Most people are coming because of who created the show, not for any specific religious reasons. They are fans of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, or of their animated TV show South Park, or of Robert Lopez’ hit musical Avenue Q. Patrons’ knowledge of the LDS faith ranges from next to nothing to all too familiar.
New Yorker Bruce Wolfe claimed to know nothing about Mormons while waiting to see a preview of The Book of Mormon on March 4. “I actually wish I knew more. All I know is Big Love, Mitt Romney and that BYU suspended that basketball player for having sex.”
Kevin Wehrenberg, of Los Angeles, said his friend is a producer on the reality TV show Sister Wives, about a polygamous Utah family, and also noted, “I’ve never met a mean Mormon.”
Robert Lopez: Friendly Folk
When Robert Lopez, one of the creators of The Book of Mormon, visited Salt Lake City, he was thrown for a loop. It wasn’t the mountains, the Mormon faith or Temple Square—it was the unending friendliness of the place. “I grew up in New York City, and I’m not used to people being that nice,” he said. “They were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I loved talking to people there.”
While the South Park notoriety of Trey Parker and Matt Stone is drawing many people to The Book of Mormon, many theatergoers we interviewed before a preview in early March said they were there because they wanted to see how Lopez would follow up his previous award-winning Broadway hit, Avenue Q.
New York City-based actor Michael Leslie was on hand to see the show, and had experienced Salt Lake City while working at Pioneer Memorial Theatre in 2002 and touring with a production that came through Salt Lake City in 2006. “I thought everyone was very nice,” he said, “and I don’t mean that in a Donny and Marie kind of way. You have to give up a lot of your preconceived notions when you go there.”
One audience member knowledgeable about the LDS faith was Dave Smith, who was raised Mormon in Salt Lake City before having his name taken off the church records and moving to Seattle while his parents were serving an LDS mission. “I was watching South Park one night, and I saw one little commercial for the show,” he said, “and I had to find a way to come see it. I’ve never been to New York City before. It’s the whole reason we came here.”
For Mormons, the good news is their faith is the talk of America’s pop-culture capital right now. The bad news is, the mouthpiece is a couple of animators known for talking poop and a puppeteer known for puppets that have sex. The musical is clearly meant to be a satire of the religion and its missionaries, not to mention Utah culture, although the promise is that it is done in a loving way. (See accompanying review of the musical on p. 21.) That audiences would clamor to see a musical that mocks Mormonism suggests the religion is finally in the mainstream. Others argue it only reinforces the notion that Mormons are now and forever a “peculiar people.” Likely, it is some of both.
Megan Sanborn Jones has studied how Mormons are perceived in popular culture going all the way back to the 19th-century melodramas when they were cast as villains who kidnapped young women and took them to Salt Lake City to be forced into polygamous marriages. As an assistant professor of theater and media arts at Brigham Young University, she now studies how Mormons are perceived in contemporary culture, and finds that while the stereotypes have improved, they are still stereotypes nonetheless. She finds that Mormons are now seen as “Boy Scouts or clean-cut Americans,” and notes, “the stereotype of the Boy Scout or clean-cut American may be just as prejudiced as some of the previous stereotypes about Mormons.” After all, stereotypes are ultimately limiting, even if meant as a compliment. Is saying that Mormons are “so nice” really just a backhanded compliment?
Nevertheless, if there’s somebody who can break that stereotype, Sanborn Jones, a South Park fan herself, thinks it could be the South Park guys. “They know things about the church and can embed things that go beyond cultural stereotypes. They can weave Mormonism into the narrative in complicated ways. They’re willing to mock and reveal what they see as hypocrisy, but even so, while they are critiquing they are simultaneously turning that critique back on itself.”
Of course, as many South Park fans are aware, The Book of Mormon isn’t the first time Stone and Parker have shown a fascination with Utah’s predominant religion. On the Comedy Central show, Joseph Smith is part of the “Super Best Friends,” a group of religious leaders that includes the likes of Jesus and Muhammad. In 2003, a South Park episode titled “All About the Mormons,” featured an LDS family with a son, Gary, who befriends Stan, one of the main characters. One part of the episode recounts the Joseph Smith story in a song that has a chorus of “dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb” after every assertion about the Mormon prophet. Stan complains about the lack of empirical evidence for the religion and that Mormons just get people to do things because they are so relentlessly nice. The next day, Gary tells Stan that while the Joseph Smith story might not make a lot of sense, “I have a great life and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that.” That interplay between finding Mormon doctrines and history unbelievable while also recognizing the positive effect the church can have on its members is also present in the musical.
Outsiders Versus Insiders
As a relatively small group existing on the fringes of the religious mainstream for 180 years and with a long history of being persecuted, Mormons remain a tempting target for satire. It’s not like Mormons are going to issue a fatwa or start going around blowing things up. On the other hand, “by vigorously promoting their religion through missionaries and media, Mormons are asking to be judged, and inviting criticism,” says Terryl Givens, literature and religion professor at the University of Richmond who was the keynote speaker at the Mormon Media Studies Symposium at BYU this past fall.
Loyd Ericson, who is in the Mormon Studies Program in the Department of Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont (Calif.) Graduate University, thinks Mormons may be taking offense just because they automatically do so when any critique comes from outsiders. All of us have had the experience of complaining about the people in our family, but if somebody outside our family says anything, we immediately turn defensive.
“[Parker, Stone and Lopez] take a shot at everybody,” actor Michael Leslie said before seeing the show. “It’s a buckshot approach, and it goes everywhere. Who knows, tonight they might make fun of a lot of different groups.”
“They’re an equal-opportunity offender,” Wolfe pointed out.
Ericson describes himself as both an “active, believing Mormon,” as well as a “huge fan of South Park.” Many Mormons under 30 have never really known a time when the cartoon was not on TV, since it is now in its 14th season, and they seem to have no qualms about balancing their faith with Parker and Stone’s brand of humor.
When the musical was announced, Ericson set up a satirical Facebook page called “Mormons Against Broadway—because of its obvious support of anti-Mormonism,” in hopes Stone and Parker would notice it and possibly send him free tickets to the show. He notes that in the South Park episode about a Mormon family, at the end of the show, the other kids end up thinking the Mormon kid is incredibly cool. In translating that over to the musical, he predicts, “If they spent the entire musical being mean, after a few months, nobody would want to see it.”
“There are a lot of quirky things about us that make for a good laugh,” says Bill Silcock, a Mormon who also happens to be the director of Walter Cronkite Global Initiatives at Arizona State University, a former BYU professor and a veteran TV and radio broadcaster. “In pioneer days, when we were attacked, we circled the wagons. We don’t circle the wagons anymore. Today we open up the circle and invite everybody in.”
Which is exactly the approach the church seems to be taking.
The Best Response is No Response
So, what does the LDS Church think of all of this? The church declined our specific request for an interview but did forward the one and only official sentence the LDS Church has issued about the musical: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
The posting at Newsroom.LDS.org also refers to a statement from 2009 called “The Publicity Dilemma.” Several examples are given where the church simply ignored what it felt were unfair portrayals, including: “When the comedy writers for South Park produced a gross portrayal of church history, individual church members no doubt felt uncomfortable. But, once again, it inflicted no perceptible or lasting damage to a church that is growing by at least a quarter of a million new members every year.”
“The church seems to be very savvy in how they are handling this,” BYU’s Sanborn Jones says. “They’re saying, ‘We’ll recognize this as an art piece and not praise or condemn it.’”
“I think it’s brilliant,” Silcock says of the line that balances entertainment for an evening vs. changing a life. “It’s short enough to be blogged, tweeted, quoted or put in a sound bite.”
Perhaps the church is lying low because, in the end, any press is good press.
A Missionary Opportunity?
Isn’t any attention, positive or negative, better than being ignored when your stated goal is to spread your message throughout the world? Several audience members interviewed after a preview performance of The Book of Mormon saw the show’s message and critiques as directed at all organized religions, and not just the LDS faith.
Brianne Huber of Pittsburgh said, “I don’t think it was against any one religion in particular. I thought it was a good message, a good metaphor about how to live your life. I felt that they did a good job of looking at our ideas of what religion should be.”
“It ultimately is a sweet show,” said Smith, the former Mormon we talked to, “offering an air of good will and service and thoughtfulness in an otherwise bleak and unforgiving world; a world in which many may have given up on God. Yet through faith, service and love, we can all rise above the suffering.”
“On balance, it’s a good bargain for the Mormons,” says Givens. He points out that the Book of Mormon as scripture has weathered many attacks in the past, and says, “Though Mormons may cringe at a South Park version of their sacred scripture, history suggests the interest generated will work to their advantage. ... Mormons realize the negative portrayals are the cost of doing business in the public sphere.”
“It boils down to cultures,” Silcock says. “Whether it’s Broadway culture or Mormon culture, you’re looking across at the other culture trying to find common ground. The arts help you do that.”
But even getting to tell your story doesn’t guarantee acceptance. In the end, “I think most Mormons would agree in their hearts that it is better to be mocked than ignored,” Givens says. “Of course, being loved is better than both.”
Maybe love will grow from this show. Tom Larson, a South Park fan from Old Town, Maine, made his first trip to Manhattan just to see The Book of Mormon, and came away more curious about the faith. “It’s definitely one of those things where I’d want to check it out more to see what they were talking about in the show,” he said. Who knows, after seeing missionaries onstage, maybe the next time the real ones come around ... ?
Actually, if a pair of enterprising young elders in the New York City mission wanted to get more “investigators,” they’d do well to get a waiver from the mission president to stay out past 10:30 p.m. on 49th Street to hand out Books of Mormon and set up appointments for discussions as people come out of the theater.