The Book of Mormon (Musical)

Tony and I didn’t decide to stop attending the Mormon church until shortly after The Book of Mormon Musical came to Orlando (yes, Orlando; which I didn’t yet know at the time was the perfect destination). So we didn’t go, because–although they do receive ecclesiastically-sanctioned talking points for using it as a conversion tool when it comes to town–good Mormons do not attend the Book of Mormon Musical. That means we’ve been waiting five years for the BoM Musical to follow us to the other side of the world. And this fall, finally it did. We bought tickets the very moment they went on sale, and anxiously awaited the musical we’ve been hearing our fellow ex-Mormons talk about forever.

The following review does contain some spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

As we cycled up to the gorgeous 19th century Carré Theatre in Amsterdam, we saw that Tony was not the only one who had come in costume. Except that the other guys in suits and name tags were the genuine article. They were very good-natured about letting Tony take a photo with them. The photo looked bizarrely familiar to me; which isn’t strange, since Tony (and every other Mormon we know) has two years worth of photos exactly like it.

And the musical? I am of two minds about it. Two utterly opposite minds. I’ll start with the good. I was blown away by how accurately they “got” the experience of being Mormon. It was like they were looking inside my head. I had expected a fair number of cheap shots and obvious misconceptions about Mormon beliefs and practices. But while the show took pains not to miss an opportunity to point out the many funny quirks and contradictions of Mormonism, I thought the depiction was actually pretty accurate. Scarily accurate in some cases. “Turn it Off”, for example, is a song all about ignoring, stifling, and denying your feelings:

When you’re feeling certain feels
That just don’t feel right
Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light
And turn ’em off

This rang so true to me. Whether it’s “same-gender attraction”, uncomfortable feelings about women’s roles in the Church, or just sadness, anger or depression, there’s persistent pressure in the Mormon Church to pray it away, “put it on a shelf”, and just be happy. Because if you’re not happy, you’re doing something wrong; doing Mormonism right leads to happiness. It’s a big part of the brand. As a Mormon I would have said it was more complicated than this, but now I can admit that in a lot of ways it really wasn’t.

And “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”? Mine was technically about the Second Coming of Jesus, the moon turning to blood, and the wicked being burned. I was never sure if I was going to make it to heaven, and it was always terrifying. I had this dream regularly as a kid. My recurring nightmare as an adult was, incidentally, that I had been called on another Mormon mission. Discussing my own mission is beyond the scope of this post, but let’s just say it was one of the more challenging and conflicted times of my life. I totally internalised every “failure” of any sort, from not convincing enough people to be baptised that month to missing curfew by two minutes. I am not exaggerating; the sheer number and minutiae of the rules combined with a serious cult of obedience can be pretty devastating for a natural perfectionist. For over a decade after I returned home, I would regularly wake up in a cold sweat after having the dream that I had been called on another mission. Significantly, I had this nightmare one more time after I officially resigned from the Mormon church. That final time was the first time it even occurred to me in my dream that it was an option to say no. I told them I wasn’t going, and that was the last time I ever had the dream.

But I digress. Back to the musical.

I loved the song “All American Prophet”. During my mission to south America, we made much of the fact that God had given us scripture that was especially from and for those of us who lived in the real Promised Land (the one where–according to Mormon lore–the Garden of Eden was originally situated), which is of course America.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that I recognised my childhood faith over and over again, and was surprised and impressed by the profound, substantive, and sometimes even generous portrait of it that I saw in the BoM Musical.

My favourite song was undoubtedly “I am Africa”. It is two minutes long, and pure perfection. I’ve read a lot of scholarly and less scholarly work on White Saviour Complex and voluntourism, but I know of no explanation or encapsulation that is half as brilliant as this piece of precision-crafted satire. Mormon missionaries, of course, have no kind of monopoly on this particular type of egregious cultural transgression; however, they do frequently, exuberantly fall into it.

But this brings me to the point where the BoM Musical really went off the rails for me. Because while this song pokes pointed fun in every line at Western white people and the appalling stereotypes they entertain about Africa, much of the rest of the musical seemed determined to indulge in as many of these tone-deaf stereotypes as possible. The show is set in a Uganda that is obviously meant to stand in for the entire “country of Africa”. From taking cheap shots at Ugandan doctors to portraying the African characters as gullible, technologically backward, and uncivilised, there was enough to make me feel repeatedly and deeply uncomfortable.

Up to the point that I could have charitably read the whole thing as a meta-critique of Western neo-colonialism, it would have worked for me. However, the musical spent at least as much time making fun of the caricatured Africans as it did the naive missionaries. From sexual assault on minors to AIDS to war, poverty and famine, no serious topic was off limits as a joke. And the joke was definitely on the “Africans”.

Even the basic plot of the BoM musical is problematic. The Mormon White Saviours really do end up saving the day. They basically solve Africa by making a few cultural modifications to their religion to render it more sellable, and then converting the entire village, who all–including the local warlord–end the musical as a sort of caricatured African version of Mormon missionaries.

While that part of the plot might sound a bit over the top, this ending took me right back to my Mormon childhood. I grew up on stories about the guy in my dad’s mission who started out as a typical idealistic Mormon missionary in central America, and ended up deciding to stay and starting his own eccentric, polygamous Mormon commune in the Guatemalan countryside.

In short, I would say that the Book of Mormon Musical gets both the hilarious details and a lot of the deeper stuff right about Mormons. But it skates on regrettably thin ice when it comes to the stereotypical depictions of Africans. I laughed a lot and had so many other complex Mormon-related emotions. But there were also too many moments that made me feel complicit in the perpetuation of an overabundance of tired racist tropes.

Have YOU heard of the All-American Prophet? Let me know what you think!

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