Coffee Cups in Hell
By MAUREEN DOWDIt’s the Mormon moment.
The Republican Mormons Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman may run for president, braving more questions about whether they wear the sacred undergarment and more resistance from evangelicals who consider Mormonism an affront to Christianity.
TLC just renewed its hit “Sister Wives,” and HBO’s popular “Big Love” just had its big finale.
On Thursday, “The Book of Mormon,” by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the scatological scamps who created “South Park,” and Robert Lopez, who co-created “Avenue Q,” opened on Broadway in a confetti burst of profanity, blasphemy, hilarity and rapturous reviews. Stone called the musical “an atheist love letter to religion.”
Aside from impersonating Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow at the 2000 Oscars, Stone and Parker are known for mercilessly mocking religion, celebrity, phonies and Snooki in their cartoon world with the four potty-mouthed fourth-grade boys from Colorado.
They pushed the limits at Comedy Central when they put the Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit. But as Terry Teachout wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “Making fun of Mormons in front of a Broadway crowd is like shooting trout in a demitasse cup. ... If the title of this show were ‘The Quran,’ it wouldn’t have opened.”
Stone and Parker said they were drawn to the Rodgers and Hammerstein and Disney qualities at Mormon sites in Salt Lake City. “Mormonism has this great cheesy aesthetic,” Stone told The Journal. “When you watch their videos, it’s almost as if they’re about to flash a smile at the camera and burst into song. ... Mormon cheesiness is so close to musical cheesiness.”
The Mormons in the musical are depicted just as Mormons on “South Park” were — naïve but nice.
There is one song called “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” featuring Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, Johnnie Cochran and a couple of Starbucks coffee cups in hell. (Mormons can’t have caffeine.)
The raunchiness is offset by traditional tropes. There’s an odd-couple pairing of two 19-year-old missionaries, Elder Price, a golden goody-goody, and Elder Cunningham, a schlubby boy with a penchant for lying; and a cultural collision between white-bread missionaries and Ugandans plagued by AIDS, warlords, maggots and female genital mutilation.
“Africa is nothing like ‘The Lion King,’ ” a befuddled Price says. “I think that movie took a lot of artistic license.”
Cunningham manages to baptize a lovely young Ugandan named Nabalungi, but he keeps calling her Neosporin, Noxzema and Neutrogena.
The sly writers send up the church for its belated admission of blacks to temple ceremonies. In 1978, beset by protests, the president of the Mormons announced that God had changed his mind about black people.
But they also send up do-gooding celebrities like Bono and Angelina when the Mormon boys sing “We Are Africa.”
Some connected with the production have been monitoring the reaction of the Mormons, but so far, the church has put out one bland statement, and some Mormons who have seen the show told reporters they were pleasantly surprised. At least it doesn’t dwell on polygamy, they said, and its ribald humor seems braced by traditional values and affection for the Mormon characters.
If you already find some aspects of Mormonism exotic and strange — including its start with crystal-gazing Joseph Smith, the buried gold tablets with hieroglyphics and an angel named Moroni — the musical won’t assuage your doubts.
Smith claimed Jesus appeared to him in upstate New York. “Did you know that Jesus lived here in the USA?” calls out a Mormon boy in the musical. Elder Cunningham offers this lyric about the crucifixion: “Jesus knew he had to man up.”
Elder Price sings, “I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob.” In Mormon scripture, God lived on or near Kolob — the inspiration for the planet Kobol in “Battlestar Galactica,” written by Glen Larson, a Mormon.
The authoritarian Mormon church still does not have equal status for women, blacks and certainly not gays. It provided the majority of the funding for California’s Prop 8 against same-sex marriage.
The Mormon boys do a tap dance wearing glittery pink vests, singing about how to switch off feeling gay: “Go flick; it’s a nifty little Mormon trick.”
When Ugandans cannot relate to Mormon history, Cunningham blends in other myths from “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars,” putting the Angel Moroni on the Death Star.
In the end, the message is not against Mormonism but literalism: that whatever our different myths, metaphors and rituals, the real purpose of religion is to give us a higher purpose and a sense of compassion in the universe.
“The moral,” the writer Andrew Sullivan observed on opening night, “is that religion is both insane and necessary at the same time.”