New Harmony: Cashing in on popularity for the money

Published: Thursday, June 16 2011 11:45 a.m. MDT

"The Book of Mormon," darling of the recent Tony Awards, will eventually gross (let's see, add 10, carry the one) exactly one gazillion dollars.

All I can say to that is, "Mission accomplished."

For this show was never about the Mormons or the Ugandans and never about creating art.

It was about what entertainment is always about: salesmanship. It was about making people rich.

If you haven't noticed, Broadway shows have been swaying on the horns of a dilemma in recent years.

On one side you have difficult shows filled with artsy music — the new "Spider-Man," Paul Simon's "Capeman" and recent Stephen Sondheim offerings, among others.

They seldom catch fire.

On the other side, you have old-fashioned shows filled with catchy tunes and easy lyrics. The Disney kiddy shows are examples. They are throwbacks to another era, shows that are more for children than adults, with music that could have been written by Hoagy Carmichael.

Adults don't feel like grown-ups when they go to those shows.

So, what to do?

How can you create a show filled with sugary show tunes without making people of taste feel guilty about going?

Marshall Brickman found the answer in "Jersey Boys" — the story of the Four Seasons.

"Jersey Boys" is filled with cheesy pop tunes like "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man" and "Big Girls Don't Cry." But the story behind the songs is edgy and tough. It involves violence, sex and profanity in almost every sentence.

Bingo!

Suddenly, audiences could feel mature as they watched the sordid story unfold and, at the same time, they could listen to cheesy songs without feeling silly.

"The Book of Mormon" trades on Brickman's formula.

(Robert Lopez, one of the creators of the musical, pulled off the same trick in his Muppetesque musical, "Avenue Q.")

You make a show that's hard to stomach, but you fill it with music and dialogue that are sweeter than a case of Hershey bars.

Suddenly, you have it both ways.

And the Mormons make perfect fodder for the formula.

They supply the sweetness.

The writers supply the grit and crudity.

For, truth to tell, popular culture has never been about culture. It is always about being popular. That's because popularity can be cashed in at the bank.

Show business is a cynical business. Despite gushing acceptance speeches about one's "art," show biz is really about salesmanship.

This time around, the Mormons and the Ugandans got used by the Great White Way money machine.

Next time, someone else will be the target.

In the meantime, watch for the formula behind "The Book of Mormon" to be repeated over and over — sweet, old-fashioned show tunes that could have been written in the 1940s, backed by a story and dialogue so stark they make you shudder.

It's a license to print money.

And Broadway never saw a nickel it didn't like.

Jerry Earl Johnston shares his take on the Mormon experience in his column “New Harmony,” which appears on MormonTimes.com on Wednesdays and Sundays.

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