Anthony J. Piccione
Prior to 2011, when most people heard the names Trey Parker and Matt Stone – if they had ever heard of them at all – they could easily be forgiven for immediately thinking of South Park and not much else. Most people who have never watched that show probably only know its history of raunchy and foul-mouthed humor, and while I personally love that kind of humor, I know that for many people that’s not exactly their cup of tea. Yet those of us who are very familiar with the show know that it is proof of Parker and Stone’s fearless approach to tackling current events and controversial issues in a way that is both highly irreverent and intelligent at the same time.
Yet it was through Broadway theatre in which the satirical geniuses behind South Park would be put on full-display.
To anyone who has been lucky enough to have seen The Book of Mormon on Broadway, it should come as absolutely no surprise that it has received the critical acclaim that it has. Yes, it contains much of the same potty-mouthed humor that you’d expect to hear from Eric Cartman on an episode of South Park. However, it also proves to be a surprisingly smart satire of religion that manages to be entertaining to both believers and non-believers alike. It is one of those rare shows that prove to be highly hilarious, while also making great social commentary at the same time. It is for this reason that I consider it to be one of the greatest musicals of the 21st century so far, and dare I say it, the greatest satirical show of the past 100 years.
As it is, the fact that the show is entitled The Book of Mormon guarantees that it is a show that’s bound to piss at least a few audience members off. The show itself is essentially a satirical critique of not just Mormonism, but arguably religion in general. Many of the fallacies and hypocrisies found in organized religion – particularly in Christianity – are targeted in very clever ways in this show.
One of the more obvious examples is the musical number “Turn It Off”, which ridicules the belief among some religious people that you can use prayer to make negative feelings – or perceivably negative feelings – go away easily. A more specific example of this would be the belief among fundamentalists that you can “pray the gay away”. When Elder Price and Elder Cunningham go to Uganda as part of their mission, only to be greeted with a musical number such as “Hasa Diga Eebowai” as well as references to widespread famine, AIDS and female circumcision, their reaction seems to poke fun at the notion that African countries face the trouble that they are in today because they haven’t found Jesus yet. There’s also “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”, which satirizes the fear of going to Hell that many Christians have, as well as their idea of what potentially awaits them when they get there. And let’s not forget one of my favorite songs – and the most underrated, as well –in the entire show: “Joseph Smith American Moses”. When it is shown that the Ugandans have not learned the proper teachings of Mormonism from Elder Cunningham, their made-up version which includes a cameo from the Starship Enterprise and a moment in which Joseph Smith attempts to rape a baby, as well as the conclusion of the show in which they decide to stick with this false view of Mormonism, both poke fun at people who claim to belong to a certain religion, but do not stick to all the principles of that particular religion.
To a majority of theatergoers – even if they are not Mormons – such content might make them extremely uncomfortable, given their own personal beliefs and how they are targeted – in some cases, more explicitly than others – in the show. Yet it would seem that, for the most part, people who have already seen The Book of Mormon do not seem to care too much for any of this, whether they are religious or not. The likely explanation for this is simple: It’s very, VERY funny. As long as they are entertained, it would seem that it does not matter to these people what it is that they are poking fun at, and it is ultimately each of these two elements of the show – both the entertainment aspect and the social/political aspect – that have made it both critically and commercially successful.
The bottom line is that The Book of Mormon is both one of the smartest and most hilarious shows on Broadway right now, and perhaps of all time. With this show, Parker and Stone have managed to take their biting satire that they first developed with their work on South Park, and have not only taken it to new levels, but have also managed to bring it to larger audiences than other satirical shows in recent years have been able to do. It is for this reason why I believe that any list of the “greatest” recent Broadway shows of all time has no credibility unless The Book of Mormon is somewhere on the list, and why I believe that it is a show that people will still be holding up as a near-perfect example of satire in theatre for generations to come.