Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Book of Broadway

"South Park" creators go for easy laughs over hard truths.

The Book of Mormon, a musical from ”South Park” creators Trey Park and Matt Stone, has been the talk of Broadway and beyond since its premiere in March 2011. The sold-out show plays to a packed house at the Eugene O’Neill Theater seven performances a week with plenty of laughs and well-choreographed song and dance numbers that pay homage to everything from Guys and Dolls to 42nd Street to the Sound of Music. But while The Book of Mormon has moments of brilliance, it’s also fundamentally lazy.

I flew to New York to see the musical at the invitation of my college friend, Adam, who, like me, went to Brigham Young University and who is now, like me, a post-but-not-anti-Mormon. Adam served a foreign mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—I did not, but I was a Sunday School teacher for several years and am raising my children in the church. Clutching our tickets and ready for a hilarious send-up of our former church, we were the “sadder but wiser girls” of The Music Man with all the “let’s go to the movies!” excitement of Annie.

I’ll concede that perhaps we were not the intended audience. But I’m not quite sure who is. People expecting an attack on the Mormon faith will be disappointed—the writers treat Latter-day Saints downright fondly. It’s not sharp satire, it’s not effective parody, and with its prolific use of the F-word and other vulgarities, it’s not a show that will find ongoing life in high school drama productions, on cruise ships, or in homes with children (mine included).

My critique of the musical takes two forms—artistic, and thematic. Let me first say that I enjoyed the experience and laughed out loud throughout. The Book of Mormon is an essentially good-natured, but not particularly pointed Bildungsroman, and what subject could be more perfect for a “young man coming of age” tale than the ubiquitous, clean-cut, earnest Mormon missionary? But in the end, it’s not always clear whether the musical is a clever homage or a derivative formula with a cute but canned and unsatisfying message—the artistic equivalent of Diet Coke.

What is clear is that Parker and Stone love musicals—and they like Mormons. “Two by two, we’re marching door to door, ‘Cause God loves Mormons, and he wants some more,” the chorus of young missionaries sings in a rousing number that sets the tone for the play. This first musical number is good clean fun, with echoes of Loesser’s brilliant “Fugue for Tinhorns” that opens  Guys and Dolls (a more deserving “Best Musical” Tony winner). The scene takes some artistic license with the actual Mormon missionary process—the Elders  are told where they’ll be going while at the Missionary Training Center (in reality, the call comes before the missionary leaves, and increasingly, Elders do their MTC time at a training center in the country where they serve). These inaccuracies are distracting for those who know better, but forgivable dramatic license, especially when the larger picture they paint is true.

For example, “Turn It Off,” in which a senior missionary advises a newbie to put his inappropriate feelings into a box, then “crush that box,” was another number that spoke to both Adam and me. Like one of the missionaries, Adam is gay, so he identified with that aspect of the message, while I related to theological conundrums that Mormons have to compartmentalize or ignore (the frequent references to “Lord of the Rings” made me laugh—I have used Tolkien on more than one occasion to counter the Mormon argument that Joseph Smith simply couldn’t have come up with The Book of Mormon on his own).

But not all the numbers are so effective, especially in Act Two, where Elder Price, who feels that he has been sent to Uganda by mistake (he should have gone to Orlando), has a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” This was the nadir of the show for me, both artistically and thematically. I could imagine Parker and Stone sitting around saying, “Hey, we need a big production number here. Let’s put in a South Park hell scene with dancing Starbucks coffee cups.”

Newsflash, boys (and audience): Mormons don’t believe in hell. Not even for apostates like Adam and me, who have left the church. The worst we could get is something called Outer Darkness—no spooky red Satan, no Hitler, and definitely no dancing coffee cups. Mormons may have guilt complexes that rival Catholics’, but one of the major selling points of the church, from a theological standpoint, is its extremely rewarding afterlife: Be a good Mormon in this life, and you get your own planet (the Celestial kingdom). Most good people, Christians included, are going to exactly the kind of heaven they already imagine (the Terrestrial Kingdom). Screw up in this life, and you’re still going someplace so awesome that if we knew about it, we’d commit suicide to get there (the Telestial kingdom, and I’m paraphrasing Joseph Smith himself here).

Another big gaffe—the portrayal of the mission presidency as rigid, unsympathetic characters who say things like, “Praise Christ” (I have never heard this particular phrase come out of any Mormon’s mouth). Underneath their helmet hair, mission presidents and their wives are charismatic, humble, hard-working, sympathetic, life-changing people. Ask any Mormon missionary (Adam included) about his or her mission president, and you’re sure to get glowing reviews. The church leadership calls truly extraordinary people to this important role.

Another aspect of Mormon culture that Stone and Parker did not grasp is that for aspiring Mormon missionaries, a foreign mission, even (or perhaps especially) to Uganda, is always preferable to a domestic one. A real Elder Price would feel shortchanged with a calling to Orlando, unless perhaps it were Spanish speaking. (The Singles Ward, a Mormon comedy, captures this trope for Mormon audiences when one of the characters is called on his mission to Boise, Idaho, eliciting big laughs and some sympathetic grimaces).

A word about the vulgarity: every popular play since Aristophanes has it, and so does this one. Whether you think it’s too much depends on your tolerance level for it. Do not expect the cleverly metaphorical sexual and scatological references of Shakespeare, but rather the constant, loud, and obvious profanities of the creators’ “South Park.”

Adam and I both decided that the musical was essentially a nice draft, but not something worthy of 14 Tony Awards.  In fact, we both want a rewrite. I think the musical would be much more culturally pointed for both Mormon and non-Mormon audiences if it were set in the Deep South (think Romney vs. Perry), and Adam wants the missionary group to include native Africans, South Americans, or female missionaries (no other modern musical would get a free pass for drawing such unreal gender and racial divisions). The baffling hell dream could easily be swapped for a dystopian vision of the Celestial kingdom where bizarre notions of planets and plural wives would be hilariously in context.

Were Adam and I setting the bar a bit high? What is a musical, after all, if not easy caricature, predictable story arc, and popular images set to catchy but familiar tunes? Or were we, despite our distance from the church as adults, not entirely able to tolerate a joke at our own expense? Perhaps we have to concede some ground on both points, but our expectations are not unreasonable. Musicals can be smart and true while being funny. And no one is more apt to laugh at an honest joke than its subject. This musical scratched out some obvious nuggets of humor, but Mormon life and the missionary experience are richly veined with un-mined absurdity. The world still waits for a Mormon Woody Allen.

The sad truth about The Book of Mormon is that Parker and Stone can get away with being lazy, because the audience’s expectations are so low. As the current political “debate” about religion has shown us, it’s still culturally acceptable in America to call Mormons a cult, and this musical, while generally kind to the church, plays into that backward mentality. “I can’t believe any intelligent person would believe those things,” Adam heard one woman remark as we left the theater, entirely missing the point of the musical—that all religions are equally delusional but harmlessly so if practiced with a pure heart. But another group began to say loud and effusive positive things about the Mormons they knew. “Mormons aren’t like that at all!” one woman said, glancing nervously back at us (with our blonde hair and blue eyes, Adam and I look as Mormon as we are—culturally speaking). Actually, Parker and Stone get Mormons pretty well. It’s just too bad they took the low road.

(Thanks to my friend Adam for suggesting this play, hosting me for the weekend, and providing many of the more clever quips in this review. As he notes, we make a pretty good team. Maybe we'll write our own musical version of The Book of Mormon someday.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

An American Hero, an American Tragedy

I am called to a strange ministry. Whenever I fly, I know that at some point, someone who needs to talk about something painful will sit down next to me. We’ll exchange pleasantries, I’ll open my book or start working on my laptop, and that person will begin to talk. And talk. And talk.

I’m not complaining. I really do see my airline role as a calling. I’ve counseled people to work on their marriages, talked teens into giving their parents a second chance, advised people on difficult life decisions. Today, on the flight from Salt Lake City to Chicago, the doors were ready to close when a young family made their way down the aisle. The father was unshaven, clad in a filthy jacket and torn jeans. The mother was visibly pregnant and exhausted. The three year old daughter, still in her Disney Princess pajamas, was crying. “I hate this fucking airline,” the young man muttered, looking for help, ANY help, and not finding any as passenger after passenger refused to meet his eyes.

There was, proverbially, no room in the inn. No one was willing to give up a seat so the family could sit together. At last, one woman reluctantly relinquished her window seat and moved to a middle one so the mother and daughter could be together two rows ahead of me. But the smug young man on the aisle refused to give up his seat to the father, who ended up in the middle seat beside me.

I made some conciliatory welcoming comment about what a cute daughter he had, and how frustrating it must be to not be able to sit with his family. I asked him where they were headed. His eyes welled up with tears. “My sister was just killed in Afghanistan,” he replied. “We are trying to get to Arkansas for her funeral.”

He had come straight off a 12 hour shift in the copper mine in Ely, Nevada (which explained the stained jacket and jeans), then driven four hours to the airport in Salt Lake City. The funeral, with full military honors, would be on Saturday.

His sister’s name was Sarina Mills Butcher. She is an American hero. Sarina was a member of the Oklahoma National Guard who died when her convoy hit an IED. She would have been 20 next week. She joined the military so she could pay for her schooling—she wanted to be a nurse. Sarina leaves behind a two year old daughter, Zoe.

“Zoe—that means ‘life,’” I told him. His eyes filled up with tears again. We talked about life, the randomness of it all. He told me about his own time in Iraq, how he couldn’t help but feel guilty, like he should have been the one to die. Sarina was going to come to Vegas on her next leave and meet him there to celebrate her 20th birthday.

It was a sobering flight. I’ve lost people I love, so I know what it feels like—that initial stage of shock, the overwhelming sense of loss. “You have to be strong for your mom,” I told him. He nodded.  As we parted ways, I told him I would light a candle for Sarina. “Thank you,” he said, and shook my hand.

As I entered the terminal, I couldn’t help but notice the smug young man who had refused to give up his seat. I did not have kind thoughts for him. But I know we all make selfish choices sometimes, when we lack information (or sometimes even when we have information). In a way, I was grateful for his stubbornness, because I got to learn firsthand about a young mother who died too soon in the service of her country, to celebrate her life and to mourn her passing.

We’ve been at war for more than ten years.  The Roman poet Horace wrote “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” But there are few things that are sweet about the loss of a young mother.