For anyone who follows theater, we know it has been impossible to escape the inordinate amount of hype surrounding Broadway’s latest hit The Book of Mormon, starring Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad. The musical, penned by Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, has been nominated for 14 Tony awards, just one nomination shy of the record set by both Billy Elliot and The Producers. The show has been called everything from “potty-mouthed” by Theater Mania, to an “extraordinarily well-crafted musical assault on all things holy” by the Washington Post. Reviews such as these, paired with the infamous South Park association, lead me to believe that the score would be satirical, hilarious, and riddled with blatantly offensive jabs at religion and society in general. After a thorough listen, I soon realized that these expectations were half correct; because mixed in with the satire and crudeness was a distinct sweet side, and a general compassion for the characters at times. The plot of the show reflects this idea as well, as it tells the story of two Mormon missionaries hoping to spread their faith in Uganda, who end up discovering more about themselves and the effects of religion than they expected.
Many a tongue-in-cheek musical has graced the Broadway stage, what makes The Book of Mormon stand out is the way that Parker, Stone and Lopez have managed to create a score that blends the correct amounts of parody and realism. You can feel for the characters while appreciating the abundant humor throughout. Although I have yet to attend a performance, I did have the opportunity to check out the score on NPR. As I listened, I found myself laughing out loud from the very beginning, with the doorbell tones of “Hello,” a hilariously earnest chronicling of the Mormons door-to-door proselytizing perils. “Two by Two” is a nice example of how the show manages to blend the serious and the satirical. Lyrics like “The most important time of a Mormon kid’s life is his mission/A chance to go out and help heal the world, that’s my mission” can spark genuine flickers of compassion, followed quickly by lines such as “land of soy sauce, and Mothra!” and “Oh boy, like Lion King!” when the Mormon elders learn of their mission locations in places like Japan and Uganda. Another number that manages to strike that same perfect balance is “I Believe,” sung upliftingly by Tony award-nominated Andrew Rannells, with mentions of Mormons receiving their own planets and believing that “in 1978 God changed his mind about black people” mixed in with Rannells’ genuinely inspiring tone. “I Am Here For You,” is a charming and comical ballad of sorts that offers a glimpse into the “best friendship” of Elder Cunningham and Elder Price, and is unique in the sense that humor here isn’t really derived from the Mormon religion, but rather the inequality of the boys’ friendship, offering a brief refreshing change of tone.
On the other hand, you have songs like “Turn it Off”, “All American Prophet,” and “Joseph Smith American Moses” which are just pure hilarity, and make it clear that these songs were written by the creators of South Park. “Turn it Off” in particular has potential to offend religious audience members as it makes, poking, or rather, jabbing fun at Mormons’ views toward homosexuality. Parker, Stone and Lopez don’t even bother with the charade of skipping near the line of political correctness; instead they gallop over it, straight into uncharted territories of acceptability. This is especially true of “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a blatant parody of The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata,” where the Ugandan natives teach the Mormon elders a new phrase to say when down on your luck: “F**k you, God!” Not to mention, the creators have speculated in interviews that this very well may be the “Broadway debut of ‘c**t,’” another tidbit almost guaranteed to cause shock and uneasiness. The cursing is tastefully done, if there is such a thing, for the most part, seeming gratuitous only in certain songs such as the otherwise brilliant “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” with the closing lines “Soon life won’t be so shitty, now salvation has a name, ‘Sal Tlay Ka Siti.’”
However, that’s not to say that every song is an instant hit. Numbers like “Man Up” seem to bypass satire and instead just come across as cartoony as Josh Gad drops his voice down to a rock-n’-roll growl at times, while the grungy guitars don’t really seem to fit the rest of the arrangements on the album. Unfortunately, this is the last song of Act I, but Act II numbers such as “Baptize Me”, a cute, pun-riddled number filled with sexual innuendo, relating a baptism to making love as Josh Gad’s Elder Cunningham prepares to perform his first ever baptism on the Ugandan chief’s daughter, Nabalungi (I’m so happy you’re about to be my first!), more than make up for it. “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is a bizarre and frightening sort of surreal number that leaves the listener begging for visual accompaniment.
As stated before, The Book of Mormon is one of those rare hilariously shocking shows that still manages to have a genuine message and just enough compassion, along with a winner of a soundtrack, to make it worthy of all of the hype and buzz.
To purchase the OBCA on Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records, available digitally on May 17th and in stores on June 7th, click here.