There are a number of elements in The Book of Mormon, the new musical from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, that have almost certainly never before been seen or even approximated on a Broadway stage. A luckless companion-animal called the Fuck Frog, for instance—I’m pretty sure that’s a first. And a musical number featuring a sort of singing clitoris—that’s a new one, right? I won’t bother trying to explain what Darth Vader is doing wandering around in the midst of such rude doings, but there is a reason he’s there—along with many, many much-ruder doings. The show is breathtakingly funny. One of the guys with whom I saw it in previews said he laughed so hard he was blowing stuff out of his nose.
Especially when the subject is organized religion, you expect a full-frontal assault from Parker and Stone, and while the show is more thoughtful—and more charming—than you’d anticipate, The Book of Mormon doesn’t disappoint. The story begins with a group of freshly-minted young Mormon missionaries being paired off for their first foreign assignments. Two of them draw France; another duo gets Japan. But the odd couple of Elder Price (stalwart Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (stubby Josh Gad) are informed that they’ll be going to Uganda. When they arrive in East Africa, with their fresh shirts and ties and their little Mormon gospels and blinding evangelical smiles, they find a country devastated by murderous tribal warlords and an unending epidemic of AIDS. This is not the land of The Lion King.
Price and Cunningham quickly discover that the beaten-down natives have already been evangelized to death by waves of earlier Christian missionaries. So their shiny new spiel falls on weary ears. Like the Bible tales preached by previous Western interlopers, their story seems to the locals to be of an unlikeliness akin to lies—something about a 19th century rustic who discovered a chronicle of Jesus’ previously unheralded exploits in the New World inscribed on golden plates revealed to him by an angel—who of course ordered him not to show these miraculous items to anyone else. Very convenient. What could such white-man balderdash have to do with these Africans’ desperate lives, which appear to be playing out well below God’s radar? Cunningham sees the people’s point, and eventually realizes that, in order to propagate his faith, some radical adjustments—all hilarious—will have to be made.
The Book of Mormon is blessedly free of the overwrought pizzazz and soggy sentimentality so often associated with Broadway musicals. The story and the songs—written by Parker and Stone and Robert Lopez, co-creator of the long-running Broadway hit Avenue Q—are smart and sharply focused (and actually memorable); and the direction—by Parker and Casey Nicholaw, the show’s choreographer—is a model of kinetic organization, especially given the sizable cast of missionaries and Africans all dancing and singing and often engaged in other business that would be beyond the ken of, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein. It also helps to have three knockout star performances front and center in such clamorous proceedings. Rannells, who was so good as Four Seasons keyboardist Bob Gaudio in the original Broadway cast of Jersey Boys, and Gad, from The Daily Show and movies like Love and Other Drugs, are ideally matched comic foils and spectacular singers—when they’re hitting and holding notes together, the effect is of twin sirens going off. And Nikki M. James, playing a simple-hearted village girl named Nabulungi, is not only a resourceful singer, she also helps temper the general uproar with an affecting emotional glow.
The show might have been nothing more than a riot of Christian-bashing, but there’s more to it than that. The writers clearly have no use for the myths and homilies of brand-name religion; but in the end they conclude that even the most unbelievable of gods can be a force for good in the world, bringing comfort and hope to millions, and impelling them toward a higher moral plane. Parker, Stone, and Lopez have clearly given this subject considerable thought, which, amid all the savage laughter, is one of the show’s most striking elements.
But it’s the fearless writing that launches The Book of Mormon into a previously unimagined theatrical stratosphere. In any other musical, the presence of a character called General Butt Fucking Naked would be cause for remark. Here it’s just a minor delight in an unending procession of truly scabrous wonderments.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.