Earlier this year, Scott Rudin, a producer for "The Book of Mormon Musical," told NPR about a conversation he had with a man who attended a preview showing of the production, which on Sunday night won nine Tony awards, including best musical. "I left the Mormon Church after my mission (in Africa)," said the man, who had brought his children to the show. "(I) married a Jewish woman and now I live in Montclair, New Jersey. My kids know nothing about my upbringing. They have learned more from this (musical) than they have from all their lives with me."
Rudin's anecdote echoes a common refrain that the show's producers have repeated since before it opened, that "The Book of Mormon," while obviously satirical, offers an accurate depiction of Latter-day Saint doctrines and culture. Indeed, the musical's high-profile creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have claimed in multiple media interviews to have "done their homework" when it comes to LDS teachings.
While theater experts and media pundits have praised the musical, others have pointed out the play is not only profane and inaccurate, but actually an attack on faith more broadly. GetReligion.org's Mollie Ziegler wrote that the play "is an entirely New York phenomenon. It mocks general religious belief using Mormon characters. It's made by media elites (media elites whom I generally like, admittedly) and enjoyed by a class of people who go to Broadway musicals."
Likewise, New York Times columnist David Brooks observed that "The central theme of 'The Book of Mormon' is that many religious stories are silly."
He said the play's message boils down to this: "Religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally."
"The only problem with 'The Book of Mormon' (musical)," Brooks continued, "is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn't actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False."
A Deseret News analysis of the show's content, based on its official script and lyrics, reveals several errors and misrepresentations that go beyond the bounds of generalization for comedy's sake — and Mormonism isn't the only subject with which the Tony award-winning musical takes liberties. And those liberties can create important misperceptions.
"Of course, parody isn't reality, and it's the very distortion that makes it appealing and often funny," Michael Otterson, the public affairs representative for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wrote in a recent piece in the Washington Post. "The danger is not when people laugh but when they take it seriously."
Misstating LDS beliefs
The musical's book and lyrics contain multiple inaccurate representations of LDS beliefs and practices.
Some of the errors are arguably inconsequential, and likely the result of efforts to simplify for plot's sake. They include the specifics of how missionaries receive their proselytizing assignments, LDS mission rules and nuances regarding Lamanites and Nephites in the actual Book of Mormon.
Yet, "The Book of Mormon" musical also contains less benign inaccuracies, like misrepresenting Joseph Smith's history, distorting Mormon epistemology and misconstruing the church's teachings about the afterlife. For example, the song "All-American Prophet" puts to music a version of the Joseph Smith story that is riddled with errors both small and large. In one notable example, the angel Moroni sings, "Don't let anybody see these plates except for you (Joseph)," and then toward the end of the song, during the scene depicting Smith's death, the prophet sings "Oh God, why are you letting me die without having me show people the plates? They'll have no proof I was telling the truth or not they'll have to believe it just cuz. Oh. I guess that's kind of what you were going for."
Contrary to the musical's portrayal, historical records indicate that at least 11 people signed testimonies indicating that Smith had shown them the Golden Plates. The accounts of these witnesses are printed in each copy of The Book of Mormon — but the song makes no mention of them.
In another song titled "I Believe," the character Elder Price repeatedly sings the refrain "I am a Mormon and a Mormon just believes." The refrain is interspersed with lines like "(God's) plan involves me getting my own planet." This statement, like many in the song, represents an out-of-context fragment of doctrine that, on its own, is inaccurate.
In the song, "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," the character of Elder Price finds himself dreaming that he is in the midst of Hades' flames with the likes of Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler and others. While the scene's absurdity lends itself easily to laughs by poking fun at strict LDS mission rules, it nonetheless dramatically distorts the LDS conception of a multi-tiered heaven (three kingdoms of glory) and outer darkness. The "hell" depicted in the musical is much closer to the fire-and-brimstone preaching of early Puritanical ministers.
Yet, Mormons are not the only ones misrepresented. The musical's characterization of Ugandans is perhaps worse.
"Uganda is depicted as an entirely rural place, where many people still practice female genital mutilation (which is actually illegal in Uganda) and no one has a cell phone or access to the outside world. (In reality, between one-third and one-half of Ugandans have cell phones.)," wrote beliefnet.com blogger Jana Reiss, who is also a Mormon.
Additionally, the Ugandan characters in the musical are, with a few exceptions, angry, aggressive, sexually charged, physically ill, naive and vulgar. Some viewers could construe this extreme stereotyping as a form of racism — the producers and writers call it satire. Nevertheless, it is striking that Ugandan characters utter all the swear words in the musical except one.
According to the musical's complete book and lyrics, those Ugandan characters utter plenty of swear words. The production contains at least 49 instances of the "f-word," and approximately 26 additional expletives.
It also includes sexual innuendos, references to HIV, rape, genital mutilation and homosexuality.
Newsweek, in a cover story on Mormons last week, wrote that "...the Book of Mormon may be the most obscene show ever brought to a Broadway stage."
The New York Times review of the play made a similar statement, calling it "more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company