'Mormon' musical: Pride in prejudice?

Published: Saturday, June 18 2011 2:00 p.m. MDT

It has been nearly a week since "The Book of Mormon" musical scored nine Tony Awards and a whole lot of adulation in Broadway's landmark Beacon Theater. During that time the musical has received additional praise for its creativity, its taboo-toppling brashness and its perceived ability to make people of faith laugh at themselves. The musical's soundtrack has soared to No. 3 in the Billboard Top 100 — the first Broadway soundtrack to do so since "Hair" in 1969. And it can now boast the highest single-ticket price in Broadway history at $487.25.

As the week progressed, however, a number of pundits stepped forward to voice their concerns about the musical's philosophical underpinnings, and what its meteoric popularity says about the state of religious tolerance in contemporary society.

Alexandra Petri, a humor columnist for the Washington Post, took advantage of "The Book of Mormon's" success to take a tongue-in-cheek look at religious bigotry.

"Anti-Mormonism is more widespread among the self-proclaimed enlightened and tolerant than among almost anyone else," Petri wrote, referring to Mormonism as "the Thinking Man's Prejudice. 'This isn't prejudice,' they squeal, when pressed. 'It's just that they're wrong! Besides, it IS a choice, isn't it? Aren't I entitled to judge someone because he believes something I personally find asinine?"

According to Petri, "Freedom of religion would be worthless if it didn't encompass the freedom to believe things that many sane and rational people deem absurd . . . The trouble is that no one's religious beliefs look sound from the outside. That is why they are beliefs. Religious beliefs . . . always seem a bit silly when you try to explain them to others."

And that, Petri suggested, is the bottom line of "The Book of Mormon."

"Some say the show mocks Mormons," she wrote. "But after listening to the cast album I worry that those people didn't understand the show. It seems to me as though the show is mocking all of us, poking fun at everyone complacent enough to think that what he or she believes is not on some level silly."

Dr. Harold Pease, a history and political science professor at Taft College, was not nearly so light-hearted as he mused about "The Book of Mormon's" creators admission that the show was designed to "gently mock Mormons."

"Imagine a script designed to 'gently mock' Islam or its sacred book the Quran, or Christianity and its sacred book the Bible," Pease wrote in the Bakersfield Californian. "The Middle East would be in flames, al-Qaida would grow and President Barack Obama would travel abroad on bended knee delivering speeches of apology."

Pease finds it ironic that "the people who create this kind of satirical expression, who defend, trumpet or advocate diversity, inclusion and acceptance — largely the entertainment and intellectual industries — often show none of these qualities in their own productions. Instead, they demonstrate quite the opposite, and in this case, profit off the mockery of the sacred beliefs of others to fatten their bank accounts, oblivious to who or what they may offend."

For Jared Farmer, a history teacher at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of an academic book on Mormons, "The Book of Mormon" is more offensive in its treatment of Africans than Mormons.

"The plot twists at the end raise questions about the racial politics of the show," Farmer observed. "Only a threat of American violence saves the villagers from the tyranny of the local warlord. Only the ingenuity of the white men provides Africans a useful religion. The dewy-eyed boys from Utah share the genius of Joseph Smith: the Yankee spirit of invention. The musical's happy ending, complete with missionaries in neo-Mormon garb, contains a strong note of American chauvinism."

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