'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. Lux

    Horses in the Book of Mormon.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • knn

      That old tire anti-mormon argument, again? Don't you people have any desire to learn truth and knowledge? A quick google search will provide a plethora of information on this subject. Here is a segment from Michael R. Ash:

      We must acknowledge that there are archaeological remains which suggest that the horse survived in Book of Mormon times. In 1957, for instance, at Mayapan (a site corresponding to Book of Mormon lands/times) horse remains were discovered at a depth considered to be pre-Columbian. Likewise, in southwest Yucatan, non-Mormon, Henry Chapman Mercer, found what may likely be pre-Columbian horse remains in three caves. Excavations in a cave in the Mayan lowlands in 1978 also turned up horse remains. (Sorenson, 1992, 99.)

      In conclusion, there is some evidence that true horses may have survived into Book of Mormon times. There is also precedence for the theory that the Nephites may have renamed a useful quadruped with the name “horse.” Given these evidences, the supposed anachronisms of the term “horse” in the Book of Mormon, cannot be used against the record in the accusation that it is merely fiction.

      End quote.

      Lastly, no lion's bones have been found in Israel despite various references to lions in ancient times. The Bible must be fiction then too under your argument.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  2. Eliza Clark

    Jesus didn't set out to start a new religion with himself as the head. He was begging people to dig down to the true principles that were at the core of their existing faith and entire cultural history. He was willing to die to show everyone how important that message of love and tolerance was. His message was about living a loving, kind, respectful life in the here and now creating "heaven on earth".

    Joseph Smith was a huckster looking to make a fast buck, a man with a pathological need to be at the center of attention. When he wanted to have an affair with his neighbor's daughter, he came up with the divine vision of polygamy. He continued to have "visions" whenever he wanted to do something unacceptable. The difference between him and Jesus was beyond profound. Joseph Smith was trying to start a religion with himself as the head, and much of what he did was completely self-serving.

    Mormonism, like many branches of modern Christianity, is not truly Christian because it is intolerant, discriminates against certain types of people (including women), and focuses on personal rewards (gaining entrance to heaven) rather than on living a loving, giving life right now.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  3. SoulController

    All I want to know is.....

    What's up with the magic underwear?

    March 25, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • knn

      It's not magic; it's symbolic. Just like the religious clothing of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc. Clothing as a religious symbol is very common though hard for a godless society to grasp.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  4. MeMeMeMimi

    "Mark Stone and Trey Parker"??????? Hey lady writing this article, it's MATT Stone.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  5. Flora

    I don't understand why Mormons call themselves Christians. Not that I really care what you believe, but I do want truth in advertising. I'm happy to grant that they are part of the middle-eastern monotheistic (and frequently mysoginistic) tradition along with Jewz and Chriztianz. But, like Muzlimz, they have a book given to their 'profit' by an angel that postdates and supercedes the new testament. If there's a confilict, they'll go by what their current profit interprets their book to say over the NT anytime. And, like muzlimz, they can interpret their book very politically. I think both sects would like to make the US into a theocracy, just morminz are more subtle about it. I'd never vote for one. he'd put what Salt Lake says to do over what's best for his consituents anytime. I have seen this at the local level.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Hugo Stiglitz

      Flora, I guess you must be Jesus Christ himslef to decide who is and who is not Christian. The Bible is a book of many books. Using your own logic, you do not believe in the Old Testament and you do not believe anything past John. You are wrong and someone as ignorant as you should not be voting in the first place.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • knn

      Here's a verse from the Book of Mormon:

      "And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins."

      Your confusion comes from your unwillingness to actually read the Book of Mormon. What are you so afraid of? Go check out a copy at your library and read it.

      Oh, and here is the first LDS Article of Faith:

      1We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  6. McG

    You people suck.. hey guess what? You're all arguing over a broadway musical!!!!! Which happens to be the best one put out there in years, I've seen it. No one wins in comment wars.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  7. J Fritzl

    I think if I were any kind of religious, I'd want to be mormon. Their religion is an American religion, but also based on Christ. So it's like, the best of two worlds! And that's to say nothing of the retirement package for the creme de la creme – Godhood. Sign me up man, I love playing Spore. IRL Spore would be a million times better!

    I've read the Book of Mormon, and I like it way better than the Bible. It's kind of like...if you stuck a Bible in a distillation column, and only collected the awesome distillate off the top and pumped the bottoms to sewage. That awesome distillate is the Book of Mormon.

    Seriously, even if you're not into religion, read it. There are tough sections to get through, but the overall story is worth it.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • JR

      Yup, it's great fiction.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  8. Bud

    It's the old "lipstick on a pig" scenario again.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  9. Ian

    Wise call by the Mormon church not protesting. That would have been the wrong move, especially given that this is not really that offensive at all. I'm not Mormon, but I can't see where they would get up in arms about this story. Maybe the profanity? But that doesn't have anything to do with the church.
    This is actually a pro-religion piece. Hope they release it as a special so that everybody can see it. I laughed.

    March 25, 2011 at 10:56 am |

    Religion is old, the play is new !
    Someone should comment about the play. I want to see it. Those guy make me laugh.
    Everyone has said everything there is to say about religion long ago so what is the point of rehashing the stuff?
    Just decide for yourself because you have to live your own life..then go see the play and have some fun.
    I swear, the folks in these comment sections must think they can change the way things are by anonymously commenting about anything.
    It would be a laugh if it were not such a shame to see so many expressing their points in vain.
    Go have some fun how every you spell it because you will all be dead before long and the fact is NO ONE KNOWS ANYTHING ABOUT AFTER THAT.

    March 25, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  11. Colorado

    Why is it politically incorrect to bash on catholics, or jews, or muslims, but it is fair game to target mormons. I find it ironic that people who would be irate at a production similar to this that focused on some other religion, are totally supportive of mormon bashing. Double standard? It seems that tolerance only applies to certain groups.

    March 25, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • JR

      Because Mormons aren't a religion, they are a cult.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • TK2

      "Life of Bryan"?

      June 17, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  12. LOLZ

    You've got to be kidding?

    Three Word, "Mountain Meadows massacre".

    March 25, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Dave

      Yes, it is true we made a mistake. Somewhat similar to the Crusades or mob attacks on Mormons in the 1800s. I guess we all need forgiveness.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  13. Garet Z

    I'm mormon and I would love to see the musical! I think if you're offended, then you don't have a sense of humor and you're insecure with your own beliefs. I can't wait to see it 🙂

    March 25, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Ian

      You'll enjoy it.

      March 25, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  14. Michael from Idaho

    The LDS temple ceremonies aren't exotic or unique – they're ripped off from the Freemasons.

    March 25, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • knn

      Joseph Smith had many enemies, many of whom were both masons and mormons. When they apostatized, none of them ever claimed Joseph copied the masonic rites. If their goal was to exploit Joseph as a fraud, wouldn't that have been a leading argument?

      March 25, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Dave

      I have found in personal Bible study that Mormon temple rites are strikingly similar to those in the Bible.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  15. Dave

    I love how ANYTHING that even mentions Latter-day Saints gets jumped on as a chance to bash Christians. Atheists bash all religions, other Christians bash Mormon Christians, Mormon Christians bash the people bashing them etc. It's like a hatefest. Hitler would be so proud! Obviously, the haters in the crowd don't know the Book of Mormon's take on the purpose of life:

    "For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God" – Alma 34: 32

    March 25, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Otherone

      If you actually pay more attention, it isn't just the Mormons that get bashed on. Take a look at any religion and try to say that there is a religion out there that doesn't get bashed on. And as an atheist, I don't like when people try to force religion on me. I don't go around taking s*** about other religions, and I know many others that don't as well. Why focus our time on something that we don't care about?

      March 25, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  16. Justin

    I have read the Book of Mormon many times and I have prayed about it and know it to be authentic. Using science or even logic to prove its veracity would remove it from the realm of faith. There has been some discussion on this board on how it can bring purpose to one's life. That it can is definitely true, as I can personally attest. But the Book of Mormon also explains God's purposes to His children: he provided his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ, as a ransom to make atonement for our sins. It shows the path we are to follow if we wish to return back to our Father in heaven: faith in Christ, repentance, baptism, reception of the gift of the Holy Ghost and enduring to the last day of our lives with love for our fellowman and for God. And it shows that God loves all of His children, regardless of where or when they lived. That is its message in a nutshell. If you have not read it and are wondering what it "really" contains, read it for yourself. People can make it the basis of their artwork, that is their choice. It is out in public on display for everyone to examine. I just felt obligated as one who has read it and know it to be true to make a statement.

    March 25, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • PTBarnum

      "I have read the Book of Mormon many times and I have prayed about it and know it to be authentic."


      March 25, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Sean p

      Which version of The Book of Mormon?
      It's been changed so many times!
      Previous versions claimed dark skinned people were evil (they changed that in the book not so long ago) and please explain the whole baptism of he dead!

      LDS claim the book of Mormon is an addition to he bible, but the LDS have changed the bible to suit their doctrine.

      March 25, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Kat

      The Book of Mormon doctrine tells us we need to work our way to heaven, it is not a free gift from Jesus as atonement for our sins. We need to work our way, and we are to have 8 children so the souls in heaven with God can work their way back to him. The Bible tells us we are given this gift of forgiveness for our sins (and ALL have sinned) if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. We are saved not by works, but by faith. (Martin Luther) Brownie points do not count, faith does count. And if you have the faith, you will want to follow Christ and his example as much as you humanly can. In the Mormon Temple, there is not one cross, one picture of Christ's sacrifice for us. Everything is happy, blissful, while clouds and green countrysides. Read the Book of Mormon Doctrine. That will tell you much, much more. The Mormons are good people, they do all the right things, but for the wrong reason.

      March 25, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • garza2526

      Kat....actually, Mormons believe that just about everyone is going to heaven so it IS a free gift from God. What may vary is your level of happiness there. So good works does matter ("faith without works is dead") and God does expect us to behave. On the other hand, most Christians say you have to "accept" Christ to get to heaven–otherwise, you're damned. Doesn't matter if you lived in a time or place that cut you off from that knowledge, you're out of luck. I'd say Mormons substantially embrace the free gift from God.

      March 25, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • okc

      Sean P ,

      "LDS have changed the Bilble to suit their doctrine"

      One question: How many different Bible translations are on record today? Thousands? Millions ?

      Don't Christians use any type of translation that seem suitable to the individual?

      Ever heard of Lost in Translation ?

      March 25, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Chris

      @Kat, maybe you can explain something to me about the Mormon faith. You state we have to work our way into Heaven, but the Bible doesn't seem to imply that at all. Can you elaborate?

      "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus," – Ephesians 2:4-6

      2 Timothy 1:9-10: "He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel."

      March 25, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Roy

      Resurrection is free for everyone, but salvation you have to work for.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
    • Chris

      Wait...I'm lost.

      If I have to further work for salvation, what good is the resurrection? Is the resurrection the reason I can work for my salvation? Like without Christ being resurrected, I could never achieve salvation, regardless of how hard I worked?

      I suppose, my difficulty in this is that my beliefs are that Christ's death and resurrection were the way to salvation. According to John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." I don't see where it says I now have to work for salvation.

      March 25, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  17. theoldadam

    Mormonism is just another ladder climbing, self-focused, navel gazing project, wherein you work your way to Heaven. it's just another religion.

    Unlike Christianity where Christ Jesus has done EVERYTHING needful...FOR US.

    March 25, 2011 at 9:01 am |
    • Andrew

      Yep, Jesus did everything for us. We don't have to do a thing.

      Too bad the Bible disagrees with you...

      March 25, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Dave

      Read the Book of Mormon and you will find that it discusses the importance of grace and works (which is consistent with the teachings in the Bible).

      March 25, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  18. Head Diva In Charge

    Mormons can't drink or swear right? I don't trust anyone who doesn't drink or swear. Unless you are a recovering addict, or a priest. Wait – I don't trust priests either........

    March 25, 2011 at 8:43 am |
  19. Religion is for the bored

    Religion is like having a penis: it's okay to have and to be proud of it, but don't go waving it around in public and certainly don't go shoving it down somebody else's throat. That being said, religion is aesthetic. It gives people something to cling to. I believe in being a good person and helping others be the same. There is a higher power up there, but IT didn't intend for us to battle over who knows IT's meanings more or better. You can't spell "believe" without "lie" and that's what religions do to try to capture you're faith. I don't need the Pope or some nut from 1830's upstate New York who believes in planets after life to tell me the importance of being good.

    March 25, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • Anne Chovies

      How can you know what "IT" intends for anyone without having received some kind of revelation from "IT", or whatever God is? And if you can get that kind of revelation why can't Joesph Smith have received the revelation he claims to have received? You and all those who would take swings at Smith on that basis just don't make any sense. The idea that ancient prophets can have revelation but not anyone in our time is crazy. Not that anyone might receive revelation (yeah, I can see everyone out there getting excited to jump all over that one) but that God, who is supposed to be unchanging, would give revelation to people in ancient times and not now. Its obvious that we need it now every bit as much, if not more.

      March 25, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • flutiefan

      @Anne: ugh, you clearly missed the entire point of the post.

      March 25, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  20. CW

    The book of mormon....1830...Joseph Smith....don't remember him being a prophet in the Bible...Oh...forgot the bible was wrote long before he was born. Oh...don't remember Joseph going to the cross to die for anyone's sins either....guess that one was a bit over and beyond what he was willing to do for his followers.

    March 25, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • TimmyBoy

      Whereas, your book was mostly written by goat herding nomads.....you are in no position to be criticizing Mormonism in any way.

      March 25, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Colin

      Timmy: Sure he is! Anyone is allowed to criticize anyone's sky daddy! They are all open to ridicule!

      March 25, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Andrew

      Mormons do not worship Joseph Smith. Mormons believe the literal head of the Church is Jesus Christ himself and worship him as the son of God. Joesph Smith never claimed to be a savior of mankind, and Joesph Smith never contradicted the Holy sacrifice Jesus Christ made on our behalf. In fact Joseph Smith emphasized the mission of Jesus Christ as the central beliefs of Mormons, the entire religion is built on Jesus Christ. If you are going to bash a religion, at least have enough knowledge of it to bash it accurately.

      March 25, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • RLP1509

      No he was just murdered by a mob in 1844 in Carthage, Illinois!

      March 25, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • okc

      Well, yes, that's b/c he wasn't Jesus – and in fact, Joseph Smith actually reveres Jesus as his only true Savior. Perhaps you meant to convey something else here ?

      March 25, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Ian

      Guys...that's not what this musical is about. Trust me, it's nothing like the Mormon episode of South Park. There really isn't a debate about the validity of Mormonism as a church and they don't reprieve the "Dumb,dumb,dumb,dumb,dumb" song.

      March 25, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • sam

      what the hell are you talking about, man there are some stupid people on here. From one non mormon to the other, shut the ?#$% up, you make all of us look like racist idiots. do a little research before sounding off.

      March 25, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Athena

      ohhh... I guess Moses wasn't a prophet either then. I mean he didn't die for anyone's sins.

      March 25, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Rock

      This play reminds me of the same devisive, polarizing effect that we see in politics. Pointedly casting austere mockery at a certain group of people. It serves only to cast a wedge in between those that it mocks and the rest of society.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:34 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.