March 24th, 2011
05:22 PM ET
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.
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.