The (Very Sweary, Very American) Religious Experience Of ‘The Book Of Mormon’
This show could never be made in Australia, but it makes a great escape.
If there is one thing The Book of Mormon — the musical now playing at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne — makes abundantly clear, it is that Mormonism is the musical theatre of religions.
Both musicals and Mormonism have taken what has come before them — a religion based on texts; a tradition of storytelling and communal gathering — and made them more fantastical. They are new religious texts; all singing, all dancing, chorus-lined extravaganzas. And in particular, they are both reliant on an unwavering belief in American exceptionalism.
The Americans, of course, aren’t the only people to make musicals. But the notion of the “great American musical” stands alone. It’s America where the art form came alive during the golden age of Broadway; it’s America still where a history play told through rap music can become a global phenomenon.
And for all of its contemporary politics (even if the 2011 musical feels slightly outdated and out of step in the age of Trump) The Book of Mormon joyously and, yes, seriously embeds itself in the tradition of the golden age musical. It just has slightly more swearing, and a whole lot more steering into controversy.
The Fucking Great American Musical
The answer to why Australians don’t have a big tradition of musical theatre has often been theorised: we lack government investment in the artform; there is less of a tradition of philanthropic investment; there are few commercial spaces to offer returns on high-risk investments. But, fundamentally, I think Australian musicals struggle to succeed in the same way because we are unable to take ourselves as seriously as the artform, at its peak, demands its sequins and high kicks be taken.
It’s no coincidence that our best musical, Keating!, is a self-effacing, low-key, rock-musical which laughs at Australian politics.
Musical theatre not only requires a suspension of disbelief that life could be lived all-singing and all-dancing, but an absolute investment on behalf of both creators and audience members that all-singing and all-dancing is the only way to do anything.
It’s the belief that this artform — loud, brash, and working to recoup millions of dollars in investment and make a sizeable return (The Book of Mormon recouped its $11.4 million capitalisation in the Broadway production after eight months of performances, and has now taken over $470 million at the box office in New York alone) — is the most important artform, borne in the most important city, in the most important country in the world.
Australians are incapable of doing this. Imagine an Australian equivalent of Mormonism: The Bible Part III, where Jesus appears in Australia after his resurrection; where an angel speaks to an Australian man giving him golden plates detailing the lost stories of ancient Israelites traveling to this continent. It is a religion that could only ever come from a belief of American exceptionalism: a belief Australians will never hold in themselves.
It’s this exceptionalism which allows both this religion and these musicals to sell. In Australia, and around the world, we see these beacons of Americanness and are drawn to them — their unwavering belief; their investment in the sell — and we latch onto their power. The American dream, packaged up neatly in a shiny bow, in a musical (or in a religious text).
The Beauty of Belief
Of course, the reasons this packaging works is because they are good at what they do. Who doesn’t want to believe, even a little, a story as incredible as that of Joseph Smith? The gall of it is so huge you have to be at least somewhat amazed: a 14-year-old boy claims he was visited by an angel, and starts a whole new religious movement that continues around the world. But the Church of the Latter Day Saints succeeds because it takes itself seriously. It knows what audience it wants to preach to, and how to sell to them.
The musical The Book of Mormon also succeeds because of these factors: it takes itself seriously, it knows what audience it wants to preach to, and it knows how to sell itself to this audience. The musical satire from South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez takes itself astonishingly seriously. It is a parody, yes, but like all good parodies its success lies in being a studied one. It might be stealing the tropes — the “I want” song, the eleven o’clock number, the rousing finale — but it invests in these tropes. It might be a pastiche of musical references — notably The Lion King, but also Wicked, The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie — but it loves these musicals.
And this is its key: at its heart, The Book of Mormon loves musical theatre. Even as it relentlessly teases Mormonism, the secret to the work is its heart. It may take this religion for a joke but, almost surprisingly, it becomes a tender and warm-hearted story about the beauty of holding belief dear — no matter how daft the creators of The Book of Mormon may think that belief is.
It’s the same way that it might be daft to believe the best way to tell the story of two teenage boys travelling to Uganda to “save” a group of people dealing with hardships never encountered by white religious kids from Utah is to add some songs and sequins and put it in front of a live audience. They add a dancing Hitler; sinful Starbucks coffee cups; an imagined paradise called Salt Lake City; and an African warlord called General Butt-Fucking Naked. And yet, somehow, they pull it off.
It’s the same story behind all the best musicals and behind Mormonism itself: a belief in the American dream. A dream that can tell you America was important enough to be part of Jesus’ time on Earth; a dream that can tell you a story is only told well if it involves a chorus line of gay men in tap shoes.
The Book of Mormon is difficult to sit through at times — the humour is crude; the sexual, racial, and religious politics deliberately provocative and uncomfortable — but here, too, is the need for live performance. You see the joy and the investment of the cast (a combination of Australian and American actors), giving you permission to invest in their telling of the story, and to laugh — even if not always freely, even if not always without stepping back and looking at yourself.
The Book of Mormon (the musical) is likely having at least as much fun in preaching its vision of the world as the missionaries behind The Book of Mormon (the book) have preaching theirs. One might promise you salvation and a planet for the afterlife; but the other promises you laughs for a couple of hours, and sells drinks at the bar. And in Melbourne, for eternity or for a night, you can find yourself sold a little slice of the American dream. American exceptionalism, yours for the taking.
The Book of Mormon is at Princess Theatre in Melbourne now. Grab tickets here.
Feature image: Jeff Busby.
Jane Howard is an arts journalist and critic working throughout Australia and in the UK with a focus on performance.