Sunday, May 1, 2011

Mormons and Musicals

There is a new musical on Broadway called The Book of Mormon, and it can best be described as the perfect show for agnostics who love songs written by Oscar and Hammerstein and jokes told by seventh-grade boys. My partner and I caught a performance a couple of weeks ago, and we thought it was entertaining. I'm an occasional watcher of Comedy Central's long-running cartoon series South Park, which a few years ago offered a very funny treatment of the Joseph Smith story (recounted when a disturbingly perfect Mormon family moves in to the town of South Park). Because the South Park creators wrote and directed The Book of Mormon, I had high hopes for the show's hilarity.

It was outrageously funny in places, mostly in the first act. The "Turn It Off" number, with some terrific tap dancing done in the dark, was about the need for Mormon elders to bury their doubts and earthly desires for their two-year stint as missionaries – and for one elder in particular to bury his homosexuality. For obvious reasons it was a particular favorite of mine. So was "I Believe," a song sung by a doubting elder who regains his faith and lists the more interesting aspects of Mormon theology that he dutifully believes in. "I Believe" in two places samples "I Have Confidence" from The Sound of Music, and there are references to other Oscar and Hammerstein shows in the numbers (the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" bit from The King and I is alluded to in a part where the Ugandan Mormons retell the Joseph Smith story). The songs overall were terrific: catchy and fun and sung with a kind of gee-willikers earnestness that is laughable but endearing – and definitely Mormon.

Halfway through the second act, however, the total lack of constraint on obscenities and on taboos began to seem more like a liability than an asset to the show, and I realized that part of the reason the South Park episode about Mormonism was so fun was because television (including cable television) imposes some limitations. By the end of The Book of Mormon it became clear that even a musical about how misguided and potentially harmful religious constraints are can nonetheless benefit from artistic constraints.

Tickets for the show are expensive and hard to come by, but it's safe to say that this show's success is definitely not due to a high turnout by Mormons converging on the Great White Way. Like Jews, to whom they are often compared, Mormons enjoy musicals, humor, and attention (although, to be sure, Mormons' preferences in all three areas tend to be much simpler and more conservative than those of American Jewry). But this musical comedy about Mormons is not for Mormons. And, although Mormons wouldn't find them to be faith-promoting, the show's humorously deprecating references to the Joseph Smith story or to the stories within The Book of Mormon (the book) are not the real problem here. Instead, it is the show’s blasphemy and scatology that Mormons cannot abide.

But even if you cut those elements, Mormons would still have their own preferred theatrical treatment of the story of The Book of Mormon (the book) for New York audiences. Each summer in upstate New York, near the boyhood home of Joseph Smith, the church puts on the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Named by Joseph Smith, the Hill Cumorah is the place he said he dug up golden plates, from which he claimed he translated The Book of Mormon. According to Smith, a man named Moroni (pronounced more-OH-nye) was the final prophet and writer on the plates (and, incidentally, the son of Mormon, the chief compiler of the records and the prophet in whose honor the book is named). Mormons believe that Moroni buried these golden plates around 421 A.D., and that he then appeared to Smith as an angel and in 1827 guided Smith to the place where the plates were buried. It was, conveniently, close to Joseph's boyhood home and, as later Mormons would discover, a good place for an outdoor pageant.

Pageants are to Mormons what passion plays were to European Christians a century or two ago, and Utah Mormons don't have to go east for their pageantry. In Utah there is the Mormon Miracle Pageant, which also features parts of the story of The Book of Mormon in a pageant that is performed right on the temple grounds in the small town of Manti (pronounced Man-tie). When I was very young, the young adults group in our ward (that's the Mormon word for congregation) organized a trip to the Manti Pageant (as we called it), and my sisters, who were young adults, took me along for the ride. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that they were made to make me along for the ride. My parents were big on sending me along as a very young chaperone on my sisters' outings and even on their dates. This one was just an outing, but there were also going to be plenty of young men heading to the pageant, which was a full three hours away going at full freeway speeds (and Manti wasn't even at the other end of the state; Utah is a big place). I remember being pretty amazed by the spectacle of the pageant – especially by battle scenes and by a death scene where they showed the spirit leaving the body. The special effects may not have looked as good to my older sisters, who seemed more interested in the various young men who were seated on blankets near us.

Mormon pageants are huge, outdoor productions, but Latter-Day Saints are also fans of good old fashioned American musical theatre. Every family I knew growing up loved Oscar and Hammerstein shows, and men loved musicals as much as women did. When I was in music class in middle school, the music and band teacher told us about a trip he and his family had taken to Salzburg, Austria, years back and the sites they had seen from the movie version of The Sound of Music. All of us – boys and girls – sat spellbound by his descriptions of these places we knew so well from the yearly screening of that film on television. Oscar and Hammerstein shows were so much a part of our lives that, strange as it might seem, no one had much to say to me when I was a young boy and would belt out "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" from Oklahoma. The only person who ever seemed particularly nervous about it was my mom, but she heard my rendition on constant rotation for about six months. Hearing a boy sing it once was one (minor) thing; hearing your own boy sing it day and night with saucy actions to the words was no doubt something else entirely.

When the high school did a production of an Oscars and Hammerstein musical, it was, far and away, the biggest (and, really, only) show in town. The entire middle school was brought to see it. So was the elementary school. My oldest siblings were in South Pacific, and my older siblings did Oklahoma. I saw both of those shows not only during evening performances with my family, but also during the school day when we took a cultural field trip across the street to the high school. I myself had a major role in Caroursel when I was in high school, and everyone at school and at church talked about it for weeks. The entire community showed up for the productions, and some standout performances are still discussed years later. Just as a winning play that sent the high school football team to state competition entered the town's lore, so too could a winning Ado Annie (my dream role, but, alas, because it had been done just a few years before, we couldn't do Oklahoma when I was in high school, and, even if we had, gender-blind casting was not allowed).

Oscar and Hammerstein shows are safe, but they aren't homegrown. So, as you might expect, industrious and devout Mormons have written their own musicals that incorporate Mormon themes and characters. My Turn on Earth and Saturday's Warrior are the two most well known and most popular, and both draw heavily on the Plan of Salvation. The Plan of Salvation is the Mormon teaching about the progression of each of us from a spiritual pre-existence with God to an earthly existence where we gain bodies and are tested (our memories of the pre-existence are taken from us, so it's not as simple a test as it might otherwise be!) and then to an afterlife where we are judged and, eventually, resurrected. It may not sound like the stuff musical comedies are made from, but Mormons love these shows. One of my sisters was obsessed with Saturday's Warrior, and she (and, therefore, I) could sing any of the songs from it by heart. They're not all cheerfully upbeat numbers, either; like any successful show, this one has trials and tribulations and dark numbers. For instance, Jimmy, the wayward teenager in Saturday's Warrior, starts hanging out with the wrong crowd, and of course there's a musical number about this. You might suspect that the song is about drinking and drugs and sex – you know, all the things teenagers might be tempted by. But in fact this very wrong crowd sings about something even more dangerous to a young man: a belief that overpopulation is real, and that it takes a serious toll on the earth and on humanity. I'm not making this up. It's unlikely if you live outside of Utah, Idaho, Arizona, or Nevada, but if Saturday's Warrior ever plays nears you, you must see this masterpiece. In the mean time, a staged film version was released a number of years ago.

The creators of the musical The Book of Mormon have said that they'd like to see their show play in Salt Lake City. I think that's more likely than a real Mormon musical (or pageant, for that matter) playing on Broadway. The Book of Mormon wouldn't have a long run in Salt Lake, but some people there would surely want to see it. Salt Lake now has a good number of non-Mormons and "Jack Mormons" (that's the term for inactive, non-practicing Mormons - you might think of the term as the Mormon equivalent of a secular Jew). But The Book of Mormon isn't a show that could be staged by high schools and seen by the entire community. And for the Mormon mainstream, whether in small towns or larger cities, if it doesn't pass the high school test, it isn't good entertainment.