What were they thinking??!!
This is what I was thinking, about midway through the opening act of The Book of Mormon, during its run at the Durham Performing Arts Center in Durham, NC. It had been one of those shows that I'd not seen on Broadway when it opened in 2011, because of the initial mad rush for tickets that seemed to indicate availability sometime in the next millennium. It went on to garner 14 Tony Award nominations that year and won nine of them, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Direction of Musical, Best Scenic, and Best Lighting Design; running the table, as it were.
My rhetorical question about what its creators were thinking was not related to its shock value or any moral concerns about, as a random example, the song "Hasa Diga Eebowai," which, translated, means "Fuck God." No, I was thinking more literally. What, I wanted to know, possessed Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone, previously known as the creators of South Park for Comedy Central, to create a musical about the work of missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - The Mormons - in Uganda. What, one might ask as well, was Stephen Sondheim thinking when he decided to create a musical about a savage serial killer in the streets of 19th century London. At least Sondheim's choice had story precedent.
Thanks to later Wikipedia research, I was able to discover part of the answer. Apparently Lopez and Jeff Marx, creators of Broadway's Avenue Q, had been highly influenced by Parker and Stone's South Park film (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut). Over drinks, each 'camp' discovered that they wanted to write something about Joseph Smith, who wrote and published the original Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi in 1830.
My curiosity about its origins was in response to the musical's wildly imaginative, scatologically humorous script that literally had the muscles of my face aching from constant smiles. This was something special, right from the start.
The DPAC production, under the direction of Parker and Casey Nicholaw, recipients of the Tony Award for direction, was flawless. The set, by Scott Pask, and lighting, by Brian MacDevitt, both recipients of the original Tony Award, was fluid, functional and remarkably adept at creating spaces for both intimacy and the expansive choreography of Nicholaw, who also won the original Tony Award. This touring production (the third, since 2012) had a lot going for it before the opening curtain.
It is hard to imagine a more appropriate choice for the role of Elder Cunningham than this production's Cody Jamison Strand, who should have, in my opinion, been allotted the final curtain call. He shared that final moment, briefly, with David Larsen, in the role of Elder Price, but once they had taken a bow together, Larsen deferred to Strand for a solo bow, before taking his own (last) individual bow. If, as is my presumption, the final bow should go to the individual who had the greatest impact on the overall presentation, Strand was clearly the choice. Larsen was the quintessential, lead male 'type': strikingly handsome and poised. Strand, on the other hand, looked and acted like a computer geek; short, a little chunky, and sporting a pair of dark-rimmed glasses that he was forever, appropriately, pushing back up onto the bridge of his nose.
Strand (the sixth person, between Broadway and touring productions, to have played the role) was letter-perfect. He used vocal inflections, body movement and comic timing in service to a remarkably nuanced performance that had his audience in the palm of his hand from the opening scenes to the final curtain. Larsen (also the sixth person to play the role) was exceptional, as well, in service to a role that had much less to offer. There is, I contend, only so much a man can do with the standard 'handsome male lead' role.
The third lead role - the Ugandan woman, Nabulungi, who becomes enamored with the teachings, and in sly ways to the teacher (Strand), was assigned to Candace Quarrels (another sixth performer to play the role). She, too, was remarkable, managing somehow to evoke both innocence and savvy (not to mention strong vocal talent) to a role that provided a key third triangular point of balance to the two male leads.
Under the direction of Nicholaw and Parker, the show burst out of the gate with energy and speed, which it maintained throughout; not always as much of a given as one might think. Blocking through the multiplicity of set changes was as fluid and dynamic as Nicholaw's choreography, executed by a well-rehearsed cast that made it all look easy and fun.
It's a bit crass, this tale and its manifestations in song and dance. It does, thankfully, possess a subtle heart that beyond its crass exterior, and ability to offend, has the potential to uplift your spirit, and cause you to think twice about man's ancient search for a new and better way to say "people should be nice to each other." You'd think, given its overt and profane pokes at an established, organized religion, that representatives of that religion, the Church of Latter Day Saints, and anyone set in their ways about what is and is not appropriate, would be highly offended. According to published reports about its original and touring productions, many people were. The Mormon Church itself, however, was rather surprisingly, albeit cautiously, supportive. Using phrases like "you've seen the musical, now read the book," the church advertises in production programs (two such ads appeared in the DPAC program, which, by the way, did not offer audiences a list of the show's musical numbers).
If you've ever found yourself thinking that you've seen just about everything that American Musical Theater has to offer (as, for example, 50 years of watching it might have a tendency to do), get thee to a performance of The Book of Mormon. Fair warning to any among you who are offended easily, but if you're capable of allowing humor to trump any offense taken, the show could well restore your faith in a belief that innovation, and an on-going fresh approach to the genre are alive and well.
The Book of Mormon will continue performances at the Durham Performing Arts Center in Durham, NC, and The Paramount Theater in Seattle, WA, through January 10, 2016. It will open at the Au-Rene Theater at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale, FL on January 26 and play through February 7. It will settle into Tucson, AZ's Centennial Hall for a week (February 16-22), and open on February 23 for a 12-performance run at the San Diego Civic Theater in San Diego. Further information about ongoing performances can be found at various Internet sites related to the musical.