It does reveal a bit about the show, so be warned. Start with video #1, The Genesis of the Book of Mormon:
And, finally, the CBS 60 Minutes interview with Matt and Trey. Definitely worth watching.
Remember, tomorrow is a latter day.