This week, the Broadway musical that skewered Mormonism on its way to nine Tony Awards opens just blocks from Temple Square and the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"The Book of Mormon" national tour begins a two-week run at Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City on July 28.
The musical is well-documented as being irreverent, vulgar and profane. In addition to sexual dialogue and explicit language, including one song title with an English translation that can't be printed in a mainstream newspaper, "The Book of Mormon" plays its targeted faith for laughs. In the years since the musical opened, some commentary has addressed the appropriateness of lampooning religion and culture in such a manner.
"The Book of Mormon," however, has received overwhelming acclaim from audiences and critics. Now, as the controversial musical opens in the heart of Mormonism, here's a look at how "The Book of Mormon" rose to prominence and how observers around the country — and the LDS Church itself — have reacted.
"The Book of Mormon" was the joint venture of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-creators of the edgy animated series "South Park," and Robert Lopez, a songwriter whose credits include the adult satirical musical "Avenue Q" and Disney's "Frozen."
In an interview with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" in 2011, Stone talked about how the duo had written material about Mormons for “a long time." The faith had been depicted in "South Park," and Parker wrote, directed and starred in a 1997 film featuring a Mormon missionary that received a rare NC-17 rating for its explicit sexual content and language.
Parker and Stone were surprised to learn that Lopez was interested in making his next project a musical about Mormonism.
“We love Mormons,” Stone told Stewart. "We love that whole mythology, and we love the whole thing. It was kind of in that moment that we decided to do it. It was kind of weird to meet someone else who was that into Mormons and musicals.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Stone talked about how the trio flew to Salt Lake City for research purposes. They visited museums and sites and talked to “a lot of people” along the way. The musical came together over seven years.
A New York Times article detailed how in 2010, producer Scott Rudin "felt something was wrong" with the musical, which "seemed to be drifting toward an Off Broadway run." Rudin, however, decided to aim straight for Broadway — “since the guys work best when the stakes are highest,” he said.
After opening on Broadway in 2011, "The Book of Mormon" became a hit, winning nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book and Best Direction. The show was nominated for 14 total Tonys.
The original Broadway cast recording was also a commercial success. "The Book of Mormon" made history by climbing to No. 3 on the top 200 albums chart in June 2011. “It is the highest-charting Broadway cast album — and first top 10 — since 1969, when 'Hair' spent 13 straight weeks at No. 1," according to Billboard.com.
Also in 2011, "The Book of Mormon" owned the largest sales week for any cast album since the original London cast recording of "The Phantom of the Opera," according to Billboard, and won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
The musical follows the characters of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham on their LDS mission to Uganda, where they find a country struggling with warlords, starvation, poverty and disease. The turmoil leads to a crisis of faith for the missionaries.
In addition to taking on missionary work and LDS doctrine, "The Book of Mormon" depicts both Jesus Christ, who Mormons worship as the Savior of the world, and Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church. The musical is filled with profane, vulgar and sexual language. One Latter-day Saint, writing on the blog mormonperspectives.com after seeing "The Book of Mormon," estimates that "the F-word was said about 200 times."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responded to media inquiries regarding "The Book of Mormon" with a statement in February 2011, along with links to a 2009 blog post titled "The Publicity Dilemma" and a Washington Post On Faith Blog post called "Why I Won't Be Seeing the Book of Mormon Musical" by Michael Otterson, managing director of LDS Church Public Affairs.
"The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ," the statement read.
Days after "The Book of Mormon" enjoyed success at the 2011 Tony Awards, the "I'm a Mormon" campaign opened in New York City, according to a Deseret News article. The campaign continued in cities across the United States in the months that followed, and in the United Kingdom in 2013.
In 2012, the church purchased advertisements in "The Book of Mormon" playbill for the national touring production in Los Angeles.
"Patrons of the musical aren't likely to leave the theater with a better understanding of the Book of Mormon," LDS Church spokesman Michael Purdy told the Los Angeles Times. "Our message in the playbill invites the audience to seek a more complete perspective on the book, its Christ-centered message and its place in Mormon belief."
Praise from critics
Since the opening of "The Book of Mormon," many theater critics have been effusive in their praise of the Broadway and touring productions, lauding both its qualities as a musical and how it treats subjects that some hold sacred.
In March 2011, Ben Brantley of the New York Times raved about the new show, saying that it achieved "something like a miracle" as a quality book musical with its "eminently hummable melodies." In August 2014, Brantley reviewed the production again, praising "The Book of Mormon" for its "enduring freshness" and comparing the experience to religious conversion.
"But gosh darn it if I didn’t feel born again all over again, ready to spread the word about the faith that this show preaches and, more important, practices," Brantley wrote. "I do not mean the religion of the followers of Joseph Smith, which is so scrupulously disassembled here, but the holy faith of musical comedy, into which my mama baptized me before I could walk."
When the show opened in Chicago in 2013, Chris Jones wrote in the Chicago Tribune that "The Book of Mormon" was "exquisitely toned" and had "disciplined narrative logic."
"Laughs flow like Mormon wagon trains rolling West," he wrote. "But 'The Book of Mormon,' like the enigmatic volume it lampoons so mercilessly, is actually a many-layered beast and therein, verily, lies its brilliance."
Like Brantley and Jones, other critics acknowledged the production's skewering of the Mormon faith. However, there was a sentiment that "The Book of Mormon" also gently balanced its barbs. The Florida Theater on Stage blog called it "sacrilegious and sweet." Stone even described his musical as "kind of a celebration of Mormonism by some guys who aren't Mormons."
Dallyn Vail Bayles, an actor, singer and recording artist who has performed in Broadway touring companies of "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables," is familiar with the show’s plot and music. However, as a Latter-day Saint, he has chosen not to see it.
"Artistically, you can look at it and say it's a brilliant work of comedy," Bayles said. "(But) compounded with the other elements of the musical, the offensive things, and the overall message of the musical, I just choose not to embrace it."
And not everyone has embraced "The Book of Mormon." In the years since the musical's release, some have viewed the musical's treatment of religion — and of Uganda itself — as less than endearing.
BYU professor James Faulconer, himself a Mormon, wrote on patheos.com that because Mormonism is a minority religion, "a playwright, comic, professor or politician can say nasty, inaccurate, crude or sarcastic things about Mormon beliefs and culture and get away with it."
Faulconer suggested that members of the LDS Church can fight unfair stereotypes and mocking by living lives that bless the world.
The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens was equally exasperated in 2012.
"So let's get this straight: In the consensus view of modern American liberalism, it is hilarious to mock Mormons and Mormonism but outrageous to mock Muslims and Islam," he wrote. "Why?”
Last year, the Salt Lake Tribune published an op-ed by Salt Lake City native Kate Wilson titled "Why is 'Book of Mormon' play tolerated and even praised?"
"Although I never identified with Mormonism, growing up in Salt Lake City made me hyper-aware of the Broadway hit's offensiveness," Wilson wrote. "Would my childhood classmates be ashamed to call me their friend if they were to witness my laughter in the theater that mocked the foundation of their religion and lifestyle?"
Theodore P. Mahne, writing for the New Orleans Times-Picayune after the show opened in New Orleans in 2013, called the production "little more than degrading, offensive trash."
"The details of Mormon theology are unfamiliar to most who are not a part of that faith," Mahne wrote. "But the exaggerations and mocking of those beliefs are simply insulting. And the overriding attack on religious faith, in general, is blasphemously offensive."
Max Perry Mueller, writing for the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, criticized the depiction of Uganda in "The Book of Mormon."
"By presenting Africans as beyond redemption, so devastated by war, AIDS, and depravation, 'The Book of Mormon' strips these Africans of any real agency, any real humanity," Mueller wrote. "... Hope, religion and community cannot repair the nihilism inherent in this depiction of Africa."
Contributing: Kelsey Schwab, Trent Toone, Jennifer Johnson
Email: [email protected]