The Book of Mormon review

4 November 2017

Title:The Book of Mormon
Genre:Musical religious satire
Runtime:Approx 3 hours including intermission

The Book of Mormon is a musical comedy which first debuted on Broadway in March 2011. Its Melbourne production opened on January 18, 2017, and as of this writing is still going strong. I saw it there on October 24, a weekday, to a packed house.

The musical was written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park fame) and by Robert Lopez (then known mostly as co-composer and co-lyricist of Avenue Q but having since gained greater fame for the much more family-friendly Frozen).

This review is spoiler-free and is meant for readers who have not yet seen the musical. However, because of its comedic nature, giving any of the major plot points would ruin the element of surprise and the show's fun, so I provide no summary whatsoever. Suffice it to say that the musical satirises many Mormon beliefs and practices.

Readers who have not seen the show may be sceptical both in regards to its creators (with both South Park and Avenue Q pedigrees promising crude humour) and its premise (Is the lampooning of Mormon beliefs not the knocking down of a straw man?). In fact, the show escapes both these traps and I am here to report that it is pure joy and sheer genius.

Regarding the first concern: readers who have seen my review of The Orville know that I am not averse to off-colour humour. I will freely admit that I think much of what Trey Parker and Matt Stone have achieved in their careers (e.g., South Park, BASEketball, Team America: World Police) is remarkably brilliant satire, masquerading as lowbrow humour. But that's not the humour that drives The Book of Mormon, and I think only the most prudish of viewers will be able to take any offence to the language or to the sexual references. Both -- it should be made clear -- exist, but they are tame, non-excessive, and serve a clear purpose. Watching the show with me was my wife who is far more easily put-off by such references and would shun any of Parker and Stone's other aforementioned creations, and yet even she couldn't fault the musical for its humour type and ended up loving it as much as I did.

None of the above makes The Book of Mormon in any way child-friendly. The satire stings and hits home in full force, and this is in some ways a response to the second concern, about whether the Mormon religion is used here simply because it makes for an easy target.

The musical uses the Mormon religion because most of us have some distance from it, making us more receptive to the show's message, yes, but ultimately it is a mirror that allows us a better glimpse not just at any belief on the Judaeo-Christian family tree (trademarked by such features as absolute truths, good vs evil dichotomies and divinely-written sacred texts), but also of any religion that is missionary. While I would perfectly understand a Taoist or Zen-Buddhist viewing the show as not-about-them, for most western viewers, this is deep in home territory.

But here's where things become interesting: there is no mean streak in this show's satirical message. Stone himself once described the musical as "an atheist's love letter to religion", which is a far better description of it than anything I'll add here. Through outrageous amounts of fun and laughter, and a whole battery of songs that are not only laugh-out-loud funny but are also lovely songs, as catchy as "Let it Go", and ones that I'm still humming to this minute, the musical manages to make quite a complex point: that religion could have been a great force for good in the world... if only those practising it would stop taking it so, well, religiously.

The Mormons themselves are portrayed as well-meaning, likeable, three-dimensional characters, whose arc is both believable and identifiable. (Some critics have suggested that the non-Mormons are less so, but I think that attitude misses the point that is being made.)

Even the official Mormon response to the musical has been quite measured, essentially stating that this is a satire, and as long as one remembers that it is a satire then all is well. In a sense, that is the very message of the musical itself. (In Melbourne, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints even went so far as to buy portions of The Book of Mormon's programme in order to advertise itself -- with catch-phrases like "the book is always better" -- demonstrating a sense of humour that I can only wish to see more of in traditionally-dogmatic religions.)

To all of the above, which really is the heart of the matter, I will add that The Book of Mormon also features a fantastic and well-cast cast, excellent performances, zany references, spectacular set pieces (the beautiful scenery was the first element my wife commented on after the show), and a list of songs that skewers Broadway tropes as much as it does religion, and that all this skewering, stinging and demolishing is done with so much heart and so much love that it's impossible not to reciprocate and fall immediately in love with it. I've seen quite a few musical productions over the last few years, many of which are considerably more famous and work with larger budgets, but this was by far the one I enjoyed most.

IMDb tells me that a movie is in the works. I can't wait for it. If its quality is anything like that of the live show, it will be the next Life of Brian.