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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. del

    One day they will meet the Lord to account for their stupidity. Another attack on the Lords church. The Lord and christians have always been under attack. The truth threatens unbelievers. Satan is working hard to destroy the truth, but will fail along with his followers as these disgusting writers, producers.

    March 25, 2011 at 7:26 am |
    • jamesMarshamelski

      Probably that is about as likely to happen as the book of Mormon is likely to be a historical record.
      I am sure it makes you feel better to think that god is going to punish them though, so carry on.

      March 25, 2011 at 7:44 am |
  2. mutigerlily

    Joseph Smith, sorry.

    March 25, 2011 at 6:33 am |
  3. mutigerlily

    Correct, john. A lawsuit, I believe, had John Smith "see the light" that blacks could be part of the church.

    March 25, 2011 at 6:31 am |
  4. john

    is it true that blacks were not aloud to be part of the church back in the day?

    March 25, 2011 at 4:50 am |
    • Justin

      Worse than that, blacks were cursed. Curse of Cain caused blackness according to B. Young (father of the LDS Church), and were not considered loved by god. To be fair this was true of other religious groups including many Christian sects. Proving yet again that religion has always been used as a way to divide.
      They've slowly change this position starting in 1951, but didn't become really non-racist until like 1978 when they figured black's money was as good as anyone else's.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Dave

      It is true that blacks did not receive the priesthood, just like many non-Levites did not have the priesthood in the Bible. However, blacks were never denied membership in the church. While there were racists in our church (just as there have been in many churches), Joseph Smith opposed slavery and advocated for their freedom. Interesting scripture in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 26:33): "He (God) inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female . . ."

      March 25, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  5. JohnL

    Alice, as a Mormon I understand that by some definitions we do not fit the "Christian" mold. But we do teach, and believe in, "1) the deity of Christ, 2) salvation by grace, and 3) the bodily resurrection of Christ."

    March 25, 2011 at 4:12 am |
  6. calirastaman

    I dont know about about all these religions man,i think the meaning of life is toking up,having a brewski and getting the most out of every day

    March 25, 2011 at 2:13 am |
    • Drew

      Thats Hedonism, its basically a religion

      March 25, 2011 at 2:53 am |
  7. FURM

    After one of their South Park rips on Mormons the two brought up what I thought was a great point. They said someone was laughing with them saying, "It's so crazy that Mormons believe that!" And their reply was, "Yeah, and it just shows how crazy all other religions are too." And the individual was shocked and couldn't understand what they meant. Their point is/was that the only difference between Joseph Smith and Moses, Noah, Paul, and all the other prophets from before is that what happened to them, happened a long time ago.

    Golden plates are ridiculous but a talking, burning bush is just fine?

    It's pure idiocy (and a lack of faith) to easily believe in a prophet of old, simply because it happened a long time ago and not believe in a modern prophet simply because it happened more recently.

    March 25, 2011 at 2:02 am |
    • jamesMarshamelski

      Ya but Furm, there is actually independent evidence for some of the events of the Old Testament.
      The events of the book of Mormon on the other hand.....

      March 25, 2011 at 7:41 am |
    • Justin

      That is a very fine point Furm. One that points out the inherent irrationality in all supernatural faiths. So lets agree to agree that be it burning bushes, golden plates, magic hair, or flying horses. Here's a quote that better illustrate what Furm and I mean.
      Faith is believing something you know ain't true. – Mark Twain

      March 25, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  8. Frederica

    Read the whole Bible, please.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:48 am |
  9. Rob

    How can Mormons say that they do not judge? Joseph Smith taught that all other religions are an abomination in the eyes of God. I have researched the Mormon Church very heavily. There have been close to 4000 edits made to the original copy written by Smith in 1830. Most of it is plagiarized from the Old Testament and a fictional work called “A View of Hebrews"., written ten years before the BOM.
    I could go on and on about prophecies that never transpired or the fact that the Church practices polygamy in their temples today. IT is a cult, plain and simple. If you disagree with what they say, they excommunicate you. Oh...and where is the archeological evidence of these ancient tribes? There are zero…Mormons do not know any of this because they never question. God gave us a brain. The list of holes in this religion is out of control. Why must the truth be hidden and not questioned? Facts are facts and can stand up to scrutiny. Peace.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:43 am |
    • Matt

      I think the funniest thing about all this hatred and misunderstanding towards my Church, yup, I'm a Mormon, is the fact that our missionaries tell people, seek (read), ask (pray) and you will know the truth! Such a simple fact that nobody can deny. I did the same thing for 2 years in West Africa. Amazing how those who really were sincere didn't need any physical evidence or anything just the Spirit which one has a hard time denying!! So instead of reading all these comments and people saying stuff that they "studied" ask God for yourself!! Something even a "Christian" can do right?!

      March 25, 2011 at 2:20 am |
    • slmarkymark

      Ummm.. read and pray and you will know the truth? a fact? nobody can deny? i deny it. thats the silliest thing ive ever heard.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:54 am |
    • Dave

      I have read the Bible, the Book of Mormon and other church and non-church literature repeatedly. I am confident in my beliefs (and I respect your right to disagree).

      March 25, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • JR

      "Reformed Egyptian" tells you all you need to know. It's a giant cash scam.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  10. Chickens!

    Aren't the losers behind South Park the guys too chicken to take a run at Islam because they would need security for life but now take a run at all Christianity through Mormonism?
    Why is that not mentioned in the article?

    March 25, 2011 at 1:42 am |
    • Kenny

      Uh they have parodied Mohammed adn sceintology I love ignoirance it is so non flattering

      March 25, 2011 at 2:13 am |
  11. JD

    re: Jason Baker
    Methinks he protesteth too much....

    March 25, 2011 at 1:42 am |
  12. Steve

    Stone and Parker may be considered successful by some measures, but their lives and interests are disasterous. I think one has to consider their prior work (South Park, Orgazmo, and Jesus vs. Santa) and the fact that they are self-proclaimed atheists when watching this show. For Stone and Parker, this is a business venture that aims to profit from those who are looking to validate pre-existing opinions about Mormonism.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:37 am |
  13. FURM

    James, you may not realize it but you just advocated for the removal of freedom of religion. Your argument is for a religious state where religion is controlled by the government. ??? Really? You need to think things through before you speak.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:35 am |
    • jamesMarshamelski

      Furm, I am advocating government take a more active role in curbing some of the abuses of religion. Maybe you should read my post again and try thinking a bit yourself.

      March 25, 2011 at 7:38 am |
  14. Kelly

    Why do comment boards always bring out the dregs of society?

    March 25, 2011 at 1:14 am |
    • Phred

      Et Tu

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

      @ Kelli. That can work both ways you know? When people don't agree with your church....it makes them dregs of society?? Wow, is that what your book of mormon teaches you? I'm impressed.

      March 25, 2011 at 3:37 am |
  15. beatriz

    I find it very intresting that so many want to take pleasure in offending ones belive. I also find it sad that many who have climed to be LDS are willing to turn there back on a faith. That at some point they must have belived in. HERE IS the thing we should not.... make fun of others for CHOOSING TO BELIVE. What they want. Funny how the LDS church does not go around making fun of other religions. I personallly enjoy being around LDS people....

    March 25, 2011 at 1:12 am |
    • JR

      The hell they don't. They show up at your door to try and talk you out of your faith. They debate the faith you believe in and point out flaws. They are trained to do this at the MTC. You lying Mormons will say or do anything to get someone's money. Don't believe the cultists.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  16. Book of Mormon

    I went on a Mormon mission. It was a great experience. This much I can tell you... The Book of Mormon is a wonderful book and literally changed the lives of many people while I was in the state of Colorado.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:09 am |
  17. JJ

    Ah....mark stone? weird...i thought it was "Matt Stone". nice one...nice one.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:08 am |
  18. fsmgroupie

    It's the magical underwear that cracks me up. Where can I get a set?How much do they cost? Or do they only work for those who believe?

    March 25, 2011 at 1:07 am |
    • David

      If you go fishing with a mormon, make sure to invite two. If you only invite one, he'll drink all your beer and smoke all your cigarettes and try to get in your pants.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:18 am |
    • peter

      they are not magic underwear, they are garments that symbolize their commitment to obeying the comandments.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:07 am |
    • peter

      it's just symbolic is what I mean, that's all. Religions over millenium have worn cloths that symbolize their commitment to god

      March 25, 2011 at 2:09 am |
    • slmarkymark

      @peter "Church members who have been clothed with the garment in the temple have made a covenant to wear it throughout their lives. This has been interpreted to mean that it is worn as underclothing both day and night. The promise of protection and blessings is conditioned upon worthiness and faithfulness in keeping the covenant." – Personal Preparation for Temple Blessings, Ensign (CR), May 2001, p.32 Elder Russell M. Nelson, Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

      Wearing them provides a promise of blessing and protections. If i were the type to believe in this stuff I would call that magical.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:49 am |
    • Dave

      You might be surprised to know that the Bible discusses garments repeatedly. Try reading it sometime.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  19. MadDogDad

    What's refreshing iis to hear that this play is making fun of things that are true about the Mormons. As a Latter-day Saint I've heard so much silliness from well-meaning people. Most of these are people who have visited a website or read a pamphlet that promised that they would now know more about the LDS Church than most Mormons know. It's rare that I find someone who is teachable enough to ask questions. Mostly they just want to talk about how much they know.
    You will find what you are looking for in the scriptures. Joseph Smith said, "the Book of Mormon was the most correct book of any on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.: If that is what you seek, you wil find it. If you are looking for contradictions, errors, problems, etc. you will find those too.
    I hope that those who go to see this play will have their curiosity piqued and will want to know more. In case you're interested in South Park's previous efforts, here's a link. http://www.myspace.com/video/lord-of-chaos/mormons-the-correct-answer/2373188

    March 25, 2011 at 1:07 am |
  20. Book of Mormon

    I went on a Mormon mission. It was a great experience, This much I can tell you... that The Book of Mormon is a wonderful book. It changed the lives of many people while I was on my mission in the state of Colorado.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:05 am |
    • peter

      I'm not mormon, but I've read the book and found it facinating – at times spiritualy moving. I think that any "musical" or performance that involves mocking of religion in lude and offensive ways is not art worthy of attention

      March 25, 2011 at 2:05 am |
    • Harry Manback

      Ahh, I forgot to credit the source of the quote. It was Aristotle.

      March 25, 2011 at 3:14 am |
    • Alice

      Peddle your little book of lies elsewhere.

      Do not knock on Thine door, for Thee dost not believeth in ye BS.

      For more information, visit http://www.postmormon.org and http://www.mormonthink.com

      March 25, 2011 at 3:31 am |
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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.