Photo ©Joan Marcus, photo edited by Jarom West
The curtain opens on a spare stage, a set of doors. A lone LDS missionary rings a doorbell and sings, “Hello, my name is Elder Price, and I would like to share with you the most amazing book!”
Holding a blue, standard-issue Book of Mormon, Elder Price is joined by a growing chorus of crisp-white-shirted elders marching up to doors and harmonizing, so very perkily, an enthusiastic message from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “Eternal life is super fun!”
As the chorus builds to crescendo, the lights come up on the backdrop—an artful representation of the LDS Temple in Salt Lake City, and for us Salt Lakers, a familiar view of the Wasatch Range and Ensign Peak.
“This book will change your life so you won’t burn in Hell…o.”
Thus begins, with peppy aplomb, one of the biggest hits on Broadway: The Book of Mormon. The musical, which opened in 2011, has won nine Tony awards and continues to sell out nightly at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. The opening in London in 2013 was met with rave reviews and sell-out crowds, and received four British Olivier Awards in 2014. In the four years since its debut on Broadway, the touring production has continued to sell out shows at major (and even minor) cities, but it’s never played, until now, in the town so prominently featured in its opening number: Salt Lake City.
In a cultural milestone—the equivalent of Gone With the Wind premiering in Atlanta—on July 28th, The Book of Mormon will open to a packed house in the Capitol Theatre, just three blocks from the LDS Temple Square. Tickets went on sale last April and sold out almost immediately. Isn’t it significant that a play that so thoroughly skewers the LDS faith is finally coming on tour to SLC? For heck’s sake, one of the show’s best songs is entitled “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.” (Sound it out.)
But the peculiar thing is, apart from Jerry Rapier of Plan-B Theatre Company, Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby, Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker and a few other Utah culture watchers, not many Salt Lakers wanted to talk about The Book of Mormon. Here is this world-renowned musical dealing directly with the faith that is the Higgs boson of life here in Utah, chock-full of very specific references to Utah, its founding LDS culture, and the particulars of LDS missions, and…crickets.
Peggy Fletcher Stack, the Tribune’s religious reporter, demurred. Repeated calls to current LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins were unreturned. Downtown stakeholders I contacted didn’t have anything to say about one of the most exciting and noteworthy attractions of the year. One local official even replied by saying, “consider this email my version of a 10-foot pole.”
Curiouser still, even the musical’s promoters declined to promote. After a lengthy exchange with Broadway Across America, I scheduled interviews with the actors who portray the elders, but they were abruptly canceled. “At this juncture, we’d like to respectfully decline all press requests.” Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, I learned, “are on to other projects.”
“For a lot of people in positions of authority in Salt Lake, there is no political upside to talking about it,” Robert Kirby from the Tribune muses. “It’s too easy to alienate people. But you’ve got to figure that a large percentage of the people who bought tickets are LDS [members] to some degree or another. Appearances are important in any religion. Your outward conduct says a lot about you to other people. It’s how you identify one Martian from another.”
Lynne Gorton Cropper, who studied the impact of humor on Mormon culture as part of her Religious Studies MA at the University of Iowa, says while many Mormons like herself will avoid the musical because of its vulgarity, they aren’t overly troubled. “The general membership is getting used to people ribbing them,” says Gorton Cropper. “Members have grown confident enough with themselves and their place in the world that they are less threatened by negative media attention.”
And It Came to Pass—Again
Elder Cunningham attempts to convert the impoverished and war-weary Ugandans. Somehow, hilarity ensues. Photo ©Joan Marcus
The Book of Mormon isn’t the first hit play to mine Mormon foibles and take the show back to Utah. Angels in America, the 1993 Pulitzer-winning Broadway play about AIDS, used Mormon culture as a microcosm of puritanical America. It was staged in 2010 at Salt Lake Acting Company, with a seating capacity of less than 200.
The Book of Mormon invades the heart of Mormondom as a full-on production in the city’s largest theater.
After the play sold out in April, Fox 13 News conducted an informal poll on its website. Nineteen percent of respondents who claimed they were Mormon said they would be seeing the play, while 48 percent said they would not.
Kirby says he gravitates toward Mormons like himself, who would be curious enough to buy a ticket to the musical. “Mormons who are harder to offend, who don’t take themselves so seriously,” he says.
But then we are, after all, talking about a play that includes (spoiler alert!) a scene wherein an African warlord shoves a Book of Mormon up Elder Price’s rectum.
“Do people think it’s obscene because it is? Or because they think it’s obscene to Mormons?” Kirby asks. “I mean would they watch it if a Jehovah’s Witness got a Bible shoved up his ass? I mean personally there were times when I was on my mission that I wanted to shove the scriptures up my companion’s ass. So I get that. But there is a sense to me that if you’re going to be a player on the world stage of faith, you have to be able to take your lumps like everybody else.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who has invested much of his two terms in office into getting the 2,400-seat, state-of-the-art Utah Performance Center built downtown, not only recognizes the cultural significance of The Book of Mormon finally arriving in Salt Lake, but sees it as justification for his hard work, because the musical would have come sooner had the city had a bigger theater.
“I saw it in New York City about a year-and-a-half ago and was thoroughly entertained,” Becker says, “especially because I live in the cultural milieu where the LDS Church is the dominant faith. We all know the basics around the doctrines, whether we are Mormon or not. But I can also appreciate that for someone who is Mormon, it’s really understandable that they might get defensive and feel offended.”
A Strange Symbiosis
I started working with Salt Lake magazine in 2006, and over the years I became the de facto “Mormon guy” at the magazine, I guess because I’m technically a Mormon. I walked away from the church way back in 1991, never having served a mission, and I’ve just never gone to the trouble of having my name removed from the rolls. Hence the “technically.”
So now here I am again, “the Mormon guy” assigned a story about a play that clearly bashes the church. What’s a former Sunbeam to do? Well, call the church, obviously.
The church’s media relations representative Eric Hawkins never did return my calls, even though over the years I’ve had good relationships with church spokesmen. What, not even a “no comment” for old times’ sake, guys? Thus I’m left with the official boilerplate: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but The Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
Despite that determinedly bland statement, the church’s potent public relations and marketing efforts surrounding the play speak volumes. The opening of the play in NYC coincided with the LDS Church’s multimillion-dollar advertising campaign “I’m a Mormon” that included video in Times Square and more than 200 taxi toppers featuring “I’m a Mormon” ads.
The Mormon Church fought back in London and New York with a sophisticated PR blitz. Photo by David Daniels
Instead of actively protesting or whipping members into an indignant frenzy over the play, the Mormon Church bought advertisements in Playbill, a monthly magazine for theater enthusiasts, and continues to purchase Playbill advertising in cities where the musical travels. The full-page ads feature friendly, diverse faces above phrases like “I’ve Read the Book” and “You’ve seen the play, now read the book,” along with a link to the official church website and a (how modern!) QR code. There was no word at our press time on whether the Salt Lake production would receive the same treatment.
University of Utah professor of religious studies Colleen McDannell studied the LDS Church’s public relations response to The Book of Mormon’s openings in New York and London.
“Some sharp PR person decided that rather than protest, [the Church] should piggyback on the publicity of this particular production,” she says. “You saw massive Church advertising in NYC and London. That’s a strategic move and an innovative move for religions in general.”
McDannell points to the non-innovative Catholic protests against Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ. The protests only resulted in the filmmakers raking in more money.
“In the London campaign, it was difficult to even tell which ads were coming from The Book of Mormon [the musical] people and which were from the LDS Church. But people were talking about Mormons, and both groups were getting two ads for the price of one. The hilariously funny thing is that The Book of Mormon [the musical] and the LDS Church will be linked for eternity.”
Cherry Atop the Church’s Tough Year
Elder Price's simple faith in the wonders of Kolob and Orlando never fails to charm audiences. Photo ©Joan Marcus
This sunny, open and friendly, yet ultimately absurd, musical is often all people in London and New York know about Mormonism, McDannell says. Many Brits and Europeans confuse Mormons and the Amish, in fact. But in Salt Lake City, it’s a different story. Here the LDS Church dominates the news and the culture, and the past year’s news cycle has included plenty of doublespeak from church leaders on LGBT marriage equality issues and the very public purges of prominent bloggers and women members who argue for change within the church. In the Big Apple, Mormons are just part of the multi-faith mix. But in Sal Tlay Ka Siti, Mormon Church leaders meet with Utah state legislators before they go into session, and everyone steps carefully around issues that involve the church. Not offending the “dominant religion” is an unwritten part of every savvy Utah business plan. Heck, we even capitalize “Church.”
The musical, however, refuses to tiptoe. Elder Price and his hapless companion Elder Cunningham leave the MTC in Provo for Uganda, where they attempt to convert the impoverished and war-weary residents of an African village to Mormonism. The action is irreverent, absurd in its caricatures of both the missionaries and the African villagers, and certainly would be offensive to many a temple-recommend holder, and actually even more so to Africans. The language is foul and crude, as you would expect from the creators of South Park, and they resoundingly mock pretty much every aspect of the LDS Church’s origin story, even asserting at one point that Joseph Smith copulated with frogs.
“Nobody is worrying about the Jews in Fiddler on the Roof,” Rapier says. “And if someone doesn’t know that [The Book of Mormon] is crass, that’s just ignorance on their part. It’s been out there for four years. In three clicks, any person can have the entire score on their phone. If any offense is taken, that’s a failure of personal responsibility.”
Nevertheless, after four years, ignorance still abounds. Word on the Mormon street is that the musical is “actually kind of sweet,” as one young former missionary told me. Despite the obscenity, the play is generous towards the young missionaries. They come out looking kind and earnest and audiences root for them as they belt out the teachings of their faith: that ancient Jews sailed to America, that God lives on a planet called Kolob, that in 1978 “God changed his mind about black people,” and that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri. Parker and Stone chose the trappings of Mormonism as a straw man for the absurdities of all religions, aiming their skewers at the institution, not its followers.
The modern LDS Church approaches proselytizing in this same way, McDannell says. “Do you convince people to join because of the revelations of Joseph Smith or because the church is made up of a bunch of cool, interesting, hardworking people? You see this in the musical, too. It centers on the delightful character of the Mormon missionaries. If anything, the bad guys are the bland, no-personality Mormon leaders who come to take these guys from Uganda. The missionaries are fun-loving, innocent, naive and a little stupid, but we like them more than the institution. And that’s very American. Americans distrust institutions.”
Rapier just hopes that despite the sound and fury over the profanity, audiences notice that it’s great theater. “I want people to look past crass because it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had watching a musical.”
The faithful of a different sort have gathered for decades at Salt Lake Acting Company for the yearly production of Saturday’s Voyeur that skewers Mormon culture and Utah politics. Though Voyeur employs the same edgy satire as The Book of Mormon, the LDS Church has yet to launch a media blitz in an attempt to subvert the campy production.
“We’re small fish—just a comedy group that makes fun of uptight people,” says longtime music director Kevin Mathie. “We’ve never really threatened the faithful.”
Gun-toting legislators, portly LDS Church officials, flaming-gay missionaries and a drunken, foul-mouthed Angel Moroni are among Voyeur’s caricatures. Board President Marian Jacobsen says, “It’s a way for us to vent and commiserate with like-minded people.”
Plan-B Theatre Company also tackles Mormon issues, but as serious drama. LDS cultural themes run through many of its plays, written by Mormon dramatists. “You can’t create art in Utah and not be connected to Mormonism in some way,” says Plan-B’s producing director, Jerry Rapier. “There is always some sort of influence on our work.”