'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. someguy

    Book of moron is something Joseph Smith made up to get people to follow him into a desert so he could have more wives. There are people who still do this type of cult creating today, and end up killing people or in jail.

    March 26, 2011 at 9:58 am |




      When the archaeological, geographical and epigraphic evidence is reviewed in detail, it is clear that the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have now been found. What is more, this evidence demonstrates that the Bible provides an accurate eyewitness account of events that occurred southeast of the Dead Sea over 4,000 years ago.

      March 26, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  2. emanym

    I am going to see this in June. Can't wait! As a former mormon of 26 years (I officially resigned) I am looking forward to their take on the oddities of this cult. And for those of you who say to go to the church website for the "truth" – that is just the mormon way of saying, "If you want to know about mormonism, ask a mormon." The truth is that most mormons do not know much about their religion or the founder, Joseph Smith. They are not supposed to read material which is not faith promoting. Mormonism has a happy, smiling facade – just don't look too deep.

    March 26, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  3. Throbert McGee

    Is it fair to say that "Mormons are Christians, but their rejection of Trinitarianism makes them 'heretics' from the point-of-view of maybe 95% of Christians since the Council of Nicea in the 4th century"?

    I mean, non-Mormon Christians need to acknowledge that Mormons sincerely accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, while Mormons need to acknowledge that a few key aspects of LDS theology are at odds with the majority consensus among all Christian denominations.

    March 26, 2011 at 6:00 am |
    • Ryan

      Mormon's readily agree that their doctrines are different than some of those of other Christian denominations. If they were the same, then why would there be a need for a different church? My history is a little hazy but didn't the protestant religions pop up because they were at odds with the dominant Christian church (Roman Catholic)? Check out Martin Luther sometime or the Anglican Church. Does that make them heretics or non-Christians? I'd guess that there are people who would have said so at one time or another. Any argument that if a Christian church (including Mormons) embraces a doctrine that varies from the status quo makes them a heretic then any church but the Catholic Church is a heretic. Because the Catholic Church was the status quo for a long long time. Josephs Smith prayed to know which of the many churches had the truth and he received an answer that they had parts of the truth but not all. Through Joseph Smith, Jesus Christ restored the true church. That is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' claim and it is something that I have studied and prayed about and feel is true. We invite everyone to hear their message and pray to know for themselves if it is true. If they do not agree, we can all still be friends and respect each others' beliefs.
      Also how do you know that the Council of Nicea got it right? If you are not a Catholic and believe that the Catholics got some points of doctrine wrong then how can you conclude that the Council of Nicea has no errors? The very fact that they had to hold the Council of Nicea indicates that the Christian leaders at that time did not agree on points of doctrine related to the natures of God and Jesus Christ. They came together to form a consensus but in such discussions often the more persuasive men not the truth wins.

      March 26, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  4. Joshua

    Two Words.

    Magical Plates.

    March 25, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • Tony

      Two words..
      freaking idiot

      March 25, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
  5. bobroad

    over shadowed by a lesser know play the book of morons

    March 25, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  6. ScienceFan83

    The Flying Spaghetti Monster came to me in a vision and told me you are all full of crap.

    March 25, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
  7. john316

    I'm still looking for the planet that the Mormons believe God lives on....... KOLOB...... I've tried to adjust my telescope ....but I think I need to narrow it down by galaxy.....It's not easy.....If God would just give me a signal , shoot a flare,... something.....

    March 25, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  8. PoodleSweat

    The picture above is not accurate. Everyone knows that there are no people of color allowed in the Mormon Church. It's not a written rule of course just more of a guideline.

    March 25, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • MC

      I acutually personally know dozens of people of color who are members of the Mormon church. Being white is in no way a qualifier or "guideline" to be Mormon.

      March 25, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Ryan

      Actually, there are more Mormon's outside the US than inside. In fact, the Church is growing fastest in places such as South America (Chile and Brazil) and Asia (Phillipines). You may not be aware of this as implied by your ignorant comment but those places are not white countries.

      March 26, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  9. PoodleSweat

    I hope they include the part where Brigham Young orders the slaughter of an innocent Arkansas wagon train. These types of historical facts are better represented through song and dance. Also, his deal to abolish polygamy just so Utah can join the Union.

    March 25, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  10. cb

    While reading this article, about halfway down i noticed that there was only the article that I was reading in the middle, and just beautiful, white space on the sides. No ads, no clutter whatsoever. An absolute gem in today's web.

    March 25, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  11. Paul

    I'm no fan of the Mormons, but I do think the creators of South Park singled them out because they won't issue death threats over this musical. Too bad you didn't have the b*lls to go after Muslims this way....

    March 25, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  12. smallaxe11

    As with many things in my life, I will reserve judgment after I actually watch the show. I loved Avenue Q and think South Park has some very interesting and pointed commentary about Americana.

    I've even read quotes from Mormons who have watched the show that they were actually pleasantly surprised at the depiction. A mean spirited tone would not play out well onstage or the box office. I can't wait to see it in person.

    March 25, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  13. Nurse Lisa

    to understand where Mormonism veers off from the bible – – http://www.godandscience.org/cults/mormcont.html

    March 25, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Rachel B

      Or, you can directly to the church's website and hear it first hand. http://www.lds.org. Just sayin'.

      March 25, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  14. Erik

    Thanks KNN, but again, you offered something that was the exact opposite of what I'd asked for – specifically recommended not wasting your or my time. I personally have no interest in the plates themselves, just trying to figure out where all those cities and foundries were. Simple question. Not sure why no one can answer it.

    March 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  15. Mark

    Are these two yahoos going to put out a musical mocking Islam?
    Didnt think so.. Useless bullies – anything for a buck!

    March 25, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • TCHM

      they may not be Broadway musicals but please reference the following South Park episodes: Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants, The Super Best Friends, Cartoon Wars I and II, 200 and 201. They have made fun of Muslims and received death threats. They were even censored by Comedy Central, apparently for their own safety.

      March 25, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Andy M

      Did you read the review or just skip to the comments and assume they are bullying Mormons?

      March 25, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  16. John

    Faith is what one feels in their soul....Religion is nothing more than a fabrication of the truth....that goes for all religions. I have faith in God and His Son, not an inadequate church. mormonism tries to force the fabrication upon their people through their book of mormon (I will not capitalize this rediculous religion)

    March 25, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • knn

      John, Faith is actually defined by the prophet Alma in the Book of Mormon:

      "And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true."

      The purpose of this life is to follow by faith those truths which are not verifiable by proof; by choosing God's law in absence of evidence or without immediate punishment, we prove our dedication to God.

      Organized religion...a church...is required for the proper use of authority (as long as it actually has the proper authority) in administering the ordinances required for salvation. Christ organized a church. It is now restored to the earth prior to His second coming.

      March 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
    • Andy M

      And you have proof a soul exists?

      March 25, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Tony

      Well said Knn...

      March 25, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
  17. etemom

    I was excommunicated from the mormon church a few years ago. I was angry and hurt and spewed my own line of anti-mormon garbage for which I am deeply ashamed. When I saw this article I was not so angry or surprised that the musical is being made as I was that BROADWAY was playing it. I believe the arts are meant to educate and provoke thought, not to encourage discrimination. I have met many misinformed people of the years who don't know what mormonism is about. It is misinformation that leads to fear, and fear that leads to hate. The world in which we live has enough hate, why are we promoting or encouraging more?

    March 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Dave

      We will welcome you back with open arms!

      March 25, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Ivonne

      Please come back!!!

      March 25, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Mike in NJ

      Perhaps you should find out what the play promotes before accusing it of promoting hatred?? Isn't that a little prejudiced? (FYI, prejudice is having judged something before having al the facts...) All the reviews I have seen have been effusive about the play's fairness. Look into it.

      March 25, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Andy M

      You seem to be condeming a musical you know nothing about. Many Mormans have seeen it and enjoyed it. Whay are you automatically assuming this puts Mormonism down?

      March 25, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • nyclady

      Please see the play before you review it. thank you.

      March 25, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  18. His Noodly Appendage

    avenue Q was a great show. want to see this one

    March 25, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  19. Snurfles

    I'm a former Mormon but I have no particular ill-will towards the church. Although I personally don't want to see the play because some of the humor is a little too gag-inducing for me, I think Matt and Trey are geniuses and I think this play will be very successful. I don't think they are being intentionally mean-spirited, especially after hearing them in a few interviews about the musical. I'll be curious to see how long it remains on Broadway.

    March 25, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  20. Tim

    It's easy to write a play that is about "how much blasphemous and irreverence you can handle" about mormons. They won't call you out and put a price on your head for such actions. You do that about Muhammad and/or Islam, and you'll be living your life in fear. You do a play like this about any other religion and you'd create a firestorm or controversy. So hey, by all means write all the blasphemous and irreverence you wish about Mormons. We won't hate you and will even forgive you. How much more Christlike can a religion be?

    March 25, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Joan

      You sound like you're getting angry over this.
      Be humble, buddy 🙂 Don't brag.

      March 25, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • joe

      I'm with Joan on this one. Stop tootin' your own horn.

      March 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Mike in NJ

      Relax, Tim, they already took on the religion you're referring to in several of their shows. I think their overarching point is that 'religion' is different than 'spirituality' and 'goodness', but many people wear religion as 'proof' of their goodness, when in fact the two are not really related.

      March 25, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • Erik

      Holier than thou, much?

      March 25, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • Bannister

      Great point Tim. Christians of all denominations are actually the most tolerant of abuse. By far, the easiest groups to offend are 1) Muslims and 2) Jews.

      If you insult Muslims, they will kill you. If you insult Jews, they will lecture you about diversity and tolerance – a fate almost WORSE than death!

      March 25, 2011 at 11:09 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.