When The Book of Mormon opened on Broadway in March, it became an immediate commercial and critical success. Since the show is sold out for some time and scalpers are commanding upwards of nine hundred dollars per seat, most of us won’t be seeing it any time soon. Instead, we’re making do with the musical score, composed by Bobby Lopez (Avenue Q) and released in May to predictably impressive sales as Broadway albums go.
If the music is any indication, The Book of Mormon tries, with varying degrees of success, to satirize three different subjects: Mormons, Broadway and Western ignorance about Africa, respectively. And the Mormon satire, though no one knew what to predict, comes with intelligence, care and respect. One of the most touching—yes, touching—numbers of all is in some ways the most profane. Nineteen year old Mormon missionary to Uganda, Elder Price (Andy Rannells), sings the rousing verses of “I Believe” with such conviction that it’s impossible to interpret the song as mere satire. This is no mean feat given that the song summarizes aspects of Mormon belief with lyrics like, “I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob,” that “the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri” and that, “in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!*”
It’s just that the song also reveals the character’s basic decency. He wants to be ethical and good and, yes, help people. When the orchestra swells and the gospel choir arrives and Price sings, “I believe that Satan has a hold of you,” the lyric is strangely moving. You see, this is the moment at which Price overcomes his fear in the face of Uganda’s political violence. The particulars of the faith seem unimportant given the courage it gives him. By the time Price comes out with,“I know that I must go and do the things my God commands,” you’ll want to pump your fist in the air in celebration. “I Believe” makes everything clear: The music is not a parody of Mormonism but a parody of faith. But it’s also a love letter to faith.
And the satire is brilliantly conceived. The sexual innuendo in the duet, “Baptize Me,” is priceless. Elder Price’s sidekick, Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad) sings,“I will baptize her with everything I’ve got/ And I’ll make her beg for more!/As I wash her free of sin/And it’ll be so good/She’ll want me to baptize her again.” Even when Cunningham’s female counterpart belts a lyric about being “wet with salvation,” it comes off as sweet rather than Apatow-esque.
“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” alludes to the darker psychic consequences of understanding Hell as a literal destination, but in an uproariously funny way. And “All-American Prophet,” about Joseph Smith and the early Mormons’ exodus to Utah, both parodies Mormon history and calls for a kind of compassion. It’s clear from the outset, when Price says, “I’m gonna take ya back to biblical times”—and then sets the history lesson in 1823, that the song is more than full-on ridicule. Rather, it underscores the fact that most religious belief is preposterous on the surface.
The message is that Mormonism sometimes seems kooky because it’s relatively new. It’s both a parody of Mormonism and a principled call for people of other religions to recognize that this is just the nature of faith. It is patently ridiculous. But this is no simplistic rejection of religion. Adherents are treated with deep admiration. Which is why the finale, “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day,” is such an irony-free feel good number. It’s about hope and joy and things looking “brighter tomorrow.” And in this pessimistic moment in time, it reaffirms our need to believe in something as humans, whether it’s God or humanity.
The score also functions as both mockery and homage to Broadway. “I Believe” parodies The Sound of Music’s “I Have Confidence” perfectly. As Maria sings, “A captain with seven children/What’s so fearsome about that?” Price asks, “A warlord who shoots people in the face/What’s so scary about that?” And just as Maria wallows in self-doubt, singing, “I’ve always longed for adventure/To do the things I’ve never dared…/Then why am I so scared,” Price ruminates, “I’ve always longed to help the needy/To do the things I never dared…/So then why was I so scared?”
Yes, the jokes are on Broadway, but you’ll only understand them if you’re a fellow musical theatre geek. You won’t appreciate the parallels to “I Have Confidence” unless you watched The Sound of Music over a hundred times as a child. Nor will you notice that “Joseph Smith American Moses” mocks The King and I’s take on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Or that the vocal arrangement of “Man Up” is a clever parody of “One Day More” from Les Miserables. Of course, it is ultimately Lopez’s catchy, infectious melodies that underscore that fact that this is more than mere satire.
Most of the time, the album navigates the tensions between care and ridicule with compassion. The lyrics about Uganda are the major exception. It is clear that Lopez and his co-creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park did a lot of research to get everything Mormon just right. But “Uganda” is nothing but a stand-in for a seemingly monolithic—and primitive—Africa. There are unfunny jokes about FGM. And given the usual paternalistic treatment the subject gets in the U.S., I’m not sure we’re ready for satire.
“Hasa Diga Eebowai” is a parody of “Hakuna Matata.” Instead of “no worries for the rest of our days,” the song title means, “f**k you, God.” And it’s a good idea to deal with poverty in Africa in a song that undermines the racist “noble savage” trope, but, unfortunately, the execution is not entirely successful. For example, the local chief sings, “Eighty percent of us have AIDS,” particularly insulting in the Ugandan context. Yes, Uganda, the country that drastically cut its infection rates through its exhaustive sex education program. More people per capita have AIDS in Washington, D.C. than Uganda.
And I do get the joke. These songs parody the Western assumption that Africa is a monolithic mass of suffering people. But the offensive lyrics notwithstanding, the song just isn’t very funny. And if the history of South Park fandom is any indication, this show is likely to attract as many frat boy fans who will not get it as thoughtful ones who will. This subject matter is not untouchable, but the creators needed to give it as much care and respect as the rest.
There is one exception: The ballad, “I Am Africa,” which brilliantly parodies the zeal and ignorance of so many Western young people who end up in Africa on a mission to change the world: “We are the winds of the Serengeti/We are the sweat of the jungle man/We are the tears of Nelson Mandela/We are the lost boys of the Sudan!” Cunningham gets caught up in it all too, hilariously singing:
I am Africa
Just like Bono! I am Africa
I flew in here and became one with this land…
Now I am freakin’ Africa
With my Zulu spirit, I run barefoot through the sand!
The ignorance is cute and endearing until the song’s last line hints at the darker implications of it all: “Africans are African,” sing the missionaries, “but we are Africa.” After a short time, in other words, the white missionaries are claiming ownership of and identification with the continent. And Africans themselves are just plot devices in the grand scheme of things. This song is so perfect—and so on point—that it almost makes up for the fact that Lopez takes so little care with all things Uganda. Almost.
*In 1978, the LDS denounced the overtly racist elements of its theology and welcomed people of color at all levels of leadership.