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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. Owen

    I have a few things to say here, clearly the mormon's who are on here haven't seen the play and clearly are not familiar with Matt and Trey. So maybe they shouldn't make assumptions about what message is put across. Secondly, I'd like to point out that morality and doing good deeds is not qualities that only believers possess. Atheist's can be moral and kind as any believer of any religion, and they usually are. (I only mention that as an example.) Mormon's do not have a monopoly on helping others, so I resent the comments above that suggest they do. There are good mormon's and bad one's, just like with any group of people, please do not act like you are holier then thou and therefor unworthy of light-hearted satire. Also, people don't mock mormon's because they help others, mormon's are mocked because their beliefs are based on stories that sound like children's fairy tales. (oh wait, that's all religions.)

    March 24, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  2. theoldadam

    Mormonism is so goofy in it's beliefs that I would be suprised if the average Mormon didn't

    March 24, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
  3. Faith

    I'm a Catholic. I'd still think this was genius if it was mocking my religion. The mormon religion has a lot of inconsistencies that really do leave them ripe for mockery. I'd like to see this. The episode on which this is based is one in which Kyle is unable to get over the nice new kid's religion and just accept him being kind, and it's actually an unexpectedly poignant message.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • knn

      I disagree. What you view as inconsistencies are your lack of willingness to understand or do your research. This comment board is full disinformation and flat out lies. I have heard every anti-mormon claim possible. They all fall apart when barely scrutinized. Conversely, the Book of Mormon has withstood scrutiny for almost 200 years.

      March 25, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  4. A Mormon

    @che: I am also a direct descendant of Joseph Smith and your comment makes no sense.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • saved by the blood

      Have you done your research my friend.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • Jesús Malverde

      I am also a direct descendant of Joseph Smith

      March 30, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  5. Nathan

    This article makes me happy

    March 24, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  6. che

    silly cult. just buy the Nikes and hop on a comet already. I say this being a direct descendant of the Joseph Smith.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
    • saved by the blood

      Che spread the word don't leave them in ignoance.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • Derek

      Is this lineage supposed to make you knowledgable or something? Or do you just use it to argue religion on cnn? lol

      March 25, 2011 at 12:08 am |
    • jkmrmn

      oh, i had so forgot about those silly people, bet they were surprised when they got to the other side

      March 30, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  7. Tropicgal2

    IT'S UNFORTUNATE THAT SO MANY AMERICANS TURN TOWARDS IGNORANCE. MORMONS WERE PERSECUTED BECAUSE NOT TOO MANY PEOPLE KNEW ANYTHING ABOUT WHAT JOSEPH SMITH WAS TEACHING. THAT STILL HOLDS TRUE TODAY. YES, "MORMONS" ARE CHRISTIANS. TO SAY THAT IT IS A CULT IS A LIE. SAD THAT SO MANY OUT THEIR ARE JUDGING THEIR NEIGHBORS WITHOUT KNOWING THE TRUTH. YOU ARE SO UNHAPPY BECAUSE THOSE WHO TAKE THEIR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS SERIOUSLY ARE AT PEACE WITH THEMSELVES AND ARE TRULY HAPPY.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
    • pazke

      I think your caps lock button is broken. Please stop shouting.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
    • saved by the blood

      Please please do your research don't be willingly ignorant and lose out in the end.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  8. A Mormon

    I am a Mormon and I am NOT offended if someone makes fun of my religion. People have their beliefs and I have mine. However, many of the comments below are just ridiculous. People need to relax. If you don't believe in the Mormon faith that is fine. If you don't believe in any faith that is fine. To each his own.

    If someone wants to make a musical about Mormons, go for it. The Book of Mormon musical looks funny. If I have a chance, I would like to see it.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
  9. Andrea M

    Sure, some LDS folk will get offended. Any time Trey and Matt are involved in something, somebody is bound to get offended. But Mormons, mostly being normal people are usually willing to laugh, even at themselves as long as outright lies are not being said about them and considering the track record, Trey and Matt will stick to the truth. My ex-LDS fiancee is dying to see this, as am I. I'm also sure that my future in-laws like most LDS folk could sit through it and get a few laughs. The show might even educate a few people in the audience without necessarily converting them and education is poison to fear while fear breeds hate therefore this musical could bring greater understanding of LDS culture to many people.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  10. Winston5

    "Mark" Stone?! What dork wrote this article?

    March 24, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  11. maryteresa

    Read "Under the Banner of Heaven" to understand the truth about the "secrecy" they so value.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • amanda

      eh – Krakaur did an okay job, but missed many points in his research and highlighted those that made the best story line. If you want a more accurate depiction of early Mormon history in Utah, your better off reading Juanita Brook's Mountain Meadow Massacre. Mrs. Brooks was a member of the church as well as a historian. Her research and publications got her blacklisted from the church's periodicals.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • Jason Baker

      Consider the time and place. Non mormons came to Utah with the same threats as before the mormons went to Salt Lake. These threats ended up in the death of hundreds of Mormons. So the mormons left Missouri and settled in Salt Lake. So, if your a mormon in Salt Lake with more threats coming from murderers would you protect your family with blood shed. I would. They did. Hence the massacre. Get your facts straight and the correct perspective.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
    • Hugo Stiglitz

      Right, Also if you want to know about the history of the Jewish people read any statements made by a man by the name of Adolf Hitler.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  12. TheRealJesus

    I'll wait for the touring company and see it when I'm on Kolob.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  13. db

    It's just sad. If I did this toward Muslims I'd be charged with hate crimes. If I did this toward Jews I'd be charged as being anti-Semitic. Fortunately, those who have truly prayed about it don't worry too much about Satan and his willing followers trying to mock the faith. It's true. That's all that matters. Not whether you agree, or disagree, or anything. It's true.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
    • JLS639

      Nonsense. You would not be brought up on charges. Who has been brought up on any charges in the United States for this sort of thing? I saw Robin Williams do a comedy routine making fun of Muslim doctrine in maybe early 2002. He has not been charged with anything, or even been called a bigot. Here is the difference:
      Muslim hater: "Islam is an evil cult of violence!"
      Reasonable person: "You hate Muslims and don't know what you are talking about."

      Later...
      Comedian makes a joke about a different religion, a la the movie Dogma or something similar
      Muslim hater: "If I said that about Muslims, people would call me a bigot/charge me with hate crimes/some other nonsense"

      The problem is that so many of the bigots are simply not bright enough to be able to tell the difference. Comedy about a doctrine that even the adherents don't believe is okay as long as it is actually funny. I saw the Joseph Smith episode of South Park. It was funny and it said people who made fun of others' religious doctrines were jerks.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • maryteresa

      Really?! people who don't agree with your faith are followers of Satan–can you even imagine how that sounds?! Why not call for a Mormon Jihad?! Really get a grip.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  14. James G

    Seriously folks....how can anyone take Mormonism seriously....Joesph Smith did not find magical golden plates with an alternate timeline of Mideast events. Modern Archeology has debunked this faith completely....why anyone stills follows it is beyond reason.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
    • JLS639

      And this makes it different from other Abrahamic religions how..? I suspect it is no different from any religion, of course, but I know much less about the non-Abrahamic one.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
    • biggins

      seems a bit biased

      March 24, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • Drew

      Religion is beyond "reason." Thats the point of it and that is its strength and usefulness

      March 24, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • Andrea M

      Beyond reason is generally something known as faith and I think you've answered your own question there.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • SAR

      The official response: Not-uh! It is so true. You're going to h e double hockey sticks!

      March 24, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • pazke

      Now, SAR, if you were really Mormon you would know that he's not going to h e double hockey sticks. Anyone who makes it to Earth has already passed the test that saves them from outer darkness.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  15. Brady

    Mormons are some of the nicest, most hard-working people around...I live by several Mormon families. People are scared of what they don't know, as evidenced by the comments on this discussion board.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      I'm not scared and I definitely know that Jesus was not Satan's brother.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • That is so true

      You're so right, Brady.
      They have to be doing something right. I've been close with several, and I just love how they turn out. My brother and I are both atheists, and we actually TRIED to convert we liked them so much. We just couldn't get around the God thing... oh well. Love Mormons...

      March 24, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • pazke

      Oh please. "Mormons are some of the nicest and hard-working people around". What you should have said is "Some of the nicest and hard-working people around are Mormon." Being Mormon doesn't make you nice or hard working. I know LOTS of them and some of them are deadbeats and some of them abuse their children/wives and some of them are elitist and judgemental. You can't judge a book by it's cover and you can't judge a person's character by their religion.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
    • Jason Baker

      Thanks, Brady! these people on here just hide behind screen names!

      March 24, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  16. AlisonNoelle

    It's Joseph Smith Joshua. As someone who was raised LDS but am no longer active I can't wait to see this.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
    • YetAnotherBob

      No, he is as much right as in anything he says. John Smith was a real historical character. Just ask Pocahontas.

      He probably knows as much about real Mormons as the play producers do. South Park is after all about offending everyone. Facts are irrelevant. This is just South Park on a stage.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
    • AlisonNoelle

      Actually I think I read somewhere that Matt Stone and/or Trey Parker were raised LDS.

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

    I have one thing to say. I am DEEPLY offended.

    March 24, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
  18. The Half Baked Lunatic

    Gotta admire any religion who's motto is "I don't care how many you bring, just Bring 'em Young!"

    March 24, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • saved by the blood

      Now now half baked be nice and loving ,no funny business just facts.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  19. Joshua

    I have just one word for you Mormon's. Magical invisible plates. LOL. John Smith was harry Houdini!

    March 24, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • Carrie

      Joshua, his name was JOSEPH Smith. Get your facts straight. Study out the religion for yourself. http://www.mormon.org

      March 24, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • SAR

      Either way its obviously an alias.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
    • moujyu

      sorry buddy, that's three words

      March 24, 2011 at 10:21 pm |
    • JohnL

      I love all the self-proclaimed experts on Mormons who cite Parker, Stone, and Krakauer as their sources.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Bob Sacamano

      LOL good one. I want to know where Joey's plates went. Especially the set for his second set. Moroni actually told me Joey was full of ____.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:31 pm |
    • Viking76

      JohnL

      I seems to me that Stone and Parker are more credible than your "John" Smith, sorry JOSEPH Smith. Sorry Carrie I get all of the cult leaders mixed up. I am going to consult the bottom of my hat for further advice.

      March 26, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  20. HumanShield

    Aww if only it was a movie!

    March 24, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
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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.