South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have conspired with Avenue Q lyricist Robert Lopez to create The Book of Mormon, an outrageously rude, irreverent, yet big-hearted Broadway musical. The show relentlessly satirizes Mormon doctrines about gays, blacks, coffee, golden plates buried in ancient upstate New York, and God’s home on the planet Kolob. But it also advances the notion that religious belief can enable people to behave better toward others. Stone has called the play “an atheist love letter to religion.” That’s a pretty accurate summation.
The wonderfully blasphemous show centers on the hapless activities and confabulations of two 19-year- old Mormon missionaries. Young Mormon men called “elders,” wearing the familiar uniform of white shirt and black necktie, generally spend two years riding bikes and ringing doorbells as missionaries for the faith. The musical opens when Elder Price—a nearly perfect example of white-bread Mormon manhood, and he knows it—is paired with schlubby sci-fi geek and pathological liar Elder Cunningham.
The mismatched duo arrives in warlord-infested, AIDS-plagued, dirt-poor Uganda, where gun-toting thugs immediately rob them of their luggage. The elders stumble into a miserable village, where they complain about being assaulted. Mafala Hatimbi, the leader of the downtrodden villagers, cheerfully explains that when things go bad, as they always do, the villagers sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” The song is one of several homages to other Broadway numbers—in this case “Hakuna Matata” (Swahili for “There Are No Worries”) from The Lion King.
Drawn in by the infectiously upbeat music, the elders soon join the African ensemble in the exuberant song and dance number. Eventually the elders ask Hatimbi what the phrase means. Dancing with his middle digit extended high in the air, the village headman explains that it’s telling God to screw himself. The song continues: “Here’s the butcher. He has AIDS. Here’s the doctor. He has AIDS. Here’s my daughter. She has…a lovely personality. But if you touch her, I’ll give you my AIDS!”
Thus the elders meet the lovely Nabulungi, who becomes the focus of their proselytizing. Inspired by a vision of the Mormon hometown, Nabulungi sings a charming ballad reminiscent of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” about her longing for the peaceful paradise of…Salt Lake City. And it’s no wonder she longs for Utah, because the village is menaced by an evil warlord with a name (like much in the performance) not intended for delicate ears, who believes that “the clitoris is evil.” The general declares he will destroy the village unless all women are genitally mutilated.
Price and Cunningham hook up with a band of elders who are also marooned in Uganda. Despite the fact that the villagers continue to resist conversion, Price affirms his faith, belting out the anthem “I Believe.” The number highlights various Mormon tenets, including the ideas that ancient Jews sailed to America, that Jesus preached there, and that in 1978 “God changed his mind about black people.” Price’s partner, Cunningham, has less of a grasp on Mormon theology. We learn that he has never actually read The Book of Mormon (“too boring”). When he tries to make his religion relevant to the villagers’ woes, he weaves together stories about Joseph Smith, Frodo, Jesus, a frog, and the starship Enterprise, all addressing rural African scourges like violence, diarrhea, and AIDS.
There’s much more to the story and much more to the music, which in addition to sending up The Lion King includes takeoffs of A Chorus Line, The Wizard of Oz, South Pacific, and Little Shop of Horrors. The show features some of the same surreal flourishes that Parker and Stone bring to South Park. The chorus number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” for example, features Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, Genghis Khan, and Johnnie Cochran as demons, accompanied by two dancing giant cups of Starbucks coffee and some glazed donuts. And as in South Park, the rude exterior masks a sweet core. The show may mercilessly mock Mormonism, but it ultimately takes a kind view of the religion. When villagers convert to the church’s views, or to the half-baked version of those views that Cunningham cooks up, the results are rather benign.
The official reaction to the musical from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been surprisingly muted. “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening,” it said in a statement, “but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” Its creators probably would not much disagree with that sentiment. As Stone told Slate, “At the end of the day, if the mass delusion of a religion makes you happy, makes your family work better, is that bad or good?”