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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. Brandon

    Mark Stone? For goodness' sake, CNN... What business do you have assigning an article about this Broadway show to someone who doesn't even know who Trey Parker and Matt Stone are...?

    March 24, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  2. Thomas

    Well, here we go again. Money, Power, and Greed. When you run out of ideas, it's time to pick on religion. Ingnorance is bliss, I guess.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  3. Tam

    Invite the LDS missionaries in for coffee or drinks next time they're at the door! 🙂 The Mormon thinking definitely is scary.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • Aloha611

      People who don't drink beer are terrifying!

      March 24, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  4. Nyarlathotep

    Mark Twain once called the Book of Mormon (the one Joe Smith wrote) "chloroform in print." I see no reason to differ with America's greatest writer on this.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • Aloha611

      All religious texts are boring. They are not meant for excitement. Its like watching PBS and being surprised that its not as exciting as Transformers.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  5. John Poggendorf; Prescott, AZ

    This will be one of the funniest things ever to hit Broadway. Tim Tebow meets Alice in Wonderland.....on 'shrooms!

    Can't wait to see the Joseph Smith meets his wifeS part. That should take the entire second act!

    March 24, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  6. the mav

    The world can say anything about the church, but we can never deny it, it's true, solid and strong, and flourishing through-out the world. We're helping victims of tsunamis, earth quakes, and all natural disasters, and the world are mocking us for doing good to our neighbors and others. The Lord said "Love the neighbor as thyself"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint is one of the fastest growing church in the World ! Does that meant anything to the skeptics? The Book of Mormon is true, read it, it will help you find the truth!

    March 24, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • j263

      yes. agree 100%

      March 24, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
    • slmarkymark

      read it, served a mission, went to the lords university, still dont believe it. I tried but it just never made sense.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:33 am |
  7. BroadCasting

    Do they wear the "magic" underpants in the play?

    March 24, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
  8. ridiculous

    "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..."

    "Big Love" is not about Mormons/LDS Church it's about the FLDS (Mormon Fundamentalists ) Church... TWO SEPARATE beliefts MORMONS/LDS CHURCH do not practice POLYGAMY!!

    I think Cassie Spodak needs to do her homework as this and other things in this article are incorrect.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • slmarkymark

      But they DID practice polygamy and they technically still believe in it but they do not practice it (unless you count multiple temple marriages – the church does not annul or end a temple marriage before allowing a man to have another). Also, if there never was an LDS there never would have been an FLDS. So saying that they are unrelated is just silly.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:31 am |
    • j263

      slmarkymark-

      Still, the author says "Big Love" is a portryal of Mormons/LDS Chruch. And that is NOT a true statement. no matter what they DID do its not what they are DOING NOW. Thanks though!

      March 25, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  9. doug

    thank goodness for Mark Stone and Trey Parker to tell us morons what true religion is and what miracles really are. How else would we know where to get an accurate view of religion. Good grief. What a waste of time, money, energy, brain power, resources. At least the mormons are going around the world trying to help others rid themselves of greed, lust, addictions, and spend some time doing charitable works.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • SIxoh

      People who make fun of religions, any religions, are idiots themselves. They are at least equal to, if not less than, REAL God fearing good people (not to be confused with the nutjobs that are in ALL facets of society). These people try to consciously better themselves every DAY, and help people without expecting compensation. They (all God fearing people) have respect for others and understand their place in life and try to make it the best it can be. (Not to be confused with mega-churches whose pastors drive BMWs).
      Ask any of these dumbazz es on here if they help others or fight against addiction, etc, and you'll invariably will get "Oh yeah! every day", but they are lying. There's a difference between true, good people, and these losers who MAY go thru the motions....

      March 24, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
  10. Roman Darien

    This was bound to happen. It's really a shame that some have nothing better to do than to attempt to portray scenes they begin to know nothing about. However if those same people would open their minds and take the time and energy to really get to know the Mormons, they would find something totally different than what they'd expect.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • Q

      Why do you presume they don't know? Perhaps they just find the whole story to be the completely ridiculous mythology it is?

      March 24, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  11. tameralynn

    stone and parker – you are disgusting and have no idea what being a Mormon is or means.At least they try to do good in the world. Your so-called "art" is rubbish. I feel sorry for you.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
    • Q

      Waaah! Waaaah! Don't make fun of my silly mythology...

      March 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  12. mommers

    I would love to see them do a musical about Muslims. But they won't because they are cowards and Mormons are peaceful.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • SIxoh

      AMEN to that!!!

      March 24, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Q

      Both of you are clueless. Stone and Parker have received numerous death threats for their portrayals of Mohammed. They've also spent plenty of time making fun of Al Qaeda...

      March 24, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
  13. Skyy

    When the mind is confused, the answer will always be "no".

    March 24, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  14. Mike

    You mean MATT Stone and Trey Parker -_____-

    March 24, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  15. djspinal

    Isn't it "Matt Stone" ?

    March 24, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  16. Allen Russell

    Mormons are jokes unto themselves. Simple people....simple lies....simply outrageous claims.... I'll see this with my entire family! Get me season tickets!

    March 24, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • mommers

      All religions make outrageous claims

      March 24, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • Roman Darien

      Hopefully you'll get your tickets. How else will you feed your hate?

      March 24, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • j263

      you are pathetic.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
    • Another Larry

      Mormons are hardly simple people. Such a comment tells me you are a dishonest person and religious bigot.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  17. Jeff

    Real mature. Matt (not Mark!), Trey and Robert – there is a special place for little people like you when you mock and criticize good people who do wonderful things throughout the world. You and others ought to get a glimpse of the humanitarian work the LDS Church does through the world for the less fortunate – more than any other religious organization, more than the Red Cross and without the overhead. This is your respectful recognition? Get to know your subject matter before you belittle someone/something. "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." – Abraham Lincoln

    March 24, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Mike

      You should see the musical before you come down so harsh on it. From what I've heard, most of the Mormons who go to see it enjoy it.

      It's a celebration of religion; not a mocking.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • reading guy

      Abraham Lincoln dude, really?? You might want to check on that. A guy named Sam begs to differ.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  18. someguy

    Mormons are so dumb. The man who founded them is a fraud, and they're just plain fools. FOOLS!! They need to be stopped!

    March 24, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • Tbarn

      stopped from what?

      March 24, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • Sam

      Why would it be necessary to stop a fool? Fools are harmless!

      March 24, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • Jeff

      Catholics too? Methodist? All religions? Any except yours? What's the difference to you if someone "believes"?

      March 24, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • Roman Darien

      How do you know he's fraud? Do you know him? You don't know him

      March 24, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Another Larry

      Yes, stopped from what? Being decent people? Practicing their religion that doesn't hurt anyone?

      March 24, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • monet

      Ha you're the funniest one here what a lunatic!!!!!LOL The in mates are running the asylum!!!!

      March 26, 2011 at 7:37 am |
    • monet

      y the way my comment on Lunacy was directed to someguy!!1

      March 26, 2011 at 7:39 am |
  19. Tbarn

    Havn't quite figured out while people like to make fun of others beliefs? Reminds me of Junior High. Mormons are great people, maybe we should find out why. Aren't we all trying to be a better person?

    March 24, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • ozwest

      They are people like you will find in any other religion; they violate the Ten Commandments and forget the Golden Rule. But, at least they are trying to evolve, hopefully.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
    • Another Larry

      It lets them feel their beliefs are superior.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:52 am |
  20. Jesus

    READ the book of Mormon and ask yourself, would I ever vote for as follower of this lunacy for President? Then take a good long look at that sleaze called ROMNEY!

    March 24, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • Peter

      What has that got to do with the article???

      March 24, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • ObamaBlackJesus

      Ding ding ding, we have a winner!!

      March 24, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
    • David, CA

      Couldn't agree more. FUnny thing to note- almost EVERY gay guy that I know is and EX mormon. No wonder they're so obsessed with prop 8.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • Pilate

      Read any religious or philosophical writing with a purpose of finding flaw and you will find something you will disagree with, not understand or disbelieve. Read it with an open mind, seeking wisdom and you may just find enough in common to overlook the differences.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • Another Larry

      I feel the same way about the Bible and people like Huckabee and Palin.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:35 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.