Why The Book of Mormon Musical Was Made Now
(NOTE: the song above doesn’t have any bad language, but it is irreverent and makes fun of Mormon beliefs. It has a couple of cringe-worthy moments for me, but I don’t find it too egregious — even found myself laughing in a place or two. However, I don’t want to offend anyone, so if you’re worried about it, I recommend that you skip it.) 🙂
There’s been a ton of buzz about The Book of Mormon Musical lately, due to the fact that it took home about a bajillion Tony Awards this past Sunday. I haven’t seen the production, of course, because I live very far away from Broadway — and because I’m not sure my little heart could take it* — but I think there are some very specific reasons why something like this could be made about Mormons at this particular moment. I’d like to explore them here…
1. We are in the public eye. As a people, we’ve arrived at a place where our public exposure has reached critical mass. We have Mitt Romney, Glenn Beck, Jon Huntsman, Harry Reid, David Archuleta, Gladys Knight. We contributed openly to the “No on 8” campaign in California. We buy millions of dollars of ad space in major metropolitan markets. We send young men and women clad in suits and skirts to people’s doorsteps, asking them to change their minds about religion. We’re no longer tucked away on the edge of civilization — we’re becoming solidly integrated into mainstream American culture.
2. People don’t like us all that much. Despite the strides we’ve made in terms public visibility, people still aren’t sure what to make of us. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, the only groups less likely than Mormons to be elected to the Oval Office are homosexuals and atheists. We’re just plain unpopular. The left doesn’t like us for our less-than-progressive history with human rights. The religious right doesn’t like us because they believe we’re un-Christian, heretical, and dangerous. With that kind of animosity out there, it’s no wonder word gets around that there’s something a little “off” about the Mormons.
3. People are fascinated by us. Still, people want to know more about us. (And rightly so, because we’re totally fascinating!) 😉 My hunch is that the fascination stems from our squeaky-clean, highly successful exterior, contrasted with whisperings they hear about a “dark” and mysterious underground: polygamy, “secret” temple rituals, “magic” underwear. Something doesn’t add up, for how can such weirdness produce such seeming normalcy? They’re curious and suspicious and dying to get inside.
4. We don’t let them inside. Here’s where I think we need to accept some of the blame. Even though people are curious, we hold them at arms’ length. We take a solidly defensive and apologetic stance with society at large, expending massive amounts of public energy justifying our existence as opposed to just, well, existing. We are careful to give the right answers, dress the right way, put our best foot forward. At times we avoid engaging difficult issues about our past because we are afraid that by admitting faults or showing weakness we’ll confirm to the world that we really don’t deserve a place at the table. Of course, we do deserve that place, notwithstanding our human error, but until we can make peace with ourselves we will have a hard time making peace with others. Fortunately, this is one area where I see tremendous progress among our people, and something about which I am extremely optimistic.
5. We don’t tell our own stories. Perhaps as an extension of the point above, we’re afraid to tell our own stories. (And even when we do, the stories we tell are often from that apologetic, defensive stance, which just isn’t that interesting to most everyday people.) But because of the fascination factor, there is a demand for stories about Mormons! So what happens? Outsiders tell them. And they tell stories like Big Love and The Book of Mormon Musical and Under the Banner of Heaven. There is space here that we just aren’t filling, and this is another area where I believe we can make great strides as a people.
[EDITED TO INCLUDE] 6. They knew we’d be nice about it. I think another factor is that The Book of Mormon producers knew we wouldn’t freak out about the production, like what might have happened if they’d targeted fundamental Islam or even Christianity. In fact, they’ve been quoted as saying exactly that: “There may be protesters, but they probably won’t be Mormons because [they’re] just really nice.” They also said,
“The official church response was something along the lines of ‘The Book of Mormon the musical might entertain you for a night, but the Book of Mormon,’ — the book as scripture — ‘will change your life through Jesus,’ ” Stone says. “Which we actually completely agree with. The Mormon church’s response to this musical is almost like our Q.E.D. at the end of it. That’s a cool, American response to a ribbing — a big musical that’s done in their name.”
“Before the church responded, a lot of people would ask us, ‘Are you afraid of what the church would say?’ And Trey and I were like, ‘They’re going to be cool.’ And they were like, ‘No, they’re not. There are going to be protests.’ And we were like, ‘Nope, they’re going to be cool.’ We weren’t that surprised by the church’s response. We had faith in them.”
So there you have it. My take on why The Book of Mormon Musical was made now. What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Are there other factors contributing that I haven’t considered?
*I want to make a quick note here that I’m not offended or angry about The Book of Mormon per se, I’m just not sure it’s something my tender sensibilities could take. I don’t love bad language and blasphemy, which I’ve been told is in this production in spades, and I’ve become a bit of a sensitive soul in my old age when it comes to making fun of people’s religious beliefs. Having said that, I don’t doubt it’s a brilliant bit of theatre, and I totally recognize that people have different tastes. I’m not troubled by anyone, Mormon or otherwise, who enjoyed the show.
Posted on June 17, 2011, in Mormonism, News and Current Events, Pop Culture and tagged art, book of mormon musical, broadway, david archuleta, gladys knight, glenn beck, harry reid, literature, matt stone, mitt romney, Mormonism, mormons, proposition 8, religious tolerance, stories, theatre, tony awards, trey parker. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.
Probably all true.
to elaborate on point one…some speculated that it was timed to come out with the presidential run. However, I doubt that is the case as this was a production seven years in the making.
John Mark Reynolds, a philosophy prof and columnist for the Washington Post has an interesting take on The Book of Mormon Musical: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/amos-and-andy-and-the-book-of-mormon/2011/06/15/AGRlHPWH_blog.html He makes the point that whether directed at blacks, gays, Jews, or any other group or minority, bigotry is bigotry and its popularity is somewhat embarrassing and not a particularly positive reflection on society. He compares the musical with the popular minstrel shows of the early 20th century. Entertaining perhaps; but none the less cruel. Yes, we can laugh at ourselves when anyone pokes good-natured fun at our “peculiarities.” I suppose each person will have to decide for him or herself whether that’s what’s going on at the O’Neill Theatre. So is this a perfect storm of timing and emerging prominence, and creative opportunism? Or is it simply age-old human prejudice, ignorance and cruelty rearing its ugly head yet again? One can’t help wondering whether a similarly fashioned entertainment with homosexuals, illegal immigrants, passionate environmentalists, or Muslims as the butt of its jokes would fare as well on Tony night in 2011.
Dave, that’s funny. I think it’s probably just a case where Romney’s presidential run has helped create a perfect storm of interest around Mormonism to drive the show’s popularity, as opposed to anything deliberate or conspiratorial.
Dad, I think there is a parallel to be made with minstrel shows, but I think it needs to be highly qualified and nuanced. The Mormon community, for all the suffering we’ve endured (which I do not mean to diminish), has never suffered like the black community. So I’m uncomfortable with the comparison, though I do agree there are some interesting similarities. I also think there’s a case to be made that minstrel-like caricatures, as distasteful as they are, seem to be a stepping stone toward full acceptance and expression in the mainstream. So maybe this means we’re on our way. 🙂
I think it’s obvious that similarly fashioned entertainment about homosexuals or illegal immigrants absolutely wouldn’t go over as well. People just aren’t as fascinated by them as they are by us. But I don’t think overt hatred or cruelty is fueling it: I think it’s ignorance and suspicion and plain old fashioned curiosity. I think when we’re confronted with these sorts of situations, we can choose to respond with anger and outrage or patience and dignity. I think that for the most part the church has done a great job choosing the latter. I also think this moment should serve as a wake-up call for Mormons who want to tell their stories. The time is ripe for telling them!
Interesting post as usual Katie.
One observation about “We Don’t Tell Our Own Stories”. Some do, but they’ve been doing it poorly and on such an unambitious and uninteresting scale, so much so that even the Mos don’t want to see their shows. Take all of these limited release cheesy movies about missions and finding eternal companions and the like that came out late 90s early 00s. Each one, no matter what kind of curious plot they had, always had a very thinly veiled Mormon spiritual message they were trying to convey. The trouble with being Mormon is that most don’t know how to turn off the missionary mode. I don’t want to shell out $20 to walk out of the theater feeling like I just sat through seminary. There’s a time and a place and the entertainment realm isn’t the place.
However I also can see the point of the previous poster that just sitting there making fun of yourself doesn’t get very far for acceptance, it just reinforces stereotypes.
Maybe someday there can be a character in a regular ol’ movie that just happens to be Mormon but it doesn’t have a significant impact on the plot, a punch line, or the moral of the story. It’s happened slowly with black people, and it’s coming around now for gays, maybe Mormons can have a turn next.
I think these mainstream outsiders’ kind of approaches are refreshing because whether I’m interested or not in shelling out the bucks for them, they finally are quality productions, using real talent, and are drawing attention to the LDS faith. Some might feel uncomfortable with it but I see it as an accelerant to bring the religion to the attention of the public and hopefully get some more ambitious writers to come forward. Not to convert the world, just to say, “No worries y’all, we’re cool”.
Jeanne, great comment. There was some good work that came out of that era — I think Richard Dutcher’s films were truly excellent — but most of it was total drivel. You’re right that Mormons have a hard time turning off “missionary mode;” that’s part of what I was getting at when I said that we have an “apologetic” stance with the public (I used the term in the academic sense of “defending the faith” as opposed to saying sorry about something). It goes back to our inherent discomfort with our position in the larger culture. When you are comfortable with who you are, you aren’t so concerned about getting everyone to accept you or agree with you. That is not to say there isn’t a scriptural imperative for missionary work, or that it’s unimportant, just that you have a better sense for time and place, like you were saying.
We do need more ambitious writers, though if you talk to our old friend Laura, who is very much involved in LDS literary circles, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that there are people beginning to tackle this kind of work. It’s just not very prominent yet, and I believe is probably still the exception as opposed to the rule when it comes to LDS art.
I think a another factor in the issue of why now is the rise of militant atheism (or whatever you want to call it) — as recently as a decade or two ago, atheism as a movement was all but invisible, But now there are a number well-known atheistic or agnostic thinkers — Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens come to mind first — who have received plenty of attention. And a few other figures — Bill Maher is a prime example — have been able to make a career out of anti-religion bigotry yet remain recognized as legitimate commentators. Clearly, there’s a commercial market as well as space in the marketplace of ideas for anti-religion thought that wasn’t present all that long ago.
Eric, is your impression that The Book of Mormon is anti-religion? My understanding is that it’s condescendingly postmodern, a la, “Well, as long as people don’t take these quaint little stories too literally, and it brings joy and peace to their lives, religion is a great thing!”
So it’s patronizing, but not anti, at least not in the militant vein of Maher, Dawkins, and the rest.
(And as someone who leans toward a postmodern worldview, I can say this without malice — condescension is absolutely one of the greatest spiritual threats of a postmodern perspective.)
You’re right; it’s not the same type of anti-religion as Dawkins et al. But it is anti-religion (or so is my impression, based on what I’ve read, because I haven’t seen or listened to the musical, and don’t intend to) in the sense that it suggests that all religion is silly. I also understand that it refers to God in a way that most Christians, not just the LDS variety, would find sacrilegious.
Yes, I’ve heard there’s lots of blasphemy — one song in particular is supposed to be pretty egregious — but as far as I understand, the “message” is that although religion is silly, if it makes your life better, it’s actually a good thing.
Of course, that’s still super condescending, but supposedly the sentiment is a bit softer than what it sounds like you’re thinking.
NOT that I’m not trying to convince you to like it or anything, of course — as I said, I don’t think I’d have the heart to see it — but I thought you might appreciate knowing that there’s a possibility that it’s not as mean and nasty as you might have heard. 🙂
On the minstrelsy issue…I think a neglected part of this conversation is that apparently the portrayal of the Ugandans is as over the top and stereotypical as the portrayal of Mormons. This article (Eric, were you the one who posted it on FB?) talks about that in some depth, as well as some of the show’s more serious doctrinal and cultural inaccuracies in terms of Mormonism.
It begs the question: is this good satire? Or is it irresponsible?
Kate, No intent to imply parity between the Mormon persecution and that of American blacks, either by myself or the Author, as he points out. But perhaps both (along with persecutions heaped on other minorities) stem from the baser human instinct to ridicule that which we either fear, consider “different” and undesirable, or simply choose not to understand. I, like you, don’t think I could stomach the blasphemy or profanity surrounding topics of deeply held religious faith, though part of me is EXTREMELY curious to see the show. I suspect the BOM writers think they’re just poking fun at a group that will handle it with dignity and grace. And indeed, for those more generous in spirit, it may serve to open doors rather than close them (as Jesus Christ Superstar once did for me). Unfortunately, their opportunistic satire will be used by others, less noble, as binder in the cement mix for their already hardening ignorance and prejudice. Sadly, there is a strong anti-Christian sentiment growing in our society and around the world. Anti-Semitism seems to be reviving, as well, along with what may be a more general decline in religious affiliation. (At least I seem to remember reading something to that effect recently.) Broadway’s TBOM may serve to reinforce those trends.
I don’t think “responsibility” is one of the items on the satire rubric.
Yeah, Katie, I was the one who posted a link to that review.
I like the post of “Dad” above. I think people go into watching a show like that and apply their own backgrounds to what they see. I have no doubt that parts of the show are “sweet” and that it wasn’t vicious in the way it could have been. For me, in my Internet roamings I come across enough anti-Mormon and anti-Christian bigotry that I’ve become a bit sensitive, so that’s coloring my reaction. In a few years, who knows, maybe my curiosity will get the best of me and I’ll want to watch or listen to the musical. But not today.
Is it good satire? I don’t know. There’s certainly plenty in the LDS culture that deserves to be poked fun of, though.
I like your thoughts Katie. 🙂