Theatre Journal. March 2012;64(1):99-101
A collaboration between Julie Taymor, a theatre artist whom I admire, and two members of my favorite band, U2, promised to be a match made in musical heaven for me. However, this promise went unfulfilled when I saw Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark in its original version in January 2011. Famously tech-heavy, confusing, stylistically promiscuous, and even dangerous, the production left me little desire to return five months later upon its revision. Instead, I found my heaven, ironically, in “Spooky Mormon Hell [Dream]” and other cheeky, irreverent, and downright raunchy production numbers in Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon. In spite of rather unmemorable tunes, the musical managed to create near-perfection by marrying traditional musical theatre structure with postmodern pastiche and contemporary relevance through the choreography, scenic design, and themes that explored such subjects as transition, American identity, and a longing for utopia.
The Book of Mormon (BOM) follows two squeaky-clean Mormon youths, Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), on a reluctant mission to Africa (they were hoping for Orlando), where instead of finding eager converts they encounter a poverty- and AIDs-stricken village controlled by a warlord named “Butt Fucking Naked.” Predictable cultural misunderstandings and crises of faith ensue, but the interventions of an idealistic young villager named Nabulungi (Nikki M. James) under threat of female circumcision helps to unite the two worlds. BOM is about religion in all its complexities, but it is as much about transition: the Mormons’ from Western to non-Western culture, from boyhood to manhood, from cultural naïveté to awareness. Nabulungi shifts from abjection to agency, her fellow Ugandans still moving from colonial victimization to postcolonial independence.
Parker and Stone, no strangers to movie musicals (Cannibal! The Musical; South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut), acknowledge the influence of Rodgers and Hammerstein on the structure of BOM. The girl-meets- boy story and familiar song types (optimistic opening number: “Hello!”; the “I want” character song: “Two by Two”; eleven o’clock number: “Joseph Smith American Moses”) are all present, as is a happy ending. By tapping into the conventions of the quintessential American musical, BOM mirrors the inherent American-ness of Mormonism, and the optimism exuded by the show through the rousing finale “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day” reflects the inherent optimism of the overall philosophy of the Latter Day Saints.
But the significance of BOM lays not in its following of traditions—exemplified so fully thematically and structurally in another religious-themed musical, Fiddler on the Roof—but in its break from them. This break was explicit in such aspects as the gay (albeit closeted) Mormon men’s chorus; the no-holds-barred profanity and irreverence (the “Hakuna Matata” parody “Hasa Diga Eebowai” translates as “Fuck You, God”); the talk of raping babies, maggots in the scrotum, the holy clitoris, and curing AIDS by fornicating with a frog. More implicitly, choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s pastiche of musical theatre dance styles subverted the more common tradition of choreographic homogeneity within a show. This radical mix of styles included Martha Graham-style Americana alongside rousing militaristic marches, as well as the repression-themed “Turn It Off,” replete with splashy tap finale, in contrast to the previous African-dance, polyrhythm-infused number “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” Even soul, in “All-American Prophet,” and hip-hop dance à la boy bands, in the hilarious “Man Up,” made appearances. Through all these disparate styles, Nicholaw consistently physicalized the optimistic spirit of Mormonism by choreographing largely to upbeat, fast-paced musical [End Page 99] numbers, his dance vocabulary often vertical and extended upward, perhaps reaching for the utopic heaven toward which the Mormons—and eventually the Africans they encounter—strive.