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A considered response to The Book of Mormon musical

This is, I think, the first time I’ve looked at the musical The Book of Mormon with my ‘reviewer hat’ on. Except even this time I wasn’t reviewing, so this is more of a considered response than a review. I’ve never really given this show serious thought, purely because I’ve never been asked for my opinion on it, other than the cursory ‘Did you like it?’ and ‘Is it worth seeing?’ sort of Yes/No questions. But times change, and as I’ve filed well over 100 reviews in the last year, people are now looking for a tad more than ‘It was good’ or ‘S’alright’ or ‘Eurgh! Avoid! Eating horse manure would be more palatable!’

My previous visits (plural, which will please some and disappoint others) were all highly enjoyable. This latest visit, to view a new London cast, proved no exception, with Brian Sears’ Elder Cunningham coming up with so many different mispronounced variations of the name Nabulugi (Asmeret Ghebremichael) that there’s one moment even KJ Hippensteel’s Elder Price creased up and the Prince of Wales Theatre audience enjoyed an extra thirty seconds of collective laughter. The power of live theatre came into its own at an unscripted line. It’s always good, too, to see a cast on stage enjoying themselves – something that some actors sometimes forget to do.

Hippensteel (I do love American names!) is flawless as Price, slightly subtler than even Nic Rouleau who preceded him in the role, who in turn was subtler than Billy Harrigan Tighe; there was, of course, little if anything subtle about Gavin Creel’s Price in the original London cast. Sears’ Cunningham is simultaneously weird and adorable, and Richard Lloyd-King’s Mafala Hatimbi continues to be a genial local authority figure.

‘I Believe’, the closest thing this musical has to what Broadway describes as an ‘eleven o’clock number’, contains an ode to The Sound of Music, or at least its motion picture version. Consider this from ‘I Have Confidence’, sung by Maria (Julie Andrews):

I’ve always longed for adventure

To do the things I’ve never dared

And here I’m facing adventure

Then why am I so scared?

A captain with seven children

What’s so fearsome about that?

‘I Believe’, sung by Elder Price, contains the following lines:

I’ve always longed to help the needy

To do the things I’ve never dared

This was the time for me to step up

So then why was I so scared?

A warlord that shoots people in the face

What’s so scary about that?

Under Joseph Smith (Mormonism’s founder) there were black people in positions of leadership. Under Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, racist policy was enforced, and non-whites were not even allowed to attend temple meetings. Fast forward to June 1978. The Mormon President, Spencer W. Kimball either had a revelation (the official Mormon Church view), or succumbed to long-since changed attitudes towards race in the United States and elsewhere, or deliberately set out a strategy that would increase global membership of the Mormon Church. The musical, however, rather tersely spits out the line: “I believe that in 1978 God changed His mind about black people.” By this point, Price’s doctrine has become practically as deluded as his comrade Cunningham’s.

The other ludicrous suggestion in ‘I Believe’, openly refuted by the actual Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is that faithful Mormons will be rewarded in the afterlife with their own planet. To quote the LDS directly, “…scriptural expressions of the deep peace and overwhelming joy of salvation are often reproduced in the well-known image of humans sitting on their own clouds and playing harps after death. Latter-day Saints’ doctrine of exaltation is often similarly reduced in media to a cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets... while few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet, most would agree that the awe inspired by creation hints at our creative potential in the eternities.”

There are people who think The Book of Mormon is too loud, too brash and so ridden with expletives that it comes across as though the librettists have a rather narrow vocabulary. There may, I must admit, be a kernel of truth to that. The Doctor (Tyrone Huntley) has a repeated refrain, ‘I have maggots in my scrotum’, which eventually overstays its welcome, and there is an absurd purported method of (not) curing the AIDS virus that is laughed at by audiences for its sheer stupidity, but some theatregoers do not appreciate what they assert is a trivialisation of domestic violence and criminal activity.

The most expensive seats in the house at the time of writing are priced at £202.25. Too much. Just. Too. Much.

The show is what I’d call very American, with zero understatement. Everything is very much in your face. The choreography is excellent – a very quick scene change where a bunch of Mormon missionaries are in plain shirts one second and highly colourful waistcoats just a few seconds later never fails to impress me.

It really mustn’t be taken too seriously. Some have seen the show dozens of times (there are other musicals out there!). One parent pointed out on social media that her daughter had answered a religious education exam question on Mormonism by relying entirely on her recollection of the musical. As I’ve pointed out, this wouldn’t provide the whole story. This isn’t to knock The Book of Mormon specifically – it’s not the only show out there that provides a selective viewpoint to maximise dramatic effect. But there is such a thing as regarding a show as more important than it really is, and some of its more ardent followers are rather too, um, obsessed.

At the same time, some deeper reflections can be found amidst all the swearing and brashness. ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ is helpful to me insofar as it serves as a reminder to focus on things that are truly important, and not to let life’s circumstances act as an excuse to not enjoy to the full the one life we’ve all been granted. Life is too short, and certain things should indeed just be given the (proverbial) middle finger.

Elder McKinley (still Stephen Ashfield, and long may his reign as lead Elder continue) is an absolute hoot in two numbers, ‘Turn It Off’ and the delusional ‘I Am Africa’. I will stick my neck out and say the former is almost like something by George Gershwin. Delroy Atkinson’s General is different to Chris Jarman’s rendering of that role previously. It’s still effective, though, and as Atkinson physically looks up at the likes of Elder Price rather than down (Jarman is 6’ 3”), there’s a touch of little man syndrome in his anger and dictatorial nature. Of the plethora of white-shirted and black-badged Mormon elders, the ones played by Brendan Cull and Jonathan Dudley seemed most gregarious and engaging.

This show boasts a hard-working cast, and many of the songs are, fortunately or unfortunately, quite memorable. It must be remembered that ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ doesn’t actually mean anything and doesn’t translate from or into any actual language. Those who practise religion really should have a faith strong enough such that a mere musical is hardly going to cause offence, however irreverent it becomes.

Nothing is off limits in this show, which includes a cameo appearance from Yoda, and a rectal blockage that quite explicitly demonstrates where copies of The Book of Mormon should frankly be shoved. (There are even Latter Day Saints who themselves doubt the authenticity of the golden plates.)

Elder Price concludes by suggesting that he had even had doubts about the existence of God; the current Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, has confessed to having had tests of faith. Perhaps it happens to all believers at some point. Do I think The Book of Mormon is offensive? Well, it tries to offend. In one sense, if it does so, it has succeeded. If it fails, though, it has succeeded even more, and the fact it is seen as offensive in some quarters only paradoxically increases its appeal. What is less questionably offensive is this: it is of huge regret that you have to consider the possibility of remortgaging the house before booking tickets.

Why have I gone back to this show on a number of occasions? I think it’s because it stands in contrast to a lot of theatre I see these days, a fair amount of which can be very serious and exhausting, and every so often I use it as a form of escapism. I had a stuffy, legalistic and hypocritical religious upbringing, too, and I suppose any show that mocks a form of organised religion was therefore always going to appeal to me. There’s a good variety of tunes as well, from high-tempo huge ensemble song-and-dance numbers to ballad solos. And there’s something very appealing about the forming of a community where people are accepted for who they are, regardless of their faults and mistakes.

It’s got heart, and any show that leads to such diametrically opposed opinions from audiences, even between two halves of a married couple, is worth a look at. Those Olivier Awards were, on balance, deserved. Do I like it? Not really. I love it. I am grateful to those who strongly disagree for being very amiable and unfailingly courteous in their responses. I can only apologise if I have failed to match their civility.

Most of all, I happen to find it amusing. It’s so inappropriate that it’s up my street. It is over-indulgent and over-hyped, for sure, but it knows it is. Or does it? Either way, for all the fun I’ve had at the Prince of Wales Theatre over the last few years, the biggest laughs of all when it comes to The Book of Mormon are the ones raised by the satirical musical series Forbidden Broadway. I shall finish in the same way I started, by quoting lyrics. These are selected lyrics from ‘The Book of Morons [sic]’, sung by actors assuming the roles of two of The Book of Mormon’s writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. I think both lovers and haters of the show can laugh in unison at this.

We enjoy writing childish music, with lyrics that appal

To murder good taste is our mission, insult all and stand tall

Writing ‘South Park’, we figured it out, you’ve got to blast everyone, y’see

Trey Parker taught me what life is about, the one true ‘god’ is me, me, me!

We believe! That musicals should be disgusting!

We believe! All Broadway shows should use four letter words!

We believe! In magnificent fame and fortune!

We believe! That Broadway should be vulgar, crass and lewd!

And we believe! You don’t have to scan the words to fit in correctly, or set them properly to the music!

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