Last weekend I was lucky enough to watch the musical The Book of Mormon, created by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matthew Stone, for the first time in the Prince of Wales Theatre. To summarise the show in three words I would have to say satirical, rebellious, and relevant. The play follows two Mormons, Elder Kevin Price and Elder Arnold Cunningham as they embark on their 2-year mission to an HIV/Aids-infected village in Uganda suffering from poverty and oppression under the cutthroat rule of the tyrannical General Butt Naked. This General is surprisingly a true person, whose nickname came from his belief that devouring the hearts of children before a battle completely butt naked would protect him from bullets. Which funnily enough worked as he is now a general turned preacher, helping rehabilitate former child soldiers into a more ordinary life. Who says people can’t change?
Upon arrival, the two Mormons expected their trip to be an exciting experience in which they can bring the Mormon church to the villagers and encourage them to be baptised and join the faith. They try to share the Book of Mormon with the villagers, which the Mormons believe is the third part of the Bible. The villagers, unsurprisingly, are not convinced by the Mormons as they are more concerned with surviving the day than following God, who they see as being responsible for all the hardships in their life. The villagers instead seem to have a much stronger connection with their motto “Hasa Diga Eebowai” than any other religious idea from the series of religious people that come into the village with a white saviour complex to temporarily try to fix things. It takes Elder Arnold Cunningham to change the story of the Book of Mormon to fit the challenges that the Ugandan people are facing to convince them to join the Church, resulting in a made-up fourth book of the Bible – ‘The Book of Arnold’ – which shares lessons in hope to stop the villagers raping babies to get rid of their Aids and the widespread female genital mutilation that was taking place. When the Mormon Church discovers how their religion has been completely changed, instead of criticising Arnold, they embrace his fourth book and create a new type of Church which the villagers now spread around the country on their own mission.
The play has several hilarious parts, from the telling of how the Mormon church came to exist from the ‘All-American’ prophet Joseph Smith digging up of gold plates which contained the word of God to the spooky Mormon hell dream envisioned by Elder Price where the likes of Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan and Jeffrey Dahmer make a chaotic guest appearance as demons of hell amongst other forbidden Mormon activities such as Starbucks coffee cups. However, what I found most interesting was the relevance of Book of Mormon and how it gently and sometimes aggressively ridiculed not only the Mormon church, but really the concept of collective religion. The fact that a whole new religion was created by the end of the play in a fashion that mirrored how the Mormon church came to exist from one man Joseph Smith and his vision from God, was echoed by Elder Cunningham who used stories inspired by the Hobbit and Star Wars to create a new religious book which he was taught to the villagers as the word of God, later called ‘The Book of Arnold’.
Religion has always been a complicated topic of discussion, and especially today, where having a modern and rational mindset can really emphasise the problems with religion and its ideas. Ricky Gervais said that if you were to burn all the religious books in the world then you would eradicate these religious stories and ideas from civilisation. But if you were to do the same with scientific books, then people, throughout the years would do the same experiments again and find out the exact same answers. I think this idea is reflected in the Book of Mormon, the idea that some guy plucked some stories from his head to convince a group of people to join him by saying it is the word of God, is similar to what Joseph Smith did in 1823, as the leader of the Mormon Church, who claimed to have had a vision from God who led him to golden plates in which the third part of the Bible was etched into. Conveniently, God also told Joseph that he could never show anyone these plates but must instead transcribe it onto paper and then share that as the word of God and to create a new Mormon church. If the Book of Arnold can be a work of fiction, then surely the Book of Mormon, and the Bible might be as well.
Another reason why I really enjoyed the play is because they did not shy away from controversial parts of not only the Mormon church, but also the dilemma that existed in Uganda at the time. From jokes about raping babies to female genital mutilation, the play just about mentions the uncomfortable and upsetting tragedy that sums up the daily lives of the villagers in about every single swear word I have ever heard. After all, this was the middle of the Aids pandemic that killed millions of people, so “Hasa Diga Eebowai” seems justified. The song ‘Turn it off’ is also hilarious not only because of its lyrical genius, but because of the jazz and glitter waistcoated dance which frankly looked like an episode from Glee. The song describes how the missionaries are told to simply ‘turn-off’ any feelings they have in which; they may question if God exists; they may have homosexual feelings for their best friend “Steve”; or feel confused about the teachings of the Book of Mormon and instead are taught to crush all these doubts in their heads. A satirical song about a widespread issue that many Mormons probably face each day in trying to spread their version of the word of God.
I loved the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the musical and would recommend it to anyone that enjoys sex jokes, catchy songs and are not afraid of controversial themes. The Book of Mormon has been running for 12 years now and it remains a sold-out must-see musical classic.