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'Book of Mormon' opens on Broadway
March 24th, 2011
05:22 PM ET

'Book of Mormon' opens on Broadway

By Cassie Spodak, CNN

New York (CNN) - A new Broadway musical looks at religious faith and doubt with a healthy dose of imagination: the audience meets Jesus, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith, Satan, and an African warlord as well as Darth Vader, Yoda and two hobbits.

The production, called "The Book of Mormon," was written by "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, along with Robert Lopez, who wrote the Broadway hit "Avenue Q."

The creators have used music, irreverent comedy, and obscenity to tackle controversial subjects before, but they say their approach is new to Broadway musicals. The play opened to strong reviews Thursday night.

“Broadway, for so many years, was a very wholesome community,” Lopez told CNN. “As far as comedy, (Broadway) has not progressed as far as movies and TV (even though) there are no censors.”

Lopez met Stone and Parker after they saw "Avenue Q," which followed young puppets and humans living in a fictional New York as they dealt with careers, relationships, sex and the challenges of managing expectations.

When they asked him what he wanted to work on next, Lopez told them he was interested in doing a musical about Mormonism.

Stone and Parker were hooked. It was a subject they had explored in an episode of "South Park" - an animated adult show on Comedy Central that follows four elementary school kids and is known for crude language and satirical humor - and Mormonism held a special fascination for them.

Mormonism originated with Joseph Smith in upstate New York in the early 1800s. This not-so-distant past was attractive to the writers, Lopez told CNN, because they thought it added to the far-fetchedness of the religion's claims that God had anointed Smith as an American prophet.

“A prophet who lived thousands and thousands of years ago in the Middle East is veiled in antiquity,” said Lopez. “But a prophet finding God’s word on golden plates just a few hours drive from New York City is ripe for satire.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a brief statement about the musical. “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening," it said, "but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

Portrayals of Mormons or the LDS Church are abundant in pop culture today - from the HBO series "Big Love" to "South Park" - but the church usually stays out of these discussions.

The church has said objecting to such portrayals would only bring them more attention. But the strategy may also contribute to an aura of mystery around the religion.

Richard Bushman, a leading Mormon scholar, says the Mormon faith is an easy target for the entertainment industry.

“Mormonism does seem exotic," he said. "It’s exotic in its temple ceremonies, which are quite out of the ordinary, and it has its stories of angels and gold plates.

“That’s just part of being Mormon, that people will see these things as strange," said Bushman, who is Mormon. "The secrecy of the temple is critical to the temple. Mormons are trying to create a sacred space.”

"The Book of Mormon" follows two young Mormon men, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, as they set off to complete their required two years as missionaries for the church. One of them has dreams of being dispatched to Orlando, Florida, but they are instead sent to Uganda. Reality there is worlds away from Disney World.

But the setting sometime seems just as fantastical. The small village where the two missionaries are based is terrorized by an obscenely named warlord who directs female genital mutilation and murder.

The musical weaves back and forth from reality to fantasy, as the two protagonists encounter AIDS, rape, war and dysentery as well as musical numbers with Darth Vader, Yoda, Hitler, Genghis Khan, Frodo Baggins of "Lord of the Rings" and human-sized cups of coffee (which Mormons are not supposed to drink).

The sometimes incomprehensible nature of reality forces the young Mormons to question their faith and their purpose in life.

Elder Price begins the musical with a song about how his life has been leading up to this moment and about his desire to do something “incredible.” But the reality of the world around him defeats his optimism. Price succumbs to his doubts about faith and God after having the Book of Mormon stuck in a very uncomfortable part of his anatomy.

His companion, Elder Cunningham, begins to bring converts to the church as he elaborates on the original story of Joseph Smith with allusions to favorite science fiction stories.

Where Elder Price’s blind faith in God seems to have failed him, Elder Cunningham’s embellished stories begin to resonate with the villagers as he relates the Book of Mormon to medical issues and problems in their daily lives. But his fabrications inevitably get him in trouble.

Lopez, who was raised as a Catholic, says the focus on Mormonism was more a vehicle to talk about religion than a desire to ridicule one particular faith tradition.

“When you strip away the need to have scripture make literal sense and stop worrying about whether God exists somewhere, the miracle is that true religion reveals itself," he said. "It’s made up of these wacky stories, but it has a purpose and faith that there is really something good.”

“What’s powerful is not a magical mythical corporeal thing called God," he said. "It’s the power of these ideas, and the power of the trust, and the power of the musical. That’s where the true miracle is. And the result of the miracle is that people are good to each other.”

Graceann Bennett, a strategic planning director in the advertising industry who grew up Mormon, said she was pleasantly surprised by the musical, which she caught in preview.

What resonated with Bennett was how the musical focused on the core beliefs of Mormonism and not the fringe elements that often get more attention, like polygamy.

“They were making fun of things that were true, not things that weren’t true. It was done in a loving way,” she said.

But Bennett is sure that the musical will offend more religious Mormons.

“I think it’s just about how much blasphemous and irreverence you can handle,” she said.

Bennett also said the musical’s message reaches far beyond Mormonism, speaking to those who see religion as “giving people purpose in life, helping them be a better person.”

That pretty well sums up the play's ending, during which Elder Price realizes that the “incredible” he has been striving for can be found in the happiness and faith of the villagers around him - even if their understanding of the Book of Mormon has more to do with the Death Star than with upstate New York.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Culture & Science • Mormonism

soundoff (720 Responses)
  1. asdf

    Hmm how long until all the LDS church shills get on here and astroturf their way to heaven? Still a musical about a cult really? Is Tom Cruise and the even wackier Scientology next?

    March 24, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • John Doe

      Mormons atroturf their way to heaven? I learn something new everyday.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  2. Haverchuck

    1. Matt, not Mark (as others have pointed out)
    2. I'm pretty sure it should read "Lopez told them ", not "Parker told them"
    3. Excellent comment, Rob!

    March 24, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
  3. T3chsupport

    It's MATT Stone, not Mark Stone.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  4. JustPlainJoe

    Is the "Koran on Ice" far behind?

    March 24, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  5. Truth

    Wow. I cant begin to comprehend exactly how sad your life would have to be to think of this....put this on...participate in...or watch this.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Jim Bob IV

      Its called a Job... maybe you have heard of them. This is what Stone and Parker do... make comedies.... and the actors participating are happy to quit their jobs as servers..

      March 24, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  6. Tropicgal2

    What if the play made fun of the Jews? Would that be as funny? or would the Jewish community cause an uproar and file a lawsuit?

    March 24, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • The Wise One

      So I take it you have never seen a Mel Brooks movie?

      March 24, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • ScottK

      There is a Jewish Comedy section on several movie database sites. Have you ever seen "The Hebrew Hammer"?

      March 24, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  7. Me

    It's Matt Stone and Trey Parker, I beleive, that this writer is talking about. Not Mark Stone. 'When they asked him what he wanted to work on next, Parker told them he was interested in doing a musical about Mormonism.'– I think this is actually a reference to Mr. Lopez, not Trey Parker. Interesting article, I'm sure the play is as funny as this article's author is sloppy.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  8. Nick

    At least Mormons are not as crazy as the Scientologists.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  9. ScottK

    "When they asked him what he wanted to work on next, Parker told them he was interested in doing a musical about Mormonism. Stone and Parker were hooked."

    So many errors in this article...

    March 24, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  10. johnpaul

    finally the truth about the mormons

    March 24, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Truth

      HAHAHAHAH....your an idiot

      March 24, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • flutiefan

      "Truth", aka Pot, meet Kettle. learn to spell "you're" before calling someone else an idiot.
      you just made my day with that mistake!

      March 24, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  11. ScottK

    "Mark Stone and Trey Parker" ?

    Derka Derka CNN

    You would think they could at least get his name right after so many projects he's worked on...

    March 24, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  12. corbin

    its actualy matt stone, nice homework.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  13. Vultron

    Nice journalism cnn. It's Matt Stone not Mark Stone get your facts straight before you publish an article.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
  14. Rob

    Sounds like those two have done it again! Best of luck to Matt, Trey and Robert. If it's half as funny as "Bigger, Longer and Uncut", it'll be a SMASH!!

    March 24, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
  15. Corbijn

    I would love to see this get a run in my hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah. I'm not Mormon but it would be a hoot to see what would happen it they did a run of it here. As far as seeing it, it would be nice but living in Utah I see this crap every single day in real life. I was raised Mormon and yes, it really is this freaky.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • jordan

      Freaky? I was born and raised in the church, served a mission, and attend the temple regularly. I have yet to see anything freaky or bizarre or extreme or weird. But then again, living a moral and productive lifestyle where family, education, hard work, and spirituality are the priority, is probably perceived as "freaky".

      March 24, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • Jeffrey Root

      Jordan. I was a Mormon, served a mission, got married in the temple and then ditched the church because I finally garnered up the courage to question the beliefs. This mostly had to do with the way the church interfered with peoples free agency through political pressure with its members. I'm happy to say that my wife had been wanting to leave long before she met me, she was just afraid to because the church does not encourage you to ask questions that may give you doubt. You know, like Blacks and the Priesthood, why Joseph Smith sent men off on their missions and then married their wives while they were gone.

      March 24, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • saved by the blood

      I wonder why not more of these nice Mormon people do more research about what they believe in ,instead of blindly following the teachings of a corrupted man .Mormonism is climbing a ladder to 33 degree masonry which is devil worship ,and when they die they go to some weird planet to produce spiritual baby's.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  16. Faber McMullen

    How very disrespectful! I think it is distasteful to make any religion a subject of parody.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • Rob

      But Faber, religion is just a parody of objective reality. And way funnier!

      March 24, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Andrew

      Yeah I guess it would kind of be like making fun of the mentally-challenged...

      March 24, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • The Wise One

      Guess you're not a Mel Brooks fan?

      March 24, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Drew

      But Rob, objective reality is just a satire of subjective reality!

      March 24, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  17. Jeff

    One broadway play I would love to see.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  18. Reality

    Bring it on!! Joe Smith and his horn-blowing angel Moroni "satired"!! Priceless!!! Hopefully, the music is great for the story-line is pure SNL!!!

    March 24, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  19. Zombie Jesus

    lol yes

    March 24, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  20. tl;dr

    waste of space again

    March 24, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • truth2power

      Yes, like most other religions the Mormon church is a waste of space!!

      March 24, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.