The highly anticipated The Book of Mormon didn’t quite provoke the highly anticipated shower of controversy we were told to highly anticipate. In the months leading up to its debut, the show indulged the predicted criticism by dismissing it. Its website touted reviews calling it “blasphemous,” “boundary-pushing,” and “crudely provocative.” Trey Parker, one of the show’s director/writer/composers, publicly declared “We’re just not scared… And not like in an ‘Awesome, we’re fearless’ way. We’re just reckless.”
Yet it seems Parker, Stone, and Lopez (of South Park and Avenue Q fame) had little to fear. In fact, the show made headlines last week when some of its LDS audience members were thrilled to have been “treated with affection” and declared themselves “pleasantly surprised by how incredibly sweet it was.” But how surprised should they have been? As Slate’s Christopher Beam pointed out, South Park has a long history of articulating conservative values with a decidedly liberal panache. And The Book of Mormon is in keeping with this tradition. In a brilliantly executed, entertaining production that crafts complicated and sympathetic protagonists, the show skillfully weaves a narrative that leads its audience to what is really the only reachable conclusion and then, in a final act almost religious in its blissful ignorance, concludes precisely the opposite. It seems the trio just wasn’t fearless enough to divine that while missionaries can be very, very good people, they are doing a very, very bad thing.
In a genre not known for its subtlety, this musical stayed away from stereotypes, portraying its two missionary heroes as deeply earnest, deeply flawed, and often deeply conflicted about their own beliefs. The young, idealistic, mismatched pair comes from a world that has thus far been far smaller than the isolated village in Uganda where they are sent on their first mission.
Before seeing The Book of Mormon, I remarked that for religious people, death isn’t scary. Life is. After the musical number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” I was singing a different tune. (Namely, that one.) The story humanized a religious minority that is often subject to mean-spirited parody and immature, unclever humor, and instead showed its audience how struggling to live by such a strict code can be overbearing and torturous for young people.
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