It’s time to archive The Book of Mormon…or change it radically
An honest review of the Broadway classic playing at His Majesty's Theatre
by Rory Buccheri
Conner Peirson and Kevin Clay in The Book of Mormon; Credit Paul Coltas
I’m going to say it now, so you have no doubt about it going forward with this review: The Book of Mormon is a funny musical. It packs a good punch of satire and often criticises the white saviourism that Mormon missions and missionaries are infamous for. But.
There is a but, and a pretty huge one too. In the state it is today, in the state I watched it at His Majesty’s Theatre on Wednesday night, there are plenty of things that are just plain wrong.
Imagine it’s 2022 and your best jokes are still about black characters mispronouncing American city names, or adding “fucking” and other swearwords to every other sentence.
Imagine you have a ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ situation (as it is the case of the Naphites and Lamanites in the Mormon legend) and choosing only black actors to play your bad guys.
Now, a 'humour' that relies on this sort of cheap shots cannot survive long, can it?
On the other hand, the approach to the two boys’ mission was rife with great tongue-in-cheek moments that made the audience absolute boisterous. From their forced companionship becoming their strongest suit, to them and the other elders exposing the challenges tied to their own personal belief.
Songs like Turn It Off are a real blast, representative of the quality satire the show is capable of offering. There is satire, and there is over-relying on harmful, honestly quite unfunny, stereotypes. Unfortunately, the show was guilty of this sin once too many.
Conner Peirson and the company in The Book of Mormon; Credit Paul Coltas
It goes from the first shot we get of Uganda, with the dead horse being dragged by an old lady and the big, bulky men robbing the two newly-arrived at gunpoint. It goes from Elder Cunningham not being able to remember the girl’s name, Nubulunghi, and calling her all sorts of (unfunny) things. ‘Hey there, Nutella!’ ‘Look who’s here, Nicki Minaj!’ Frankly, I doubt you’d laugh at this the first time…but the fourth or fifth? You start realising something reeks.
And that something reeking deep down the show is how the comedic aspect takes, once too many, the easy way out. You may think: hey, but the Mormon characters are stereotyped too! Yes, and the way they are made fun of is the whole point of the plot unfolding – a trial and error, mistake and lesson. They are not simply derided because they cannot pronounce ‘Salt Lake City’ or because they are the dirty villagers (‘I’ve got maggots in my pants!’) of the story.
There is satire, and there is over-relying on harmful, honestly quite unfunny, stereotypes. Unfortunately, the show was guilty of this sin once too many.
Now, I am still convinced there are redeeming features to the show. There is that hint of sour, American humour always looming, of the white boy whose biggest dream is to go to Orlando, Florida, and of the Mormon hell behind populated by Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnnie Cochran, “the man who let O.J. Simpson walk free!” These are genuinely humorous moments.
Or, another favourite part of mine, when in telling the story of prophet Joseph Smith, the characters keep commenting on the absurdity of the story of the golden tables – “and tell absolutely no one about these. Go home and write them on paper.” “Makes total sense, right?”
These are the good bits to hold on to, with their surreal humour used to question matters both holy and unholy. These are the things that make this musical a classic, and one that has graced Broadway stages for years.
I think it is worth to hold on to the parts that make this a satirical, boisterous comedy, and get rid of the outdated parts that make it “cruel humour” at best, and simply not funny at worst.