“The Book of Mormon” was my first West End show and I expected it to be trivial, superficial and made only for the hungry desire that people have for entertainment. Maybe it’s just me, but every time I see or hear of some comedy or “feel better” show, I cringe and I remember of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and the tiny pills of somma and I can’t help but think that we are not very far from that.
The musical touches very sensitive spots in the human character and brings some serious questions to the table. That is why I didn’t see it as a funny story as it is presented in the acclaimed reviews. I saw it as a tragedy of stereotypes, a tragedy of laughter, a destiny that we cannot escape yet as a human race. “The Book of Mormon” is a religious satire, but also a satire of the present society.
The storyline is somewhat predictable and simple from the very start: the selfish and arrogant student is paired with the outcast of the group, a chubby boy who likes to lie and has also a vivid imagination and they are sent together in a mission to Uganda. Uganda becomes a big disappointment for Elder Price who had big dreams of being famous and admired. He just wants to do something amazing, he doesn’t have a clue what that could be and it really doesn’t matter for him either. He thinks he is entitled to a good life because he has worked for it. His giant ego compensates for a lack of personality and for the blind obedience to his parents and his religion. And that is why his renunciation is expected. In contrast, Elder Cunningham just wants to fit in and to have friends and he will do anything to accomplish this.
The show counts on the well-established preconceptions as well: Africa is poor, Africans are primitives who rape babies and cut women’s clitorises, Americans are so evolved and they come to the rescue with a magical book. This is the source of the jokes on the show. I would say this is the dark side of the play because, in the place of Africans, it could have been any other culture and the story would have had the same meaning, but of course, not same box office revenues. I am not going to tackle this though since there are plenty of reviews on this topic.
The play is full of ingenious songs that will make you laugh and cry at the same time. “Turn it off” is a disturbingly happy song who underlines the need of rejecting one’s dark side and pretending it’s not even there. So what if you’re gay? Turn it off! So what if you lie? Turn it off! Turn it off and pretend that’s not who you are. Maybe it will go away someday… And this goes hand in hand with the song the village sings “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (a phrase that supposedly means “Fuck you, God”), that would revolt most believers in God. The lyrics itself are not a blasphemy, it’s a rebellion against God and his lack of love for them. Through the simple and seeming gesture of hatred against God, they acknowledge his existence. That is why they are so easily converted by Elder Cunningham with his false stories. These two songs are different sides of the same coin: placing the responsibility of oneself and actions outside of oneself, to a greater and wiser force. So the Americans and the Africans are pretty much the same, rich or poor, white or black, they all share the same flawed human essence: waiting for a salvation outside them and needing to believe in something.
Another important part of the musical is when Elder Cunningham succeeds in making the Africans follow him. He changes the original stories to map the reality they live in and to respond to their needs. They need discipline, they need to not rape babies anymore and as soon as they recognize themselves in the fables, they immediately accept an authority that tells them it’s wrong what they have been doing. This motif is so old and yet still new and present in the current art. So the scene creates some difficult questions: Do we need to be compelled in order to distinguish right from wrong? Does religion still answer the needs of the people nowadays? Do we even need religion?
The book has the role of a mirror. They see there a better version of themselves so they start to believe in this outer improved version. This is what gives them the confidence to defeat the evil lord. The book unites them by providing a common goal: the wish to defeat the dark side and promoting their positive self. Could this be a real change that happened in their inner core? Or is it a scam that could be easily demolished by the disappearance of the book? Are they integrating into themselves the desire to be good or are they placing it in the hands of imaginary selves?
The ending seems quite naive and happy: they are victorious and a new religion was born: “The book of Arnold”. This shows that the world was not fundamentally changed. Will we ever be able to get rid of our tendency of escapism and stories? Or is this actually the path to our salvation as a human race?
These are the questions that came to my mind after seeing the musical. I think it’s a matter of taste whether you will like it or not, but there are exquisite music and bold scenes. I would say it’s definitely worth it if you are not expecting to have a good silly laugh and you want to experience a vivid caricature of the flawed and childish humankind.