It’s taken a while for The Book of Mormon to get to Perth. Still one of Broadway and the West End’s most popular musicals, you can line up for an hour on a Monday night in London only to be turned away. Since its 2011 New York debut, it’s won every accolade under the sun and made over $500 million – impressive in the world of mainstream musicals, particularly given its subversive lyrics and dialogue.
Perhaps for this reason it’s commonly seen as a musical that has revolutionised the form, one that is bringing in new audiences in droves. But is it really? Well… yes and no. The Book of Mormon is certainly ‘adults only’ – its creators are Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame after all, teaming with Robert Lopez, who delivered his own share of obscenities with previous hit musical Avenue Q.
Putting the hell in “Hello!”, it liberally takes the mickey out of Mormonism, using facts and excerpts from the actual Book it takes its name from. At the very least you’re likely to learn a thing or two – particularly those not aware of just how ridiculous the foundations of this particular denomination are (Jesus visited America? Really??). I certainly had fun reading up on Wikipedia afterwards just how close the writers played to the ‘facts’ (very close, it turns out).
Kicking off briefly in 326AD, we soon find ourselves in present day America where young Elders Price and Cunningham are told they will be sent to a remote village in Uganda to share the word of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It isn’t long before the outrage commences with a joke about female circumcision leaving jaws collectively on the floor, soon followed by casual references to AIDS, baby fucking and a warlord named General Butt Fucking Naked (named for the actual Liberian lord of human sacrifice, General Butt Naked). All in the show’s first 20 minutes. The first scene in Uganda also introduces us to one of the night’s best songs in Hasa Diga Eebowai, featuring charming lyrics such as “Fuck you, God, in the ass, mouth, and cunt-a”. So far so good.
Another song, Turn It Off, was satire at its finest, working with the tried and tested Mormon mentality of ignoring simple issues like mental illness and homosexuality by simply hitting a switch in your mind. But from there the opening half dragged a little, and as fun as the lyrics were there wasn’t any danger of a classic song like Avenue Q‘s Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist emerging from the soundtrack.
The second act began strongly, first with Elder Cunningham’s Making Things Up Again and then with the night’s crowning achievement, Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, both in terms of songwriting and design. The stage, featuring simple sets ensconced in a churchy stained glass frame for most of the night, was transformed into a literal depiction of hell with characters such as Satan, Jeffrey Dahmer and Adolf Hitler scaring the bejesus out of Elder Price. These were backed up by something of a peak in the hilarious Joseph Smith American Moses, sung by the Ugandan peoples in recognition of all they’d learnt – suffice to say some of Mormonism’s far fetched tales are lost in translation.
While the liberal pisstaking would’ve made any Latter-day Saints in attendance feel about as ridiculous as their religion, it’s not all about lampooning low hanging fruit. Mormonism comes off as something of a harmless religion while its devout servants emerge as characters with heart. That feat – that transformation – is the jewel in the crown of the musical’s storytelling aspirations, even if it also leads to an inevitable Hollywood ending.
It’s taken a while, but it’s actually great timing for Perth audiences with the equally hilarious HBO series The Righteous Gemstones also liberally taking the piss out of organised religion on our television screens. It may not exactly reinvent the musical wheel as hype suggests, and if you don’t like musicals then perhaps this won’t change your mind, but The Book of Mormon is certainly funny, outrageous and different enough to make for a most memorable night at the theatre.