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The Mormons Take Manhattan: The Book of Mormon soundtrack on God, Broadway and Africa

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.

6 thoughts on “The Mormons Take Manhattan: The Book of Mormon soundtrack on God, Broadway and Africa

  1. You may not have seen the stage show, only heard the cast album — the part of Uganda we are talking about is Northern Uganda, which, at the time we began writing at least, was in the midst of a pretty terrible humanitarian crisis. I think things may have improved there in recent years. But it’s clear in the context of the show that we have created a fictional village to stand in for any humanitarian crisis, any place where atrocities and disaster coincide — and I don’t think it can be denied that those places do exist.

  2. Hey, thanks for commenting! You’re definitely right that I’m reviewing just the music–and have not seen the show. And you should know, for the most part, I really love the music. Seriously. It’s the best musical score I’ve heard since Rent, back when Rent was timely and relevant in the ’90’s. And I really liked Avenue Q, for the record, but I like this one better.

    And there absolutely are humanitarian crises in Uganda. My problem with… It isn’t directly related, but certainly informs my perspective: I have lived in Mozambique. It was years ago. I was 22 when I went over there, and I was just about as naive as your characters (though not Mormon). When I talk about Western assumptions about Africa, I know that I’ve shared them and done stupid things as a result… And I mean “me” as much as anyone. Which is possibly why I found your line, “Africans are African, but we are Africa” so powerful and important. And because it clarified a very important point, I thought: That you weren’t just saying that the behavior of white missionaries is entirely harmless and all in good fun.

    That said, I definitely have problems with people using fairly common stereotypes about Africa as “stand-ins” for anything. Which is why… I mean, everything in the music having to do with Mormons and musical theatre… I find it so on-point. And even though I have problems with the politics of Mormonism as an institution, one of the most (I think) positive things about the music is that it doesn’t treat Mormons who are Just Folks like they’re responsible for Prop 8. I actually live in a town with a large Mormon population (and a big, ornate house of worship), and it’s my experience that most people are just, well, yeah, nice. (And other reviewers who have seen the show also say there’s no mention of Prop 8.).

    And while FGM is an important issue… (I came from Women’s Studies… I cannot tell you how sick I got of hearing white women talk about FGM) I think we talk about it in the West in a really problematic way… Because it’s the practice of a minority of people in Africa, in some very specific regions… And it’s a generalization that I really think contributes to mis-spent aid money that could go to help people eat… Which is a bigger and more omnipresent problem, you know? And I really do have a bone to pick with the obsessions of Western feminists about different issues in the “developing world,” including FGM. I find it paternalistic a lot of the time, to say the least. And, no, I’m not for FGM. It’s just that I think it’s a complicated and fraught issue, and one that… Well, for me, the jokes fell flat, like I said.

    But also… For all of Uganda’s problems…

    A quick aside: And it has many. Top among them lately: That legislation that keeps popping up… The one about executing LGBT people, which is as much about Museveni’s Christian fundamentalism and autocratic tendencies as anything, frankly… And then there’s Uganda’s tendency to exacerbate strife between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi, under the guise of “helping” Tutsis, as they have done at least since right before the Rwandan genocide. They’re just about as clumsy at assisting “peace efforts” as South Africa used to be.

    So, as I was saying, for all of Uganda’s problems, high rates of HIV/AIDS actually don’t top the list. They’re the flagship country that taught every other country what needed to be done to stop the spread. Except maybe among a few marginalized (and drugged) LRA people in Uganda, the myth that sex with a virgin will cure you of AIDS doesn’t really exist. At least not there. I would bet money that Ugandans are currently far better educated about sex than most Americans, what with our abstinence only “education.” I wouldn’t have raised such an objection over this particular issue if not for the fact that you named Uganda. But you did… And since most reviewers aren’t saying much about that part of the show, I wanted to.

    And while I don’t actually have $900 to pay scalpers, I hope that I will have an opportunity to comment on the show after seeing it at some point. I quite like the music overall, and I expect I’d feel the same way about the live show too.

  3. Oh, P.S., congrats on the Tony nominations and for “reviving the Broadway musical,” as I think they said on CBS. It needed reviving, but not (I’m sorry) by High School Musical or Glee… I mean that sincerely. You’ve had an amazing critical response, so yeah… Congrats on what you’ve accomplished and all that.

  4. Having not seen the show, and only enjoying the music, I wanted to comment because, I am a Mormon. (belting)

    For the most part, the music is not offensive to anyone with a sense of humor. However, there are things in the show that are inaccurate and I wonder why they were not better researched. The author of the article above says the stats about Uganda are wrong, and there are many inaccuracies about the scripture as well.

    Accidents happen, but I kind of wonder, were they unintentional errors or were they choices? Or do inaccuracies not matter because it is more important to make people laugh?

    Hearing the songs does not sting, but listening to audiences laugh about misrepresented beliefs does. Mormons suffer from enough stereotypes. Thank you for removing many of the old ones, and oy gavult, here come some new ones.

    In the end, I believe this show will open the doors to others to at least not be so terrified of Mormons. The LDS religion is far more than a religion, it is a culture. For those who say it is a cult, note that there is little difference between those two words.

    For those who believe that Mormons are anti-gay, note that the church made a decision, much like the Catholic’s Pope outlawed divorce and abortion. In both religions, not everyone is on board with church decisions. In fact, I have heard that no decision in the church has ever been so widely challenged by the congregation as Prop 8, and it was only California’s churches that took an active stand. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is Mormon and gay marriage in that state was legalized during his term.

    I worked for ten years with Native Americans who are still fighting to eliminate Indian team names and the stereotypes that accompany them. As I heard the audience laughing at the sometimes inaccurate portrayal of Mormons in the show, I wondered, when will our country begin respecting differences? Why must there always be a group that is mocked? Does the American sense of humor primarily consist of bullying?

  5. I have seen the show, and you missed the mark on “Tomorrow is a Latter Day”. It contains the line “America has the cure for AIDS, but they are saving it for a latter day”. Which is true–AIDS drugs are not available cheaply in the quantity needed in Africa. It’s one of the last lines in the book.

    The writers had a main goal: to illustrate the misguided nature of missionary activities in Africa, and the reason for the FGM as a plot device was to illustrate the contrast between the worst actual atrocities (poverty/FGM/AIDS) in Africa (Uganda is used as a proxy, which makes it pointless to complain about facts with regard to Uganda) and the Band-Aid approach of missionaries.

  6. I really wanted to see the book of mormon. I don’t know whats going on but their seems to be a lot of good mormon shows happening right now. Between the book of mormon and Big Love I don’t exactly know what to watch.

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