Review: The Book of Mormon (musical) – from a Christian perspective

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I’ve just got back from going to see the new London production of The Book of Mormon. It’s a musical by the creators of South Park.

You may be wondering why a Christian would go to see such a thing, but yeeees (changing the subject in the same manner as a Mormon asked why Joseph Smith wouldn’t let anyone else see the original golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was allegedly written) we’ll move on and I’ll tell you all about it, so you don’t have to see it! What a good service I’m providing.

*Spoiler alert*

So, the story is of two budding young Mormon missionaries, sent from their comfortable Utah lives to a country selected by their church leaders for two years of mission work. The pair include the tall, good-looking star student who is rather arrogant and hoping to make a name for himself by making lots of converts (and hopes to be sent to Orlando), and the other is the short, dweeby, innocent one who is delighted to have a new best friend who (due to the missionary pairing rules) isn’t allowed to leave him like others do. These two young men seemingly draw the short straw and get sent to Uganda. The tall one is disappointed to be sent to such a low-profile place, but the short one is delighted (after it is explained to him that Uganda is in Africa) and expects it to be like the Lion King. There’s a very funny moment when you think they have arrived in Africa and are greeted by a stereotypical African tribal woman in full costume who sings a song to welcome them, but then it turns out that they haven’t actually left yet and it was just an American woman who had never been to Africa but dressed up like that to give them a good send-off!

When they arrive in Uganda, the short one is disappointed to find out that it’s very much not like the Lion King. They arrive in a world of famine, AIDS, rape, female castration and a gun-toting general who shoots one of the villagers in the face. The budding missionaries try out their planned conversations learnt in comfortable America and quickly find that these are completely ineffective to the needs of the suffering villagers. The villagers are angry at God for allowing them to suffer like this, and sing (in an ironic parody of “Hakuna Matata” from the Lion King) a song that expresses their anger at God in an overtly blasphemous way which doesn’t need to be repeated here (nor would I wish to type it). An irony with this is that in the real world there are many people in Africa who live in very difficult conditions but who praise the name of God despite the suffering they go through, but anyway…

Throughout the plot there are various times when the story of Mormonism’s history is told, with particular emphasis on the more ridiculous aspects of it, for comedic effect. In the theatre, the audience clearly enjoyed laughing at these views, which really are rather odd. A few years ago, South Park (made by the same people) did an episode about Mormonism in which they mercilessly ridiculed it for most of the episode but then amazingly turned it around at the end and left the viewer feeling humbled and guilty for laughing at people with genuine beliefs who are doing their best and trying to be good people. Sadly, this aspect didn’t appear in the musical version, and the ending and overall moral of the story was a lot less satisfactory (I didn’t have particularly high expectations for this – I wasn’t expecting a grace-centred gospel presentation at the end or anything, but still…). More on that later.

Another common theme in the plot is the Mormons living a very law-based life. Doing good is very important to them and their desire to do good is based on the fear of going to hell if they don’t (as well as the attractive prospect of getting their own planet each in the latter days if they do good). They are trained to just “switch it off” if they ever get a desire to do something bad or if they get angry, which results in them having a veneer of extreme niceness, which covers over some repressed issues underneath. They strictly follow the rules and know the rule numbers by heart. These were the parts where I was hoping for grace to get a mention or an allusion, but sadly (though not surprisingly) it was nowhere to be seen.

Back to the story. The tall guy gets frustrated and leaves the village but the short guy finds himself surprisingly invited by the villagers to tell them the story of Mormonism. He has some trouble with this as he’s never actually read the Book of Mormon, as he found it too boring to read! He reads some bits out to the people but they find it boring and irrelevant to their needs. The people start to walk off but then the short guy tells a lie about Joseph Smith to make him more relevant, and the people start to listen. He gets carried away with this and ends up telling a whole different story using his imagination, which is even crazier (and quite a lot ruder) than the original Mormon story. The people profess belief and they all get baptised!

The missionaries are very pleased with their new converts and get a little carried away with themselves, singing the hilariously arrogant song, “We are Africa”, which is a real sight to see as it’s sung by ten white American men wearing all white and trying to do African dance moves, while the real Africans stand at the side. This was one of many really funny moments in the musical.

Trouble comes when the Mormon leaders come to see the new converts for themselves. Once the leaders find out what the villagers have been taught, the leaders give the young missionaries a serious telling-off for teaching the villagers a load of nonsense (with fairly obvious irony). As the dejected missionaries pack their bags and set off to leave the villagers reveal that they never really believed the silly stories anyway, but they took them as a metaphor for something bigger. The musical ends with a rendition of “Tomorrow is a Latter Day”, which is again very funny, but the general message presented is that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, and it’s not worth thinking as far ahead as the afterlife, as it may not even exist anyway. Instead we should all just think about tomorrow and making that as good as possible.

I found this ending quite unsatisfactory! Normally the makers of South Park are good at making a serious point amidst all the bad language and rudeness (they are, I would say, the masters of satire of this generation), but this one went a bit flat in my view. They’re also good at making fun of all sides, rather than pushing one sort of agenda (they even once made a South Park episode about how stupid atheism is), so this outcome wasn’t guaranteed.

So, should you go and see it? Well, there is some quite severe blasphemy and bad language, so I’m not sure I’ll be recommending it to too many people. If you can cope with that then there are some very funny parts, and witnessing the audience reactions helps to show that it is a common view in society that not just Mormonism but Christianity and other beliefs as well are generally considered to be ridiculous and scoffing at them is the norm. For some living in a Christian bubble this may come as a shock, but on the other hand people in such a bubble will find the ruder aspects of the musical very shocking so you might be better off taking my word for it!

If you’ve seen it, please leave a comment and let me know what you thought!

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9 thoughts on “Review: The Book of Mormon (musical) – from a Christian perspective

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I have seen many Broadway shows, on Broadway, and as much as I enjoyed much of this show I was very disappointed overall. The jokes were sophomoric, and may I say not clever. I have seen shows on Broadway going back to the original production of Fiddler on the Roof, and this show was definitely over-hyped. I also just saw Big Fish in its pre-Broadway engagement in Chicago. It is amazing! Go see it instead.

  2. I really awanted it to be funny, but had a difficult time finding much humor. Two scenes were so far over the top, it appeared they were only for shock value. I hated leaving feeling disappointed and disturbed. The real Mormons greeting departing ticket holders were much funnier and more jovial. They truly turned the other cheek. Save your money for better entertainment.

  3. There are enough subjects to treat lightly and use for humor, why do you need to use JESUS or His Precious Name in your entertainment? It is something you will deeply regret. Please take JESUS out of your satire and out of your humor for He really is the only serious matter in life! It is He who has given you your exceptional talent and He who can take it away.

  4. Wish I had read this before. I am so very grateful that the Lord chose to not return while I was sitting in the Theatre watching “The Book of Mormon.” I would have had some explaining to do! From now on I will research before I go to the Theatre. The blasphemy was horrible and I am ashamed to have witnessed it. I too felt disturbed.

  5. I went to the play last Saturday night at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. with my 25 year old daughter and sister-in-law. Sad to say none of us had read anything about the play and this was the real error and mistake. I had heard how “hilarious” it was but I must say I found it very unfunny, forced, racist, juvenile, blasphemous (and every other negative adjective), everything other than funny. I think I laughed 3 times and it was a delicate little “he he” and not a rousing “ha ha”, which I actually do all the time. If I landed on the channel and had seen it on TV even on the slowest day or evening I would have changed the channel and looked for something better to watch, When we left we all 3 stated that the only saving grace was getting dressed up for an Evening at the Kennedy Center. It taught me a very valuable lesson though, “read before you go … walked into this vulgar 12 year old juvenile humor totally unawares …my bad!

  6. I saw the play yesterday at the Segerstrom performance center in Orange County California.
    The show was undoubtedly irreverent and blasphemous at times.
    I think that, in it’s rude way, it made some very valid points.
    The Africans living in deplorable conditions longed for something meaningful and relevant to be brought in to their lives. A book and a couple of shiny-faced boys were clearly not capable of healing the disease famine and abuse in their country. The villagers rightly said that these boys would go the way of other Christians, coming in, offering a message, then going back home doing nothing for the actual physical conditions of the people.
    GUILTY AS CHARGED.
    Each of the characters was struggling in need of something.
    Was it funny? Well, I found the ironic accusations funny, but the rudeness and vulgarity left me a bit ashamed or feeling guilty for laughing.

    Over all, I walked out feeling conflicted. The play made some good points which we as Christians must face if we desire to be relevant in our world. I did not, however, come out feeling uplifted.

  7. Un-like the character in this play I have read the Book-of Mormon and the Bible. I attended this play fully expecting to be made fun of for my Christian beliefs; what I didn’t expect was the utter debased “humor”. Every ounce of my being strongly desired to walk out and not return during intermission. Un-fortunately; I stayed till the end only to leave with a very bad taste in my mouth for the way this play was billed. I bought it hook, line and sinker. I won’t be so eager to attend a Broadway show in the future. Lesson learned!

  8. Look, my main things before seeing any show or movie is to first sus out if it leaves me in a right standing before the Lord and in food, clean conscience.

    I love funny! But you have answered the questions I was looking to be answered before I started planning tickets. Thank you and that would be a no for me. Xx

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