The quest is over – I finally was able to see the musical The Book of Mormon. As much as I enjoy Broadway musicals, I typically don’t get very excited about many of them. If a traveling production comes to the area, I’m likely to check it out, but while there are plenty of shows that I’m happy to see I don’t tend to fixate on one as a must see.
The Book of Mormon is the exception to the rule; I’ve been fixated on seeing this particular show since it debuted three years ago. As a long-time fan of South Park, I was intrigued to hear that creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker were bringing a show to Broadway. While some people may have initially scoffed at their foray into staged musicals, I was positive that they were going to hit it out of the park. This might have been the pair’s first official musical, but they were no strangers to writing original songs. The South Park movie (South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut) is chock full of musical numbers, as is Team America: World Police. The lyrics might not be everyone’s taste, but there is little doubt that the songs are creative and catchy. It didn’t seem like a big leap to me for Parker and Stone to graduate from their films to a Broadway show; whether Broadway was going to accept what they had to say was a horse of a different color. I happen to enjoy their more edgy sense of humor and their “no sacred cows” policy of social satire, but others can’t see past some of the crude language that they tend to favor. I was curious if the Broadway community was going to support the Parker and Stone brand of entertainment, but any concern that I had dissipated when The Book of Mormon won the Tony for Best Musical. This only served to solidify my resolve in seeing the show – if they were able to produce a show that held on to their certain sense of humor AND that was embraced by the Broadway community, this was a show I definitely had to see.
Unfortunately, everyone in America also wanted to see The Book of Mormon, which made tickets for the Broadway show a hot commodity. My friend Amanda and I had been trying to coordinate going to see the show for years, but between our busy schedules and the ticket demand, it just never came to pass. It briefly appeared that we might be able to see the traveling production when it stopped in Boston last year, but it just wasn’t meant to be. With every passing year, I kept hoping that the show would eventually come to the Capital District – that would eliminate the need for travel for me and we had an in at Proctor’s that would greatly increase our chances of getting tickets. After patiently waiting, it finally happened – The Book of Mormon was coming and we got tickets! We were the lucky ones – when the tickets went on sale to the general public, the demand actually crashed the Proctor’s website. Apparently I wasn’t the only local person who had designs on going to see this show.
The only slight downside was that we got tickets for the same day as the big Albany St. Patrick’s Day parade, which is one of the most fun days in the city. It’s less about the parade itself and more about the festive atmosphere surrounding the parade; there is some great people watching to be had (and, of course, an adult beverage or two to be enjoyed). Our tickets were for a matinee performance, which was in direct conflict with the parade, but I managed to squeeze in a quick appearance at my friend Shaun’s party before the show so that I was able to do both. Nothing like some corned beef for breakfast before heading off to a show.
When I met Amanda at the theater, I was giddy with anticipation. Part of me, however, was trying to temper my expectations so that I wouldn’t be disappointed. I had been so excited to see this show for so long that there was a legitimate chance that I had built it up too much in my mind and that it would not be able to live up to the unrealistically high standard that I had set for it. Despite my obsession with seeing this show, I really didn’t know much about it other than the very basic plot: two young Mormon men are sent to Africa for their mission, where their world view is challenged by their experiences. I had not listened to the soundtrack and didn’t know much about the cast of characters, other than Josh Gad had originated one of the main roles (the voice of the snowman in Frozen). I was putting a lot of blind faith in what the people behind the show were capable of, without much concrete knowledge of what they had actually produced.
Thankfully, by the end of the first number, I knew that I was going to absolutely love The Book of Mormon. If anything, the show actually exceeded my already lofty expectations. That is hands down the most fun that I’ve had at any musical that I’ve seen; not only were the songs fantastic but the show was pretty consistently laugh out loud funny. There were several times over the course of the production where the entire audience missed the next line of dialogue because we were all laughing so darn hard. The guy on the other side of Amanda was REALLY enjoying the show – he was slapping his leg so much while he was laughing that even I noticed it from two seats away.
While there was definitely some foul language and some crude humor, the show was less raunchy than I had prepared myself for. We had discussed before the show the likelihood that people would be offended and leave the show – we had anecdotally heard that this has happened in earlier shows and I had experienced that when I went to see Spring Awakenings a few years ago when my entire row didn’t return after the intermission (presumably they were not prepared for the brief nudity and simulated sex). A lot of the folks that go to the Broadway shows that come to town are older and I don’t think that they necessarily know much about the show before they buy tickets; I’m sure some people just knew that The Book of Mormon was a musical that won the Tony and would have no idea what South Park even is. It appeared that no one left during our show – the theater still looked pretty packed by the finale – and the response from the audience was so enthusiastic that I would guess that the vast majority of people in the audience had as much fun as we did. If a person is easily offended, this might not be the show for them, but it was far tamer than I would have anticipated.
I was also incredibly impressed with the set designs and how quickly they were able to radically change the set. For the most part, there weren’t a lot of elaborate sets, but they were very efficient in setting the proper scene. It was all visually stimulating and served to enhance the story. I was particularly impressed with the Hell set design; that was among the most elaborate of the sets and really created the proper mood.
What I found most entertaining about The Book of Mormon was that the show managed to both parody and praise the tropes of Broadway musicals. There was some tweaking of the conventions of musicals, but it was done in a loving manner. Musicals are inherently a little silly and The Book of Mormon fully embraced the silliness while paying tribute at the same time. On its face, The Book of Mormon is a radically different approach to Broadway musicals, but if you scrape away the tough exterior you’ll find that at its heart it really is a pretty conventional show. There may be some cussing and some coarse jokes, but The Book of Mormon has some sweetness at its core. This show has not arrived to destroy the traditional musical, but to celebrate it.
There are plenty of jokes at the expense of Mormons and their beliefs, but I don’t think that The Book of Mormon is mean spirited. Any religion seems weird to outsiders when you try to explain it and requires a leap of faith to believe some of the more incredulous elements. That’s not limited to Mormonism. I probably have more insight into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints than most people since I have several friends who happen to be Mormon; I grew up with several Mormon families who are among the best people that I know. I didn’t find any of the jokes too out of bounds, but I defer to members of the LDS community to decide for themselves how they feel about. The Book of Mormon will play in Utah for the first time in 2015 and I’ll be curious to see what kind of reception it gets. Hopefully members of the Mormon community will be able to find the humor in the play. Stone and Parker both grew up in Utah, so they are not mocking something that they have not experienced.
I would absolutely go to see The Book of Mormon again; when I got home I immediately downloaded the soundtrack and I’ve had several of the songs stuck in my head for the last few days. The traveling cast was spectacular and though tickets to the show are a little pricey, they are well worth the investment (assuming you can get your hands on them). I’ve seen a lot of shows (considering I don’t live near Broadway) and I can say without a doubt that The Book of Mormon is my favorite show that I’ve seen to date. It’s the perfect mix of standard musical themes and tropes and fresh humor and perspective. I can’t recommend this show highly enough. Definitely one of my pop culture highlights so far this year.
The Book of Mormon is currently playing on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theater and is on tour across the country. For tickets and dates, check out the show’s webpage.