'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. Signoftimes

    And I thought the tsunami and earthquakes were signs of the times; just if The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints would have warned of things just like this, oh wait.....

    March 24, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  2. Charles D. Bruce

    The Mormon faith is remarkable. Remarkable in that there is actually people truly stupid enough to believe it. Of course, that pretty much goes for all faiths. They're all based on myths and fairy tales. The greatest enemy of religion is education and science. The more educated and rational the general population becomes. The more they realize religion possesses no answers.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Signoftimes

      What Charles also said in a past life: "hey, any more room on your animal boat, this water is getting deep"

      March 24, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
    • Nate

      And you have what, a high school education. I have a doctorate in Physics and Medicine yet still believe in God. Many great individuals have a belief in God. If you have read any history, physics, biology, etc. you would know this though wouldn't you? Have you ever noticed that the people who talk about God the most are those who say they don't believe?

      March 24, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
    • Dave

      A recent survey revealed that Mormons are actually well-educated on their own religion and that of others. They value education and science (a core doctrine of Mormonism), and they see no conflict with religion. Science cannot explain the creation of matter (without making huge assumptions based on highly improbable scenarios), so guess we both will have to walk by faith. We may disagree on what that faith is, but it is faith (in the unknown) nonetheless.

      March 25, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  3. AP

    What a waste of musical talent. These guys have no limits and I find it repulsive that someone would waste their voice and talent to participate in this ridiculousness. The response from the Mormon church shows true christian principles (http://newsroom.lds.org/article/church-statement-regarding-the-book-of-mormon-broadway-musical), especially when someone degrades everything that is holy to you. America, if you want to see exactly why our society is going down the pits, look no further than this musical.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Roman Darien

      Thank you, AP. I see that you know them

      March 24, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  4. Steve

    Anything that satirizes religion and exposes the wacky bits is a great thing as far as I'm concerned. If belief in a higher power helps some folks get through their day then fine...good for them. Just keep those goofy ideas where they belong... in houses of worship and within your own head. On a par with astrology, psychics, anti-vaxxers, global warming deniers and conspiracy theorists they have no business determining or affecting politics, education, medicine or science.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  5. Pan3

    Mormon nice people?! Just as Califorina gay pepole how nice they are.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • JohnD

      Please also ask the California Mormons how nice the LBGT groups have been to them.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
  6. AaronT

    Religion is a polarizing subject. Certainly a parody involving religion will get a lot of press and interest. Don't know the last time I saw a Broadway show opening get this much free promotion.

    Reverence, communion with God, and spiritual clarity don't seem to be the purpose of this show, however, much of our media consuming society will tend to confuse entertainment with truth.

    Certainly there is nothing wrong with entertainment. As a Mormon I'm not interested in seeing the show, but I'm not offended by the idea of the show either. People have different opinions and experiences.

    I don't feel that the article or the show are an accurate representation of Mormonism. If some one wants to know about Mormonism then they will get a much better idea of it if they just ask a Mormon about their beliefs.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Gina

      As a fellow Mormon, I would have to say that unfortunately most mormons do not know the history of their own church and only believe what they've been taught in Sunday School. When you begin to objectively research the history of Mormonism you might be surprised at how many unsavory historical facts you come across.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • Giz

      I am also LDS and I agree with both of you. A church such as ours would not survive if the people who believed in it did not develop thick skin to the criticism of those not of our faith. It is also important that we do this based on the truth and knowledge of our history. I have found in most of the discussions I have had with others not of our faith that their understanding is extremely limited and based on half truths. If we want people to know what we believe we have to be prepared, obviously they are not going to get it from Broadway, HBO, etc.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
  7. rxbb74

    Hmmmm we always seem to be willing to create good times in our own life at the expense of someone else. Many religious individuals including Mormons are trying to make the world a better place. I suppose it is okay to make fun of them, or religion in general that's just what we do right, take water out of someone else's bucket to fill our own. . . we could really use more respect, compassion, positiveness etc etc in this world.

    March 24, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  8. sassy

    If someone dared to do this musical about Muslims it would be racist and protested...I think it is pathetic

    March 24, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  9. Holy Crap!

    I NEED TO SEE THIS!!!!!!!!

    March 24, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  10. The LORD

    I'll be there opening night!!!
    Oh wiat, perhaps I won't:)

    March 24, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  11. McMcMcMa

    "Matt Stone", not "Mark Stone".

    March 24, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  12. BR

    Fictional beliefs are always ripe for satire...Life of Bryan anyone?

    March 24, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  13. MyName

    Mormons are nice guys, they just have been deceived.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Jesus

      The Book of Mormon is a real exercise in fantasy. If you're black and really really good, you get to turn white and go to Heben OR if you're a native American, your homeland is Israel OR (I could go on indefinitely).

      March 24, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • Roman Darien

      Deceived? How? You don't know them

      March 24, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  14. Nate

    I feel somewhat sorry for Stone and Parker. Ironically, they're now using their Mormon upbringing and faith as a means to bring in money. When you embarrass yourselves, shame the faith and are kicked out the church, I guess this is what you turn to out of shame and spite. There's a special place for people like Stone and Parker on the other side that is very VERY warm. I'm fairly certain this shameful Broadway spectacle will fall flat, just like their struggling careers. Their "work" is popular only to those who support the mocking of religious groups, minorities and is essentially un-American as far as tolerance and respect goes – Both of which I have none of for those two goons.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Derek

      Really don't know what fading career you're talking about, South Park is both first run and syndication, I'm pretty sure as the creators/writers/voice actors they are doing ok.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
    • BR

      The 2000 year old threat...he||. Why should anyone take your beliefs or any religion's beliefs seriously?

      March 24, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • str8 against h8

      I feel sorry for you...for lacking sense of humor.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  15. rob

    its Matt Stone, not Mark Stone.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  16. jj

    Just a minor correction in the reporting.....those two year missions are not required in the LDS church. They are voluntary and self paid by those who choose to go.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Ned Flanders

      They're "voluntary" in theory only. If you don't wan to be ostracized you go. There's nothing voluntary about it at all if you're an active, participating Mormon. Tell your parents you're not going on a mission is akin to admitting you're gay in the LDS church. Voluntary indeed.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Jesus

      It's akin to purchasing that magic Mormon underwear. If you don't do it, you get shunned.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
    • Giz

      Ned- LDS missions are completly voluntary. You mentioned that if a LDS man refused to go he would be ostersized, that is not the case. Just like good parents "push" their children to get good grades and go to college LDS parents teach their children that there is HONOR is serving. If a person doesn't go (and MANY choose not to) they are not ostersized at all. It is a choice that belongs to the individual.

      March 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • am

      I'm Mormon, I didnt serve a mission (by my own choice) and I'm still in "good standing" with the church. It is not mandatory, I haven't felt like I have been "ostracized." BTW I do participate very much in the church, including my wife and I got married in the temple.
      Its crazy to see so many ignorant posts about the religion by people claiming they know about it, when they really dont know much about it at all. It does make sense though, people are usually scared of what they dont understand.
      A couple of people have already posted this site, but it really does explain a lot of the things people have misunderstandings about. You can even ask questions, and get answers if something doesnt look right. the sight is http://www.mormon.org

      March 24, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
    • slmarkymark

      "voluntary" is definitely up for debate. per the priesthood handbook "Church leaders should encourage all worthy, able, single men ages 19 through 25 to serve full-time missions. Full-time missionary service is a priesthood responsibility of these young men. They are called to serve for 24 months." so if shirking your "responsibility" is acceptable sure it is voluntary however growing up lds we are taught never to shirk our responsibilities. I think there was even a primary song about that...

      March 25, 2011 at 1:43 am |
  17. T3chsupport

    Oh, and way to pretty much give up the ending.
    Also, look up Orgazmo. They made fun of Mormons a lot in that one.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  18. sam

    It wont last a week. Stupid idea. If I were a mormon, I would hate to see this, and not being one, I would hate to see this. Truly, some of the best people I have ever known have been LDS, great people with huge hearts. It has been my experience that the only people that have had issues with them are ex-mormons that had either done something against their belief and were ashamed, or were just plain ignorant. At any rate, dont waste your time on crap like this, go see wicked or phantom or one of the other pieces of amazing work on Broadway.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • BR

      "mormons" can be fine as individuals or even groups just like most other religions. It says nothing about the supernatural claims they ascert are the core of their life. Expect ridicule for ridiculous beliefs. Demand extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • ScottK

      You sir, are wrong. I would bet everything I own that it will last much longer than a week.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Matt24

      Thank you sam for strengthening my faith in the virtue of people. We are all God's children regardless how we worship Him. Thank you for recognizing that.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
    • Roman Darien

      Thank you, Sam. I see you do know Him

      March 24, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • Drew

      It doesn't sound to me like the message of the musical is ultimately hostile to Mormonism. The great strength of Matt and Trey's comedy is that they can poke fun at something but at the end of the day seem to come to an appreciation of it

      March 24, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
  19. dadguy

    how brave of them.

    Jokes about Mormons, blaspheme against Christians, vilify the Jews and yet a simple cartoon depicting Muhammad and people get killed. I suppose one should tell the jokes they can get away with. Until of course, there's no escape and it's not possible to laugh.

    March 24, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • asdf

      If you cant laugh at people dumb enough to believe in an invisible sky fairy who can you laugh at?

      March 24, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • mormonsarefunnay

      especially when this one was invented in the 1800s by a guy who at that time was a L Ron Hubbard equivalent.

      March 24, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  20. Me

    This had better be a great mocking of the mormon religion. Otherwise it'll be a waste. Given that it's being done by the South park people it ought to be pretty great!

    March 24, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
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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.