I finally got around to seeing The Book of Mormon on Broadway. All of my friends have raved about it ever since the show opened. But, as a matter of personal policy, I tend to avoid anything located in Times Square, or catering to those who visit Times Square.
It’ not that I’m anti-theater. I have seen some great things on Broadway. When I was a kid, my parents took me to see the original Jesus Christ Superstar. I saw – and loved – Spamalot. The same is true for You’re Welcome, America. And I took my mom to see The Producers, which we both enjoyed.
But when it comes to the theater, I’d rather go as far off Broadway as possible, opting for things like Shakespeare in the Park. Having been forced to endure Cats back in the early 90s (if Hell exists, that show will surely have an extended run), shortly after I moved to New York, I quickly came to the realization that Broadway productions have mostly become Andrew Lloyd Weberized (the Rod Stewart of composers has fallen a long way from JCS), he’s gone from , meaning that they are tailored to tourists from Tulsa.
I assumed The Book of Mormon would be the exception. I was told that it was “brilliant” and “hysterical” by people I respect. Though I did find it strange that Mormons weren’t more outraged. After all, seeing what the South Park creators usually do to a subject, it would only seem natural for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to seek a federal injunction to put a stop to it all.
We had great seats, and I was in a great mood. But the show, well, it was kind of flat. In fact, I’m willing to wager that the actual Book of Mormon will probably make you laugh harder than the play.
Yes, it’s funny to hear a Broadway actor saying a dirty word on stage. But apparently I didn’t find it nearly as funny as everyone else. And that’s a problem, because the show – like much of the Trey Parker/Matt Stone catalog – relies heavily on dirty words to get a laugh. But that gets old quickly, like the cheap laughs from seeing a chubby kid dancing suggestively.
At intermission, amidst merchandising so shameless that even the Disney greedheads would blush, I told my brother – who had scored the tickets for Father’s Day – that I was hoping for a little more “maggots in my scrotum,” easily the funniest line of the entire play (and they obviously know that, which is why it’s repeated several times throughout the show). He wondered if the Mormons were actually offended by the portrayal of their religion. I thought that Africans had more cause for concern, for the play’s crude and cheap portrayal of them. The people of Uganda are portrayed as either primitives a notch above Neanderthals or insane warlords – all of whom have AIDS.
Act II was a little stronger, highlighted by a parody of the religion by the simple African creatures that serve as the counter to the play’s portrayal of superficial Mormon missionaries. But the message was clear, at least to me. And that was that no matter how silly these religious stories might be – and the play makes clear just how silly the Mormon stories really are – what’s important is the message behind them. Which is why I think The Book of Mormon is really a pro-religion play, even if Parker and Stone didn’t intend it as such. Yes, they mock the teachings of that faith (though not as viciously as you’d expect from them, given the way they have skewered Scientology in the past), but they remind the audience that it’s not the stories that matter as much as what they inspire us to do.
In the end, hearing a man shout “I have maggots in my scrotum” is about as funny as the play gets. And whether it’s fortunate or unfortunate that this is done several times throughout the play depends on whether you think the same joke is just as funny when it’s told over and over again. If you are a fan of all things Parker and Stone, chances are you do. I didn’t. in fact, for me, the funniest line is the one I laid on my nephew when we were walking into the theater: “Do you know what the official name of the Book of Mormon is? The Moron.”
Maybe if I repeated that a dozen times I could pen a play of my own.