Is “The Book of Mormon” a treatise on atheism?

Gavin Creel as Elder Price in the national touring production of “The Book of Mormon,” now playing through Sept. 2 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2012

 


Spoiler alert. The following essay examines what the ending of “The Book of Mormon” (the musical!), might really advocate. It talks about what happens in the final 10 seconds, so if you don’t already know, or you don’t want to know, then don’t read it (even though it’s given away on the cast recording!):

By John Moore

People who haven’t seen “The Book of Mormon” often presume, wrongly — but for understandable reasons — that the very funny new musical is a mean-spirited attack on Mormonism, perhaps the strangest and least understood among all Christian denominations.

Once they have seen it, they know this is a surprisingly traditional musical — well, for one that includes a “Little Mermaid” riff that cheerfully admonishes God, “(Bleep) you, in the (bleep), mouth and (bleep).”

But for all the gentle fun it pokes at fundamental tenets of the Mormon religion, the musical is really not an affront to Mormonism. It is instead a pointed spoof on religious literalism of any kind. It is a witty, heartfelt testament to anyone who has undergone a crisis in faith, and come out stronger for it.

Or is there more to it than that?

By the end, the story’s affable young Mormon Elders have tickled our sensibilities to such an adorable degree that you might not think too much on the very last line of the night … which, upon further review, just might be the most subversive line in a musical that’s filled with them.

Forget Mormons: Do writers Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Bobby Lopez have a much larger target in mind? Because that last line sounds a lot like an advocation of atheism. And if it is, this precocious little musical might be a whole lot more subversive than any of us have ever really given it credit for. Because it’s one thing to pick on Mormons. When you start talking atheism in America, there are a whole lot more hornets in the nest.

A recent Gallup poll found that 18 percent of all Americans say they would never vote for any Mormon for president, but a whopping 54 percent say they would never vote for any atheist. Talk about a hornet’s nest.

But is that what becomes of our two teen protagonists in “The Book of Mormon”? Let’s consider what happens:

(Last chance spoiler alert)

In the play, Utah teens Kevin Price and Arnold Cunningham are sent to Uganda for their two-year missions, where their primary charge is to baptize as many Africans into the faith as they can. To date, the Mormon branch has converted exactly zero in this  drought-, disease- and war-ravaged land where God seems remarkably absent. But Elder Cunningham, a portly teen with a penchant for making things up when he’s nervous, proves to be a wiz at winning over the natives — even though he’s never actually read the eponymous “Book of Mormon” (the New Testament sequel that Joseph Smith dug up from his upstate New York backyard in 1823).

Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham in the national touring production of “The Book of Mormon,” now playing through Sept. 2 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2012

 

That’s because young Cunningham makes (bleep) up as he goes along, changing sacred Biblical stories and updating their messages with modern pop-culture references that give relatable relevance to Africans suffering from AIDS, dysentery and starvation under a warlord who orders that all woman’s genitalia must be mutilated. Some believe the organ that brings sexual pleasure to women is the root cause of AIDS. Others believe the cure for the plague is having sex with a virgin, even if that virgin is a baby. This is not the writers’ envelope-pushing creative license; this is present-day African reality.

So you can understand why the dusty pages of a strange and foreign scripture would have no urgency to these Ugandans. That is, until Elder Cunningham offers a desperate, embellished variation of the sacred story, one that  promises God’s wrath against anyone who commits genital mutilation or has sex with babies. And he uses  characters from “Lord of the Rings” and other pop-culture standards like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” to spice the story up.

It’s hilarious stuff. But while Arnold’s story gets through to the natives and offers them hope for eventual delivery from their daily miseries, it also gets the Ugandan chapter shut down by Mormon leaders. The missionaries are, in effect, exiled. But while Elder Price still considers himself a Latter-Day Saint, his epiphany comes when he realizes it’s OK to change some things, and it’s OK to break the rules. “Even though we have complete doubt that God exists,” he says, “we can all still work together and make this our paradise planet.” Not exactly Mormon doctrine.

And that’s what they do: They commit to a new Ugandan mission focused on service. In the very funny final scene, the missionaries and the villagers alike come together for a new kind of door-to-door evangelism. But the book they are selling is (and here’s the spoiler) … “The Book of Arnold.” Take that and your golden plates, too, Joseph Smith.

In the end, Mormonism has been not just been gently tickled — it’s been pretty much repudiated. It’s out, replaced by a hip but clearly invented fable advocating a patently made-up god. And the idea of these boys embracing a self-created God? That’s … a whole lot more radical than just poking fun at Mormons.

But that’s nothing new. By embracing a hybrid, new-and-improved kind of Mormonism, these young missionaries are just following the historical evolution of Christianity.  For thousands of years, Christian faiths have splintered and mutated for the same reasons these boys splinter off from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Rebels didn’t like one aspect or other of the Catholic church — a belief in the absolute authority of the Pope, say, or differences of opinion on how man can attain salvation, and voila … we have the Protestant Reformation, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Episcopalians and so on.

(Note: Here’s a helpful interjection on this point from my childhood friend Matt Miller, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Sioux City, Iowa:)

First, if you’re charting the splintering evolution of the larger Christian church, the first comes with the Great Schism between East and West, Constantinople’s rivalry with Rome for primacy. Second, Luther and Calvin ARE the Protestant Reformation (no one outside the academy really talks about Zwingli, but he was in there too) … at least they started it. Luther mostly, who influenced Calvin. And you have to know that the Anglican church started as a power grab – Henry didn’t like the Pope. Their official story is that they are the “middle way” between Luther/Calvin and Rome. The interesting parallel to me from what you’ve written is that one of the hallmarks of the Reformation was the way in which the printing press made it possible for Christians to read the Bible (if they were literate) in their native tongue. Before that, most Christians were like Elder Cunningham – they had never read their own book. And of course the most recent evolution of Christianity is the rise of the Pentacostal movement. Phyllis Tickle posed a theory along these lines in her book “The Great Emergence,” about how every 500 years the church has a rummage sale.

The point is, we modify. We embellish. We tailor. And we have been bending sacred scriptures to suit our own purposes for centuries. When I was young, we were called “Salad Bar Catholics.” And we aren’t as welcome by the home base as we once were.

After now having seen “The Book of Mormon” three times — once on Broadway and twice since the first national touring production recently launched in Denver — I now can say that I know only these four things to be true:

  • The clitoris, as is often posited in “The Book of Mormon” (the musical, is a holy, sacred thing.
  • This is the funniest new musical of this century.
  • This national touring production isn’t even attempting to mask how much the lead actor, Gavin Creel, looks like a 19-year-old Mitt Romney, and …
  • I think this might really be a musical about atheism, after all.

Contact John Moore at 303-953-9907 or moore433@comcast.net

 

Previous “Book of Mormon” coverage:

Could “The Book of Mormon” determine your next president?

Broadway review: “Book of Mormon” place in history set in stone tablets

Is “The Book of Mormon” a treatise on atheism?

“Book of Mormon” scalpers: Score on for live theater

How Colorado’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone became the kings of pop-culture subversion

Broadway’s Rory O’Malley: On “Book of Mormon,” Turning it Off and Shutting the Closet Door

Follow “The Book of Mormon” on Twitter

Daily “Book of Mormon” ticket lottery: Do you feel lucky, punk?

 

The national touring production of “The Book of Mormon,” now playing through Sept. 2 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2012

Could “The Book of Mormon” determine your next president?

Andrew Rannels from the original Broadway cast of “The Book of Mormon.” Gavin Creel plays Elder Price in the national touring production now playing in Denver. Photo by Joan Marcus, provided by Denver Center Attractions.

By John Moore

Pundits are already calling this the most negative presidential election in history. And pollsters are calling it one of the closest. At a time when any slip of the tongue could move the polls ever so slightly in either direction (Joe Biden), the question bears asking …

Could “The Book of Mormon” actually impact the outcome of the upcoming presidential election?

Not the guiding testament of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, exactly … the Broadway musical that is now taking its beliefs to snickering task from a theatrical pulpit  in Denver.

On the surface, the question is as silly as the sweetly subversive smash hit that turns out to be less a focused attack on Mormonism than a pointed spoof on religious literalism of any kind.

Surely a clever little story about two cheerfully naïve Mormon teens who set off on a mission to Africa, only to discover there are far greater social problems than any one book could ever solve, can’t affect the outcome of a presidential election?

Can it?

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Broadway’s Rory O’Malley: On “Book of Mormon,” Turning it Off and Shutting the Closet Door

Rory O’Malley of “The Book of Mormon” Broadway cast

 

By John Moore

Note: The following Q&A comes from an interview I conducted for The Denver Post in May 2011, for a front-page story on Colorado’s kings of pop-culture subversion, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. That was just before “The Book of Mormon” won nine Tony Awards, including best musical. With the Denver launch of the national touring production now just days away, readers might be interested to read more of what the Tony-nominated O’Malley had to say. O’Malley, who remains in the original Broadway cast playing Elder McKinley, is a co-founder of the gay rights activism group Broadway Impact. In “The Book of Mormon,” he sings the tap-dancing showstopper “Turn it Off.” It’s an irresistibly wide-eyed tune, sung in the same chipper vein as the classic toe-tapper “Put on a Happy Face.” It’s about how church leaders might advise a Mormon boy with conflicted sexual feelings: Just turn it off . . . like a light switch. (“Being gay is bad, but lying is worse. So just realize you have a curable curse . . . and turn it off!”) 

Listen to Rory O’Malley sing “Turn it Off”

John Moore: Hi, Rory. I wanted to talk with you about our local boys, “Book of Mormon” writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and how they have redefined pop culture subversion. No matter how hard they have tried to alienate people, it seems everything they’ve touched from TV to film to stage has turned to gold. Bill Maher makes a film about religion … and it polarizes and angers people.  But the “South Park” guys make a Broadway musical about religion … and everybody loves it.

Rory O’Malley: It’s true. Literally everyone from atheists to bishops, both spectrums of people have loved this show.

John Moore: So my question is, how do they keep getting away with it?

Rory O’Malley: Because they are storytellers. At the end of the day, that’s it. They have no agenda. A lot of people come in thinking, “Oh, they are going to get those Mormons. They are going to tear them apart.” That’s not how they write. They write to tell a story, and they are so meticulous about making sure that story is right. If you are telling a good story, you can get away with anything because you’ve earned it. You’ve explained why you’re going down the road that you are going down, and the audience comes with you. That’s what’s different.

John Moore: I am totally with you, especially after having seen “The Book of Mormon.” But at the same time, we are not exactly at a time in human history when we are evolved enough to laugh together at anyone’s religion except (maybe) our own. We still kill people over religion. Even Matt and Trey had death threats over their episodes of ‘South Park’ about Muhammad.

Rory O’Malley: Sure.

John Moore: I saw this stat that said 85 percent of all Americans identify themselves as Christian. And these guys are on a stage saying, “(Bleep) you, God in the ass, mouth and (bleep).” So why is this different? Why do your audiences laugh when they sing, ”(Bleep) you, God in the ass, mouth and (bleep)”? when, if Chris Rock said the same thing on a stage, he’d be getting picketed?

 

Broadway cast of “The Book of Mormon.” Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

 

Rory O’Malley: I think the difference is that they’ve earned it. They have trust in their audience. That first episode of “South Park,” when Cartman, a child, gets an alien anal probe? That was a pretty big deal. People made a really big fuss about it. This was far beyond “The Simpsons,” or the other things that used to be controversial. I remember talking with Josh Gad (the original Elder Cunningham in the Broadway cast) early in the rehearsal process, thinking, “These guys have a license not to be on the cutting edge of comedy, but to be the cutting edge of comedy. They have proven themselves time and time again.  So that’s true. I don’t think just anyone could get on a stage and sing, “(Bleep) you, God in the ass, mouth and (bleep).” Even a lot of talented, funny people could not get away with doing that. But these guys have earned the respect of people who enjoy comedy. They are not just lowbrow people. They do not have an agenda. They have a great story to tell, always.

John Moore: How much does tone have to do with it? Trey grew up doing musicals in a mountain suburb west of Denver. Do you think part of the reason Broadway audiences are embracing what they are doing is because there is such an evident love for the form?

Rory O’Malley: Absolutely. You can’t even control the joy that you feel at the end of the (“Bleep”) song. There is so much joy and respect for the art form, and it is being celebrated on the stage, so you can’t help but be caught up in it. There was a conservative New York Times writer who wrote that, “I found myself just jumping to my feet and celebrating with everyone … but then I went home and after the next couple of days, I started thinking, ‘Well this isn’t really the case, and God should not be taught like this …’ ” And it’s just funny to me because when you are in that theater and you are having that moment, you can let yourself be caught up in the joy of it. That’s what theater is supposed to do. It’s supposed to inspire joy. And I was so sad for this guy who went back to his intellectual prison and tried to turn it into some kind of an agenda. It’s a celebration.

John Moore: Speaking of tone, I think it goes back to your song, “Turn it Off,” which I think is arguably the most celebratory song in the whole show. I saw “The Book of Mormon” right after seeing “The Normal Heart” …

Rory O’Malley: Oh, wow.

John Moore: … and before I brought up “Religulous,” by Bill Maher. Even if you are a Bill Maher acolyte, that’s a film that makes you feel smug and angry, even when you agree with it. You are sort of feeling vindicated by what he is pointing out, but you are also having your anger validated. “The Normal Heart” can’t help but get you incredibly fired up and angry — that’s the playwright’s intent. But then there’s your sweet song in “The Book of Mormon” called “Turn it Off,” and they are almost companion pieces in a weird way, because the song brings out the same kind of societal hypocrisy — in a much more loving way.

Rory O’Malley: Absolutely. I have seen both “Religulous” and “The Normal Heart,” and I think that’s true. It’s funny, especially what you are saying about tone, and getting the same kind of point across, but in a different way. Because to me, as someone who was in the closet, it is the most sad, dark, awful, depressing place to ever be, and a true satire can find the irony in that and make a joyous, amazing tap number out of it, and have it be all that much more funny because of what’s going on onstage. It really is a companion piece. I see what you are saying. It certainly gets to the same kind of points as that movie and that other play, but in a way that probably is a little more palatable. A lot of people are like, “These issues … should that be sung about on a Broadway stage?’ ” And I am like, “There are so many more people who are going to see and understand these problems in Uganda or these horrible things that probably did not see other great works.” So it’s bringing them up to a different kind audience and in a different tone, yeah.

John Moore: This brings up the question of how we as human beings receive comedy. If it’s George Carlin or Bill Maher, there is that inherent, polarizing factor: You are either with them or against them. But when Matt and Trey do it with a certain level of sweetness, then we as humans just seem to be more open to going along for that ride — as opposed to simply “turning off” the song.

Rory O’Malley: Really, when you are dealing with all of the things that we are dealing with in our show, we have to extend our hand to the audience and say, “Come with us.” If we were screaming and yelling and trying to tear our subject matter into pieces, I don’t think anyone wants to go on that ride for two hours. But by having a tone the way it is, I think people’s hearts are open to at least, “OK, I can go on this ride with them, and it’s not going to be a total negative thing. I have so much respect for all the different kinds of comedy, for the George Carlins and the Bill Mahers of the world. I love that so much. But I do think there is something to be said for a show that brings so many people into it who leave thinking … well, just thinking. I’ve had a lot of people say they have had religious conversations after the show that they’ve never had before because of it. If you slam the door and start saying from the first moment, “This is what we believe, and if you don’t like it, get out,” you aren’t going to get too far with that many people.

John Moore: Isn’t that the ultimate irony: That here is this profane musical that looks to many in middle America as an attack on Mormonism; and yet it is more likely to lead to a calm conversation about these polarizing issues than anything going on in any political forum because this is something we can sit through and laugh at together?

Rory O’Malley: Absolutely. To me, this is such a pro-faith show, and I think that really is what people are going away with. Matt and Trey say this show their “atheist love letter to religion.” I am a person of faith, and I am very skeptical of religion, too. I think that pride is a huge theme in our show. And to me, that pride, when it is entered in with faith, it distorts the faith and hurts it. To me, that is a common problem. It’s really trying to dissect what religion is in our culture. And to separate that pride from the faith, and the stories and the dogma, from what is really important. So, yeah, I think people are a lot more willing to have that conversation when it’s being sung – and when there are tap numbers involved.

John Moore: And who would have thought it would be the guys who brought “South Park” into the world who are facilitating that conversation?

Rory O’Malley: Right?

John Moore: You are from Cleveland, right?

Rory O’Malley: Yep.

John Moore: What impact did these guys have on you growing up?

 

Rory O’Malley: I watched every episode of “South Park,” but that was standard when you were in high school in the mid-to-late ‘90s. That was the coolest thing that ever happened to TV. I was a huge fan. I would say that “Team America” was the funniest movie of the past decade, and I was truly on a one-man campaign for it to win the Pulitzer Prize. It took the temperature of America in 2004 better than anything else. That’s when I realized that these guys have such a great voice and a way of articulating the absurdity of our culture, and I think that’s going to last for generations. I think their satire is important. I know they wouldn’t want me to say that it’s important. But to me, it is, because it makes us laugh at ourselves for how seriously we take ourselves, whether it is religion or politics or anything.

John Moore: I imagine the day a script was handed to you and you realized you were going to be singing that song, “Turn it Off,” you probably felt like you had just won the lottery.

Rory O’Malley: Oh yeah, absolutely. It was literally like, “Keep breathing … Pretend that this is NOT the greatest thing that has ever happened to you in your career.” We’ve done the show about 100 times now, and it’s still such a joy because we know the show, and we know how it got here. And being part of that journey with Matt and Trey and Bobby (Lopez), it’s the greatest creative experience that I will ever be a part of. I’m sure of that.

John Moore: Well, I know Denver is already atwitter about getting to host the launch of the national touring production next year in Matt and Trey’s hometown.

Rory O’Malley: That is so exciting. It’s so perfect.

John Moore: It is perfect. It just seems like a long, long time away.

Rory O’Malley: Yeah. Believe me, I remember saying that about our Broadway opening. It will be there before you know it, and when it gets there, it’s going to be such a big deal. It’s so, so exciting.

——————

This just in: 

The “Book of Mormon” tour launch will make 24 tickets available for all performances through a daily lottery. For the winners, tickets will cost $25 each.  For the losers, tears are free.

 

Fun with video:

Rory O’Malley takes a field trip with his fellow Broadway cast members to watch the first “Book of Mormon” national tour cast perform. Check out what the Broadway company had to say.

 

 

“Book of Mormon” scalpers: Score one for live theater

“The Book of Mormon” Broadway cast, 2011. Photo by Joan Marcus.

 

By John Moore

With the sold-out Denver launch of the first “Book of Mormon” tour just a week away, an uncommon spotlight is shining on our often-ignored local theater community. Everyone, it seems, wants in. And buyers are being asked by scalpers to pay upward of $1,700 a ticket for the hands-down funniest new Broadway musical in decades. Kind of makes the $125 face value seem reasonable by comparison.

Yes, scalping is awful, illegal, crass opportunism. But, in this one instance, can’t we also just concede that … it’s kind of cool as well?

For once, live theater is a tough ticket. Let me repeat that … Live theater is a tough ticket. When do we ever get to say that? It’s amazing what a few maggots in your scrotum can do for a vastly under-appreciated art form. And yes, here I am both quoting “The Book of Mormon” and describing ticket scalpers, all at once.

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Daily “Book of Mormon” ticket lottery: Do you feel lucky, punk?

On Broadway, “The Book of Mormon” lottery typically draws upward of 300 hopefuls daily. Photo by John Moore

 

By John Moore

True to Broadway form, the national touring production of “The Book of Mormon” will make 24 tickets available to at least 12 members of the general public for all performances through a daily lottery, it was announced today. For the winners, tickets will cost $25 each.  For the losers, tears are free.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Enter the lottery at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House box office (promptly) 2 1/2 hours before the start of each performance. See start times below.
  • State your name and number of desired tickets (1 or 2) on provided cards
  • Two hours before each show, lottery winners will be chosen at random from among all entries.
  • There is no advantage to showing up more than 2 1/2 hours before the start time.

More rules, rules, rules: 

  • Limit one entry per person and two tickets per winner.
  • All entries will be reviewed prior to the drawing for duplicate entries.
  • Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show valid ID to purchase tickets.
  • Tickets are subject to availability.

When to show up:

The show plays from Aug. 14 to Sept. 2, 2012, at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Here are the performance times (so show up no later than 2 1/2 hours before the following times):

  •    Tuesdays through Sundays: 7:30pm
  •    Saturdays and Sunday matinees: 2 p.m.
  •    Added performance: 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29

 

Good luck … you’ll need it.

Read more:

 My essay: “Book of Mormon” scalpers: Score one for live theater.

Broadway series in Denver: There’s a lot to catch if you can

Joey the War Horse, and his human handlers, made an appearance with Denver Center president Randy Weeks at Thursday’s season-announcement celebration. “War Horse” comes to Denver in January 2013. Photo and video by John Moore.

By John Moore

Some years, when it comes to selling whatever New York has to offer cities across America, Denver Center president Randy Weeks must take on the unwilling role of Harold Hill: He’ll sell it, with gusto, a smile and gritted teeth — but some years that’s no easy task.

And other years, “the stars align,” said Weeks, who was positively giddy on Thursday while announcing an extended, expanded 2013-14 season that has a whopping 17 offerings, including just about every major title from the past two Broadway seasons.

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