'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. Name*Orrin Clark

    Calling Mormonism a religion is like calling a dog a fish. Mormons send chills up my spine. My brother was an easy target for them. My brother had no faith at all, now he's a cult member. God help him, please!
    Oh, about the musical? Is it a hidden attempt to convert other souls into their lair? Hell, they own half of the land in the United States already. What more do they want?

    March 25, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  2. Coach Bobby Finstock

    I've met one, fun-to-be-around-mormon, in my life. Mainly because he ripped on Joseph Smith like it was his job

    March 25, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  3. mst

    So when are we going to get to see "Muhammed: The Musical?"

    March 25, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  4. Kyle

    Saw a pre-opening show Monday with my wife, and laughed so hard we cried! The creators of this show are equal-opportunity satirists, and somehow manage to find humor in the most unlikely ideas (female genital mutilation beliefs, etc.) Don't judge the show before you see it. The message is what matters. And the songs were very well done!

    March 25, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  5. Steve

    I am ashamed of Broadway. I thought they had some class. Cracking on the beliefs of others and making money on it is bad form.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Zombie Jesus

      A person talks to an invisible person he is insane/delusional. A person claims to talk to angels and gods is religious. Both are entertaining to watch. lol

      March 25, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  6. Rster

    I knew this thread would be fun listening to all the bible / book thumpers go at each other on whose version of the fantasy was right and how god was on their side.

    Get your popcorn and watch the loonies go at it!

    March 25, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  7. greg parrott

    Brilliance in the way art tells this story.

    March 25, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  8. Mr Sensitive

    More like "Book of Moron".

    March 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  9. AOT

    II want to know is if they use magnets in this musical and do they know how it works?

    March 25, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  10. USA

    Wonder how people would react to a vulgar, offensive, satire about the Muslim religion. Oh wouldn't there be of lot of objections to that! People screaming freedom of religion for the Muslim community, but not so with a Christian faith. Oh what hypocrites!!!

    March 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • HA!

      Someone would have to be out of their damned minds to make a satire against the muslims. As we all know, the guy who made the bomb-in-the-burqa comic was killed for it. Matt Stone and Trey Parker have been threatened by Muslims for their somewhat recent south park where they threatened to unveil the face of muhammed.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  11. T50T

    They also did a film called Orgasmo about a mormon who accidentally falls into the adult film making industry. It was pretty funny.

    March 25, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  12. cr

    Oh Yikes! The Cult has hit Broadway! What a bunch of misguided, mush-minded morons! (Opps mean Mormans) The best part of this will undoubtedly be on Tosh.0, and I can't wait for South Park to honor it!

    March 25, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • T50T

      Wait. You did make the connection that "The Book of Mormon" was made by the South Park creators, right? 'Cause it sounds as if you missed that part.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  13. Adam

    To anyone confused by this play or the readers comments about the Mormon church – I urge you to PLEASE research further form the actual church to find out what its all about. – http://www.lds.org.
    There ARE some confusing topics surrounding the LDS faith which critics paint in a very negative way. If you get your information from the critics it's unlikely you will find a correct understanding about what Mormons are about.

    I have been a member of the church for 15 years and have dedicated myself to the study and understanding of its mission and teachings. The teachings, beliefs, and purposes of the church, from what I have found, are effective in bringing meaning and purpose to my life and filling it with true happiness. Though some deeper teachings are harder to understand I have found nothing fraudulent or deceiving. I strongly believe those who have found such things and therefor criticize have done so because of their own misunderstanding.

    March 25, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • T50T

      According to you, it's not possible to both understand AND criticize at the same time. While it may be true sometimes that people criticize without understanding, I find that the South Park writers always to their research. Even one of the mormons interviewed stated that they were criticizing true beliefs and not focusing on made up or exagerated things that are the norm in criticizing LDS.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Nonimus

      It doesn't take too much research to find that most of the Joseph Smith story is based on what Mormons actually believe, that he was directed to gold tablets buried in upstate NY millenia ago and he used special stones and/or glasses to translate them into English and then re-buried them.
      Personally, I find it too much like a children's story, by a bad author, to be believable.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • mst

      The thing that bothers me most about Mormons is that for centuries they taught that black people of African descent were cursed. I know that they don't teach this anymore, but they also are opposed to interracial marriage. I don't want to get into a discussion about the latter, and I also heard that they gave gay Mormons a hard time. Correct me if I'm wrong, but they don't seem to be a very tolerant group of people.

      March 25, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Adam

      Just a reply to the thoughts other people shared on my comment –
      @T50T Maybe I was unclear – you can criticize and understand – but you will be much less likely to do so. Especially in this case. The writers of this show do understand a lot about the church, and in their case you have to realize their purpose is to offend and shouldn't be taken seriously. – I just don't want people to get the wrong idea about the reality of the church's purpose from it.

      As for the other comments – they just back up my point that they can get bits and pieces of the story and without a full understanding it seems illogical. I find it easier to believe the more I know.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Adam

      *without a better understanding it can seem illogical (a little clarification)

      March 25, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • knn

      I love seeing people mock Joseph's use of the Urim & thummim and then find out that the Old Testament prophets used the same tool. Read your own Bible to find out about them.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  14. 13Stanley

    Don't worry everybody the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42.

    March 25, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  15. Shirley U Jest

    What what??? No Scientology? Maybe that's being saved for another play.

    March 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  16. john

    I had my friend write this while my head was in a hat! What about the missing pages?

    March 25, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  17. EricLr

    Every religion has wacko beliefs. Everyone who bad-mouths other religions needs to step back and look at some of the crazy crap their *own* religion teaches. Angels in caves, ancient jewish peasant being the "son" of God, seas parted, etc. And that's not even getting into some of the eastern religions, cults, and heresies–that's just the mainstream western stuff. It's all wacko to someone looking at it from the outside.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Ryan Cameron

      What about atheists, such as myself, I guess we're the only sane ones right?

      March 25, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  18. SoulController

    All I want to know is.... WHAT'S UP WITH THE MAGIC UNDERWEAR?

    March 25, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Dave

      Absolutely none of your business if you're not a temple recommend holding member.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Another Lost Soul

      Thanks Dave. Just what I needed to make my decision.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      Actually, a "temple recommend' Mormon told me all about the "magic underwear", so I don't think anyone should answer you and act so high and mighty! Let me tell you, it's pretty hilarious once you learn what the garments are all about. They protect you from bullets, but it's okay to go on a cruise and wear bathing suits and strapless dresses? Talk about hypocrisy! ! They only need to be protected and modest when at home, not working out or swimming!!

      March 25, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • knn

      It's not magic; it's symbolic. It is not bullet proof or any of that garbage. Many religions have some aspect of religious clothing: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindu, etc. Don't act so surprised.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  19. Norm

    Guys & Gals,
    It's a Broadway show, not an edict from on high... take it all with a grain of salt and a wink... if you're offended by it, don't go see it (I'm more offended by the PRICE OF SHOWS on the great white way – outrageous!); if you can laugh at yourself or others w/o making it hateful or racist, then go. And, if you think what is shown on stage is true, grow up! You want the truth about the 'Mormon Church', then read the Book of Mormon and ask members, or better yet, invite a reall set of Missionaries into your home!
    I'm a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and think it's no big deal – every religion has been made fun of by members and non-members alike. I seem to recall a statement from the Bible about "turning the other cheek"?

    March 25, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Dave

      Yeah, I won't be watching their crap. These two are not funny anymore. Their show has jumped the shark and have to use shock to get any rub in the industry anymore.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • T50T

      @ Dave Actually I find their stuff has gotten more intelligent and insightful with each season. Maybe you just don't get it.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Butters

      I agree with T50 – Their material has expanded beyond toilet humor to some very intellectually satirical stuff. Take their 3 part episode that explores the idea that if religion did not exist, there would be no wars. However, it turns out contrary, and sects of various science principles exist and fill the gap of religion that war with each other.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  20. Kathy

    It's Matt Stone, not Mark.

    March 25, 2011 at 11:42 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.