"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people."
— Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right
"Hello. My name is Elder Price, and I would like to share with you the most amazing book."
— Elder Price, The Book of Mormon
When listening to the Broadway soundtrack (and eventually watching the show: YAY!) to the Tony-sweeping The Book of Mormon, I keep thinking of Marx's compassionate point preceding the "opiate of the people" line.
The musical gets a LOT of deep digs in at Mormonism, but makes a profound point in its savage satire with complex, catchy, funny, moving songs. People need stories, and will adapt stories to resonate with them, no matter how ridiculous their sources. The more oppressed the people, the deeper the wish-thinking in their collective sigh for a tale to tie it all together.
But first, the dish. Among redonkulous religions, Mormonism is particularly redonkulous. For instance, here's my post about how Mormons thought blacks were cursed until 1978.
"I'm going to take you back to Blblical times: 1823."
— Elder Price, The Book of Mormon
Joseph Smith, the founding "Prophet" of Mormonism, was a multiple-count convicted con-man "money-digger" who charged money to tell people where treasure was buried by using a sham device. The victims would dig where he told him. When they found nothing, the move was to say "Ah! The treasure must have moved, then. But it USED to be here."
Smith claimed to be directed by an angel named Moroni (!) to dig in a yard in upstate New York, where a series of drilled-hole bound golden plates was buried telling the story of the Mormon people. A tribe of Jews sailed from the Middle East to the Americas and had a bunch of dull-ass adventures and talkity talk. Also, Jesus visited the Americas between the Crucifixion & Ascension. And Eden is in Missouri.
"I believe in 1978 God changed His mind about black people!"
— Elder Price, Book of Mormon
Mormonism was a hobby in my teens & 20s along with my buddy Paul and later on with buddy Fanny. More lore? Dark skinned people were marked because they were cursed, and ineligible to be full Mormons. Jesus and Satan are brothers. Only men are eligible for priesthood (crazy!) but since all men of age are eligible to be priests there is no vow of celibacy (whew!). In the afterlife, the blessed get their own planets (Coo-ol!). In 1978, the Mormon President announced a divine revelation that dark-skinned people could be full Mormons. New demographic for international markets!
Joseph Smith did not allow anyone to see the golden plates he got. He persuaded a neighbor, Martin Harris. to dictate him "translating" the golden plates from behind a suspended blanket. Smith was not even looking directly into the plates, but into magical seer stones set inside of a hat to block out all light. Harris was never allowed to see the plates. It became an obsession for Harris at the expense of maintaining his livelihood. His spouse, the brave Emma Harris, hero for the ages, had enough of this bullshit and swiped away the 116 pages of manuscript and demanded Smith try to reproduce them. No big deal, given he was reading from magical golden tablets still in tact. Right? RIGHT? In pure Imam/Vatican fashion, Smith declared the first manuscript infected by Satan (like the "Satanic Verses" of the Koran) and a new version from OTHER plates, even more pure, was incipient and would be dictated to other writers.
Back to the book. It sucks. It's boring. It lifts entire sections of The Bible, and clumsily apes the poetry of the King James Bible. But the preface is AMAZING and crazy and ballsy and defensive. Joseph Smith persuading people to sign testimony they saw magical figures beaming in to interact with Joseph Smith. Check it out if you get a chance.
"Did you know that Jesus lived here in the U.S.A.? You can read all about it now. In this nifty book, it's free, no you don't have to pay!"
— Elder Young, Book of Mormon
In the 19th century Mormons DESPERATELY wanted to be a separate nation named Deseret that extended from what is now Utah to southern California, Nevada, chunks of Oregon, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico. Congress threw them land-locked Utah territory instead. Also, polygamy was an important part of doctrine and critical in swelling LDS numbers. Polygamy isn't as big a deal to my sensibilities now, so long as it's between adults - when it leads to childbrides, though, send in the rescue teams! But polygamy got shed from Mormon doctrine more than a century ago.
"Eternal life is super fun! And if you let us in we'll show you how it can be done!"
So, the Book of Mormon compounds a bunch of American crap with shoddy, all-too-human rubbish imagination and bigotry as a Third Testament to the New Testament, itself a collection of contradictions and tamperings by womb-fearing men written generations after the death of Jesus that ends with a petulant smashing of everyone's toys and eternal torture of those not in the club. And the New Testament compounds the idiocy and superstitions of the Old Testament, a series of Iron Age myths written and edited and re-edited when Man did not know anything about anything. But the Book of Mormon, unlike the Old and New Testament, at LEAST acknowledges geography beyond the Middle East. So, point awarded to Joseph Smith. Still, a mish-mash glopped onto hash that was already on a pile of hash.
The musical The Book of Mormon mocks a LOT of that, even starting up a FOURTH Testament to compound on Smith's book with more absurdities. Magical frogs that cure AIDS. Boba Fett as divine instrument of justice. On and on. Each element hilarious and/or heart-wringing. Each of them adapted by a native people in despair and distress. Joseph Smith's book evangelized by the Mormon missionairies bores them, but frogs that cure AIDS and holy admonitions to not circumcize people (in this case, women)? That resonates with them NOW!
The musical knows Mormons tend to be "really fucking polite to everyone" and plays it for laughs, then finds its heart there. Video below of a HUGE, grim laugh in the first half of the show. "Turn it Off", a number about ignoring horrors and troubles, including being a closeted gay, by clicking them off, like a light switch. At this point, the two main missionaries, Elder Price (the tallest, handsomest, charismatic and most destined for greatness) and Elder Cunningham (shlubby, prone to making things up), are experiencing culture shock after arriving in a war-torn Uganda village where their fellow Mormons have failed to convert a single person. This number earned the main singer in the number (supporting player Rory O'Malley) a Tony nomination. Official video is not available, but here's an amateur production that's charming:
Nikki M James has a Tony. She is talented and beautiful. World domination inevitable.After witnessing a violent act by a warlord general, Elder Price begins to doubt his destiny as the next Joseph Smith. His crisis of faith splits him from Elder Cunningham, who must take the lead after being disregarded his whole life. He falls in with a local girl Nabulungi (Nikki M. James, who won a Tony for the role) who is charmed by his imagination and sees him as a way out of the horrors of Uganda to a paradisal land called Sal Tlay Ka Siti. James's performance of "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" (say it aloud to get the joke) is a turning point that the show will not be completely "Har har!" mockery of its characters. It's moving, and she does a great job of selling the yearning in a song that ends: "I'm on my way/ Soon life won't be so shitty./ Now salvation has a name. / Sal Tlay Ka Siti."
Side note: the actors playing Ugandans have wandering accents, shifting from genero-African-ish to Carribean inflections and, heck, I'm not a dialectitionator. Not gonna go to Uganda to research this point. I'll drop the pretense.
From the rousing final number: "Who cares what happens when we're dead? We shouldn't think that far ahead. The only latter day that matters is tomorrow."Elder Cunningham flourishes and uses his lying/creativity to adapt and exaggerate and customize stories that resonate with the tribe, as Joseph Smith did. And the people exaggerate the stories even further to suit themselves.
The writers of The Book of Mormon (the dudes who make South Park and the composer behind Avenue Q) have mentioned originally they were going to have Elder Price killed by gunfire, leaving Cunningham completely alone to lead the tribe, as Joseph Smith was fatally shot and left Brigham Young to lead. A severe, intriguing idea. Price does not die (spoiler!) but does go on a divergent path that makes for a richer exploration of ideas about religion, faith, and not needing belief in heavenly reward to work to help people in this realm.
"We are all still Latter-Day-Saints. All of us. Even if we changed some things, or we break the rules, or we have complete doubt that God exists. We can still all work together and make this our paradise planet."
The Book of Mormon is the hottest ticket on Broadway, even before reaping Tonys. I love theater, but had never been to a Broadway show, or New York City, before watching it August 13. I'm not much of a musical afficionado. The few musicals I do know, through film, I know deeply: Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, West Side Story, Grease, and ... that may be it. Oh, Purple Rain, but that doesn't really count. The Les Miserables mania in the late 80s? Pass. Phantom of the Opera? Get the fuck outta here. Wicked? May see it before I die, but wouldn't recognize a single song.
I dig theater. I've seen nearly 100+ productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival over the last 25 years, modern and classical productions. And I'm competitive about being the first audience member to clap. An embarrassing trait during classical recitals in the break between one musical movement to another.
But The Book of Mormon? I'd listened to the soundtrack maybe 20 times before seeing the show, and it's the first time in my life I've owned a soundtrack for a currently running Broadway show.
It does skim ONE problem with regarding religion as stories - it's okay to let other people follow whatever myths they want. But the evangelism, telling other people what to do, is where the true harm comes in. Why can't people imbued with the Great Cosmic Answer seem content and happy? Why the need to bully others? Not so much a Mormon trait, but a general lamentation about the self-Elected.
Seeing the production, the script and plot points not conveyed by the songs themselves (though the songs do a great job of moving the story) was a great experience. Inspired acting and direction, catchy tunes, fun choreography. Toward the end of the show, I got teary-eyed from being so happy to be there and see the show with great wit and heart. It was fun watching the show with a friend who didn't know what to expect. And even knowing what to expect, the show exceeded my hopes.
What I'm saying is: the story of The Book of Mormon really resonated with me. And I want to share its story with you.