A year and a half was just the right amount of time before seeing The Book of Mormon musical again. If you’ve read my initial review of the production in previews back in February 2011, then you’ll know how much it negatively affected me. I still remember walking out of the theatre, flabbergasted by what I had seen and trying to put it all into words. I immediately sat down and typed my thoughts and feelings which soon became one of the most read, commented and talked about reviews I’ve written since I started this website in 2009.
One might ask, why would I go back to see a show that I had such a negative reaction to, but I did for two reasons: 1.) the unique circumstances surrounding the last time I had seen it definitely created some of the initial upset (which I’ll explain in a moment) and 2.) my best friend from high school, Jacob ben Widmar, is in the touring cast and I’ve yet to see him in a Broadway/tour/regional production since we were in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, back in high school.
The first time I saw The Book of Mormon I had (one week prior) seen the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Ruined at Berkeley Rep – a show that directly deals with the serious problems of women in Uganda. It was one of the most inspiring theatrical moments of my life. I walked out of the theatre wanting to help these women. It moved me greatly and seeing The Book of Mormon days after seeing this production was not the best idea. Even now, I still have a hard time with this part of the musical. I still don’t think that genital mutilation and rape is funny, in any type of way. The humor is wrapped in the usual raunchy South Park fare and I caught myself giggling every once in awhile, but mostly because I felt extremely uncomfortable, especially when a sold-out audience is riotously laughing throughout. That’s part of the brilliance, but also an annoyance – all at the same time.
Interestingly enough, the show has changed since I saw it in previews. This isn’t a surprise, by any means, as most shows change from previews to opening night and then it goes through more inevitable changes/updates when it goes out on tour. But, The Book of Mormon has changed significantly, in my eyes. The most noticeable change was the “tone” of the piece. The first time I saw it, the show was all about the jokes – it was one mocking/demeaning joke after another. It was all too much for me to stomach.
The jokes, the audience’s scornful laughter, and content created a very hostile environment for me as an audience member. The drunken couple behind me was making their own derogatory comments after each joke. Like I initially said, I felt like I was on the playground with schoolyard bullies that weren’t getting caught. The touring production, loaded with all of the “same” jokes in the script, created a tone that was endearing and almost forgivable.
I still sat in the audience, especially during “I Believe”, feeling very uncomfortable. These ideas and beliefs are held sacred to millions of Mormons across the country and world, and it’s still hard for me to listen to that song. I always empathize with the “bullied” and it’s not an equitable “fight”. But the tone was different… Gavin Creel (Elder Price) always played up the “heart” instead of the joke. His character suddenly became interesting and someone that I could relate to – frankly, something that I didn’t think was possible. His missionary companion, the funny Jared Gertner (Elder Cunningham) also tended toward the sincerity of his character, which allowed Elder Cunningham to also be a “real” person, as opposed to the overwrought, ridiculous caricature of an Elder that Josh Gad created in his Tony-nominated performance. (Sorry, I wasn’t really a fan.) The show suddenly wasn’t about the jokes, but rather the heart of the story. What a difference a new cast can make!!
The direction, by Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw, felt more sincere the second time around. In the song, “Turn it Off”, the lyrics joke about how Mormons turn off their “bad thoughts and feelings” and put on a happy face. When I saw it on Broadway, the entire joke became about Elder McKinley’s homosexuality – the problem being, that the entire cast of elders played into this joke and in affect, they were all gay. It became a “problem” of every Mormon missionary, instead of one elder’s struggle. A simple change of direction made an enormous difference and outcome to the song. Again, the tone changed from flippant to sincere, mocking to off-colored but funny, and ultimately had me chuckling instead of being upset. It was an incredible world of difference that was probably just a very simple suggestion.
The Book of Mormon is one of the most well-crafted musicals that has been produced on Broadway in years. The basic use of the standard musical comedy, updated and pushed to the limits with the content is basically genius. I could never disagree with you about the show’s merits – the songs, script, choreography, vocal arrangements, and orchestrations are all fantastic. But the content isn’t normal dinner conversation, by any means, and it definitely pushes the limits. So, if you are generally more conservative with your language, then this might not be the show for you.
While, it was a completely different experience the second time around, I’m still not a huge fan of the show. I definitely felt the difference in tone, which made the second time a lot more pleasant, but I still kept on asking myself throughout the show, “Why?” Hopefully, people leave with a deeper understanding/reflection of their own faith. Then, and only then, I might understand the “why”.
Has The Book of Mormon helped you reevaluate your faith? If so, how?
I would love for you to share in the comments.