(Reblogged from April 2011)
I just got back from my New York trip to see The Book of Mormon Musical on Broadway!
I was so excited on so many levels…I love New York and I love Broadway. I got to see 3 shows. But seeing the BOM Musical was the main push that led me to schedule the trip (that, and free flight vouchers!). And I had the perfect companion for this trip in Permaguilt, a regular visitor of my blog and an old friend.
The reviews of the new musical have been very praiseworthy overall but I think they miss the mark on a few levels.
This show is nothing if not irreverent. One Mormon reviewer detailed his experience watching the show of being verbally assaulted, bullied, humiliated and disappointed in the Broadway theatre community by their support and love of this show. It’s not hard to imagine that a Mormon might feel that way. In fact I think I can understand EXACTLY the feelings he expresses. That’s what it feels like to grow up gay in the Mormon Church. The difference is that I experienced that ridicule, humiliation and lack of understanding for 40 years. This musical lasts 2 ½ hours.
Just as the Mormons constantly paid lip service to their supposed love for me, the writers and producers of this musical declare the play to be a love letter to believers. And somehow, as starkly satirical and blasphemous as this show is in the telling, it somehow manages to portray affection for Mormons and for all believers that is respectful.
This is not a play against Mormons. It is a play that mocks fundamental believers of any stripe. It’s a love letter to humanity. It is that sort of universality in the message that will keep this musical around for a long, long time. Its only weakness being that 20 years from now it won’t be getting many royalties from high schools putting on this show. The themes, adult situations and vulgar language are far beyond the capability of making this a family-friendly show.
The premise is that 2 Mormon missionaries are sent to Africa. They are naïve but cocksure; they are unprepared for the real African world.
A few minor inaccurate details, which are easily chalked up to artistic license, will make some Mormons tell themselves that it’s not based on reality. To name a few, the actual mechanics of mission calls, transfers, companionships, for example, are adjusted to fit into a 2 ½ hour time frame. Elder Cunningham’s hair is too long for a missionary. Mormons don’t say, “Praise Christ.” One-piece garments are rarely worn anymore.
But it’s surprisingly accurate in areas that only insiders would understand. During intermission I had a conversation with a couple sitting in front of me who were shocked when I explained that as a Mormon the mere portrayal of the garments on stage would have been the most offensive part to me up to that point. They had no idea that the play was accurate enough to include the off-hand esoteric nod to Mormon underwear.
I also would have immediately tuned out once the vulgar themes and cussing made their appearance. Who wouldn’t squirm at hearing about female circumcision, childhood AIDS and infant molestation? The F-word and C-word are ubiquitous throughout. If Mormons imagine they are the only ones who gasp in shock and think, “Oh no they didn’t!” they are kidding themselves. But these topics and words unbelievably actually have a place here. To be afraid of them is to be afraid of the hard questions that face millions if not billions of souls on this planet. If smiley-faced believers can’t hear them or discuss them, they have no business addressing topics of salvation and redemption in the real lives of others.
Still, this musical is much more significant when it comes to the topics and ideas that it gets spot-on accurate and does so with amazing panache.
The “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “Turn It Off” numbers are eerily insightful into the believing mind, especially the Mormon missionary mind. Anyone who has been guilt-tripped by religion into fearing themselves and their own humanness will be able to relate.
Upon entering the MTC, missionaries are bombarded with guilt trips and unrealistic expectations of perfection to the point that they begin to confess to the most trivial and bygone infractions. The feeling is that if they don’t properly repent they will not be “clean” or “worthy” of a successful mission, of the Celestial Kingdom, and of Eternal Life with their families. That’s hell for a Mormon. As I mentioned before, the Mormon version of Hell doesn’t exactly match the typical Christian one, but for the purposes of this show the number works remarkably well. And the trivial nature of the sins being repented of is only underscored by the inclusion of coffee cups and Johnny Cochran in the nasty, wicked things which Mormons despise along with Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and Genghis Khan.
“Turn it Off”, my other favorite number, perfectly describes how Mormons (and other believers) manage to live in the land of cognitive dissonance and appear to be super-sparkly, smiley, cocksure Disney characters at all times. The actual unwritten Mormon method is called “putting it on the shelf” where doubts or questions that contradict Biblical, Book of Mormon, or Mormon leaders’ teaching are placed into imaginary oblivion to be answered only in the afterlife. In the musical, the missionaries sing about this specialized denial in a hilarious send-up to individuals who are outliers, unconventional and stuck in strictly conservative settings everywhere. Feelings that contradict how life is “supposed to be” should be “turned off”, not pushed down deep inside but literally turned off. That behavior is obviously a cocktail for disconnection from reality and an artificial happiness…and later depression. One gay missionary leads the others in a rousing, show stopping encouragement for dealing with life by “turning it off.” That’s how you prepare to serve a mission.
I have some added insight into mission preparation. I taught for three years at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Not only did I teach there, but I became what was called “Zone Coordinator.” A Zone Coordinator was essentially the title given to the supervisor of approximately 30 part-time teachers. At that time, we also automatically became 2nd Counselors in the Branch Presidency, which made us leaders on Sunday over the same missionaries that our teachers were teaching. I had many young 19 year olds come to confess absurdly trivial infractions with trepidation and fear.
I think I get it when it comes to how missionaries are trained and how prepared they are when they enter the mission field. I was a missionary and I trained missionaries. Some things might have changed over time but nothing fundamental in Mormonism changes THAT drastically in 20 years. Your mileage may vary.
Missionaries are only exposed to the positive when they are trained. What preparation exists regarding their target culture, challenges to Mormon theology, or teaching methods is always only framed in a positive light. There was little to no preparation on the meaty cultural challenges we would face. Even the extreme poverty we’d encounter was anticipated with rose-colored glasses, “It makes the people so humble, faithful and ready to hear the gospel.”
During our practice teaching moments in the MTC, the scenarios that were presented in training were ones that I never encountered in the real world, but mock questions were presented which were easily solved by Mormon doctrine, scriptures and practices. For example, I never encountered a person interested in discussing our religion who was all that concerned with “authority” until we posed the whole “apostasy” story. Likewise, work for the dead, pre-mortal life, and eternal families are all themes which give lifelong Mormons holygasms, but which very few people in the real world are truly concerned about. Only when missionaries declare that Mormonism has the corner of the market on these ideas does anyone become slightly interested. Most believers of any creed, for example, are comfortable with the idea that they will see their loved ones after they die. Mormonism repackages and markets this idea as uniquely theirs much the same way that bottled water takes municipal water and repackages it as pure with a pretty label; it’s actually available to everyone, but the costs of the new product are much greater.
And often, what followers hear is not what the preachers actually say. In the musical, for example, a young villager is enamored at the thought of going to “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” to the land of cleanliness and godliness to live a life free of pain and suffering. But of course, the missionaries promised no such thing. I dealt with this awkward misunderstanding often in Brazil as well…people who were much more interested and hopeful about literally escaping the physical poverty and hopelessness of their living conditions, than any sort of religious message.
This stark difference between a colloquial religion such as Mormonism and real life on much of the planet is portrayed accurately in the musical.
My Mission President even understood this when he instructed us not to teach the gospel to the folks living in the “favelas,” the local slums of Brazil. I remember this instruction quite vividly because there was a Brazilian in our orientation group who challenged the Mission President on this one detail. There was a very uncomfortable argument where the fresh Brazilian Elder asserted that the gospel was for everyone. The Mission President emphasized that not everyone was ready, prepared or even capable of being Mormon. As the musical portrays, it’s more accurate to say that Mormonism and most fundamental religions are actually the ones themselves incapable of adapting effectively to the needs and challenges of the masses.
It is very clear that Salt Lake City Mormonism has very little of any relevance to offer the villagers in Africa. It’s one-size-fits-all unless it’s modified and molded until it no longer resembles anything close to Mormonism…but the irony is that only then do the villagers relate to it. I found this to be true when I lived in Brazil and in Japan. It’s not just the cultural church but it’s also the gospel that fails to inspire folks who live in lands other than 19th Century America.
And that again brings me full circle to the idea that Mormonism didn’t work for me, but the Book of Mormon musical did. It was surreal sitting on Broadway watching my history, my people and my past lampooned before hundreds. Like many Jews feel regarding their religion today, I will always be Mormon whether I practice it and believe it or not. The deep belly laughs, the gasps and hilarious outbursts were as strong from fellow theatre-goers as they were from my travel companion and me…both post-Mormons and both gay.
It was wonderful to hear others laugh at and WITH me at my own silliness. It felt as healing as the day my big brother stood up for me on the playground by giving the bullies who were taunting me and calling me a sissy a dose of their own medicine. On Broadway, that return dose was a spoonful of humor rather than a punch of the same disgust and contempt originally dished out to me.