Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Quick Read on "The Book of Mormon"

Posted by Bruce Miller
On our recent theatre trip to NYC, my daughter Hannah and I saw The Book of Mormon. Almost locked-in to win the Tony Award for Best Musical, Mormon is the hottest ticket on Broadway. So it's the one show we bought in advance, paying $352 (before box office service charges) for two seats in the rear mezz. Yikes!

I read a rave review on Facebook from one of the Richmond theatre artists I most respect. His glowing assessment echoed the sentiments of virtually every mover and shaper in American theatre. Mormon has already won Best Musical nods from the New York Drama Critics' Circle, the Drama Desk Awards, the Outer Critics Circle Awards, and the Drama League Awards.

Ben Brantley in the New York Times called it "the best musical of this century." Peter Marks gushes in the Washington Post: "Matt and Trey: where have they been all my life? The Book of Mormon deserves worship." The critic in Vogue proclaims it "the best new American musical of the last 25 years." And Entertainment Weekly describes it as "a perfect Broadway musical," adding, "This is what 21st Century Broadway can be."

The youthful, packed house on the Sunday evening performance we attended went WILD--the most enthusiastic audience response I've witnessed on Broadway since the euphoric reaction that followed Jennifer Holliday singing And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going in the pre-Tony Award months of the original run of Dreamgirls in 1982.

So what did we think of The Book of Mormon? I liked it more than Hannah did. There were elements I liked a lot. If the rest of the world weren't getting all orgasmic, I'd be talking about how fun it was. But the best musical of the century or the last 25 years? Better than Into the Woods, The Lion King, Rent, Wicked, Spring Awakening, and Light in the Piazza? I have to admit that I just don't get it.

I'm sure part of it is that I'm 60 years old. I've never watched South Park, also written by two of the creators of Mormon, even for five seconds. When I watched that South Park "Hamlet" take-off that James Ricks posted on Facebook a week or so ago, I found it confusing and annoying and not funny in the least. I'm 60 years old, which I know is no excuse, but it seems to me like maybe it's germane.

My taste in musicals was forged during the era of Stephen Sondheim. My favorite musical of all time is A Little Night Music. My favorite musicals of this century are Wicked, Spring Awakening, and Light in the Piazza. I NEVER thought I'd say this about Sondheim (Night Music), but I fear and suspect that my beloved musicals of days gone by now seem terribly old school to young, savvy theatregoers who find Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon to be what American musical theatre needs today.

To me, The Book of Mormon was a lot of fun, clever and energetic, full of sound and fury signifying ... not a heck of a lot. To me, it was mostly derivative. Like Spamalot and Avenue Q, it revels in its irreverence. Like Drowsy Chaperone, it celebrates unapologetic musical comedy technique. Like Urinetown, it finds much of its humor from referencing other musical theatre hits. Like The Producers, it rejoices in an old fashioned bring-on-the-dancing-girls (in this case boys) sensibility that is almost quaint. Like In the Heights, it wraps everything up at the end with a tidy sentimental bow.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Unlike the great works of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Kander and Ebb, it breaks no new ground with its production, libretto or score. It challenges nothing (seriously, find me an easier target for satire). It takes us nowhere we haven't been before. It teaches us very little. But it doesn't intend to do any of that.

Also, full disclosure time, I experience discomfort making smart-aleck fun of anyone's faith, no matter what that faith may be. Early in the show, there's a jaunty song that repeats the catch phrase, forgive me, "f... you God," I knew my father, were he alive, would be deeply hurt to see me applauding.

So, let me say what I LOVED about the show:

The CONCEPT: Take the squeakiest clean, fastest growing religion in the world and insert two of its virgin missionaries into Uganda, the most hellish place on earth (at least as described in this show), and see what they can do to convert a populace that is being decimated by AIDS, barbaric war loads, and enforced female circumcisions. View everything though the lens of American musical comedy. A GREAT idea.

The PERFORMANCES: I thought Josh Gad as a Mormon Zach Galifianakis (Jack Black?) and Andrew Rannells as a Mormon Bradley Cooper were full of talent and energy, as were their Mormon back-up singers. Nikki M. James, the beautiful black woman who is the first to convert, is a joy to watch. Everyone sings, dances and acts with such a love of all things Broadway, they send your spirits soaring.

The RESOLUTION: Using the mythology of the Broadway musical to shed light on the mythology of Mormonism (standing in for all the world's religions), and watching the Disneyworld Africans discover that, yes, mythology is make-believe but that's all it's ever been intended to be--stand-ins for the truths of love and interconnectedness. Yes, it is a small world after all.

I honestly did think the show was fresh, excitingly performed, and a lot of fun. At the end, it's even sorta sweet. I wasn't offended, just a little uneasy. In the overall arc of musical theatre, I think this show will go down as very 2011. Which is in many ways a great compliment.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your take, I can't wait to see it. I adore the soundtrack, and I'm not even that big of a musical fan. Please don't hate me for that last comment.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry! I am a young theatrical composer and lyricist. The Sondheim/Hammerstein/Schwartz musical is still beloved and respected. The truth of the matter is; modern composers HATE this show! The approximate rhymes, the sloppy meter, the lack of depth and intelligence in the writing. What the younger generation is creating built off of what Sondheim did before us and elaborated the form. Crap like Book of Mormon is only put up by producers who assume all audiences are lazy and incapable of thought.