Sainted Boyfriend had a moment of pop culture prescience in January, and as a result we’ve wound up with tickets to two of what are shaping up to be the hottest tickets in town. Next Thursday we have Knicks-Hornets tickets (which means I’ll be interrupting my Knicks cheering to scream “CHRIS PAUL!!!!!” every so often); this past Thursday, we were sitting in the second row for the first official preview performance of The Book of Mormon, otherwise known as “the musical written by the South Park guys.”
I should note, I’m at best indifferent on the subject of South Park. I’ve seen only a handful of episodes in their entirety — most of what I know about the series actually comes from the Behind the Music (I think? It was about ten years ago) episode focused on Parker and Stone. So I am pretty well qualified to say that you can enjoy this show without being a South Park fan, because I definitely did.
Aside from being very, very funny (it’s hard to explain how a show featuring plenty of cursing, a skewering of an entire religion, and AIDS jokes avoids seeming mean-spirited in its humor but it does), the most important thing about The Book of Mormon is that it’s a very well constructed show. The opening number (which we uncomplainingly watched twice, thanks to a sound glitch that prompted a restart) immediately sets the tone of good-natured mockery that carries through the whole show. If you are a musical theater geek like myself, there are plenty of callbacks to other musicals throughout, ranging from the quick in-jokes (stumbling over an African character’s name, a Mormon missionary calls her “Nexttonormal”), to outright parody (the Act One closing number is done in the style of American Idiot). As a fellow show-set-in-Africa, Lion King becomes a particular target, though not always successfully– an early number parodying one of the more famous Lion King numbers (I don’t want to give it away) is hilarious, a beleaguered character complaining “Africa is nothing like the Lion King,” is a bit on the nose. I think it’s also safe to say that there has never before been a Broadway show in which Brigham Young, Lt. Uhura, and two hobbits served as the chorus for a musical number.
Tucked into this pop culture free-for-all, however, is a unexpectedly thoughtful look at the nature of faith and what draws people to religion in the first place. Although Mormonism’s shall we say, more unusual aspects are fair game in both dialogue and song, this is hardly a takedown on the order of the recent New Yorker article about Scientology. The first act plays a bit with the audience’s expectations about Mormon attitudes towards homosexuality, but does not mention Proposition 8; polygamy is not mentioned at all. The decision to focus the show on young missionaries rather than the church leadership allows most of the Mormon characters to come across as well-meaning, sincere, and likeable, regardless of whether or not you share those beliefs yourself. Rather than being particularly pro or anti religion, the show is more of an exploration of why religions exist at all. But you’ll probably not be thinking about that too much when you’re doubled over laughing at the recurring refrain “I have maggots in my scrotum!”
(Actually, that’s a pretty good litmus test of whether you should see the show or not — can you handle that phrase as a punchline? If not, you’re probably better off with a more family-friendly show.)
At a time when Broadway is overrun with revivals, jukebox musicals, and remakes of popular movies, it’s important to note that The Book of Mormon is an original concept, with an original cast and characters. It may have a sales advantage over other original musicals because of its creators’ pedigree (our fellow audience members were certainly predisposed to find the show funny because of it), but it’s still a smart, funny show and a good development for contemporary musical theater, whether you’ve ever done a Cartman impression or not.