WARNING: This post contains spoilers about the musical The Book of Mormon. Spoilers are after the jump.
Everyone and everyone is talking about the musical The Book of Mormon, which has single-handedly taken the musical theatre world by storm. Penned by the creators of South Park, it is seen as a brilliant satirical take on religion and issues in Africa. It won 9 Tony awards in 2011, including "Best Musical" and was called "The best musical of this century." by the New York Times, "The perfect Broadway musical." by Entertainment Weekly, and "The new gold standard for Broadway." by Rolling Stone Magazine (clip link here.)
The show recently arrived for a residency in Chicago, for which tickets went onsale over a year and a half before the show even opened.
The show follows 2 young Mormon missionaries to Uganda, where they are sent for a 2-year mission. Their excitement and naivety is tested when they are face to face with the hardships and brutal realities of Africa.
I've been hearing about the show for a long time. Friends flocked to NYC to see it on Broadway, and copies of the soundtrack were given to us as gifts. I tried to listen to the music, but with my brother and sister-in-law's impending move to Africa to do mission work at the time, I found myself getting choked up and unable to get very far into it. So when it was finally time for my group to go see the show, we were excited, and I was a little bit nervous.
Then a really interesting thing happened: almost none of us in the group loved it. We liked it fine and it was a fun night out at the theatre, but everyone I've talked to about it felt like it was just sort of "Eh". Disappointing. That it didn't go far enough. That it handled the issues really poorly. And as literally everyone around our row and a half of people rose to their feet for a grand standing ovation, our row remained staunchly seated.
At first, I was thinking that my non-love for it was because I was a little too close to the subject matter. But then, as I talked to Fuzzy and some other friends about it, I realized that my biggest issue wasn't content, it was that the writers didn't live in their own world they created, and that was a huge disservice to the show.
(more after the jump)
When the missionaries arrive in their new village, they are instantly faced with talk of raping babies and how everyone has AIDS. We are introduced to a giant evil warlord who threatens to mutilate the genitals of every woman in the village. Serious subjects! In a later scene, when a member of the village tries to defend his wife and protect her from circumcision, the warlord shoots him in the face, killing him onsite and spilling blood all over the lead character of the show, Elder Price.
SO. They established that this is the cruel reality. People are actually killed in this world. There are your stakes, and they are very high.
In a later scene, Elder Price goes to confront the warlord, and it looks like he is going to be raped by the warlord. I had a moment where I thought "oh my gosh, this show is so amazing and edgy. He is going to get AIDS and then the rest of the show is going to be about him facing his new reality of disease and how his religion may or may not help him." Later, in talking to Fuzzy, he said that halfway through, he thought that maybe everyone in the show was going to be murdered, and the show would end in Mormon Heaven. Think about how great that would be if THAT was the subject matter that everyone was raving about! I GET it! I get why this is so groundbreaking!
Only, neither of those things happened. What looked to be a rape turned into a sight-gag where the literal Book of Mormon was shoved up the ass of Elder Price. Har har. No one else was killed. There are suddenly Star Trek characters and Hobbits and other crap that empowers the missionaries to convert everyone in the village to their new religion, and scare off the warlord by calling him a series of "frightening names" such as a...wait for it..."lesbian." The warlord runs off, the village is saved and tra la la, all is well, let's do a dance. In the final scene of the show, it is even revealed that the warlord is converted to the new happy fun religion.
And just like that, they discounted the reality that they themselves set up.
THIS is my main problem with the show. I would have bought the ending and accepted this world as fantasy had the first guy never been killed. Then it would be believable that the warlord might not get his way. But what they implied was that he could, so there is no way that he wouldn't have just circumcised and raped everyone in the village, and killed any dissenters. This frustrates me.
Now, there were certainly some edgy moments in the show, specifically the song "We Are Africa," in which all the young white males claim to be what Africa is all about, and also the ode to swallowing your emotions and feelings "Turn it Off." The show certainly has received it's share of flack about slandering the Mormon religion, but I think that the show could have gone even further. It seemed a bit watered down, as far as satire goes. In my opinion, all the hubbub about the brilliance and edginess of the show must only be a result of hive-mind frenzy. I wonder, had it not been hyped up so much, would I have enjoyed it more? Was it just too built up for me? Are people loving it because they were told that they would?
Don't get me wrong, I was blown away with the choreography, and some of the performances were brilliant (specifically Pierce Cassedy). I laughed a lot, cried a little, and had a good time. But as the show went on, and continued and wrapped up, the more annoyed I got. And when I tried to find critical essays about this subject online, I couldn't find any anywhere.
And here's the thing: the issues in this show actually exist. They aren't just a trope used in the show to be the counter-point to the shininess of the young an un-jaded missionaries. In different parts of Africa, AIDS is running rampant, there is mass genocide, and female circumcision is considered a rite of passage. People and organizations are working round the clock to stop these issues and to help others. It isn't something that we can take lightly and laugh at and shrug off and forget about, thinking "Oh, wouldn't that suck? Let's go get a drink." While there might not be much that we can do to help fight these ills, we should at least be compassionate towards them and try to help where we can.
I'm not saying that every artistic experience needs to be a platform for social change, but when facing head-on the topics of abuse, disease and murder, I feel like it is irresponsible to send the audience on their way forgetting that those topics are as real as the money they used to buy a ticket. And with just that one minor change (not having the guy be killed), maybe I would be writing about how much I loved the show instead of how frustrated I was with it.