The beauty of a good work of art is that its message or meaning is universal; it transcends time and place. Only time will tell if the Book of Mormon musical on Broadway does this; I believe it does. Anyone can certainly enjoy it fully without a primer, but I thought it might be fun if I jotted down some notes that came to my mind as a former Mormon. Parker and Stone were detailed oriented enough in the writing that they got a lot more right than I’ve ever seen a non-Mormon achieve in a play or movie. You can find my other comments regarding the play here and here.
Using the musical numbers as a guide, here are some details and background information that you may not catch if you are not well-acquainted with Mormonism. This is certainly incomplete. It’s been months since I saw the show. I’ve also tried to keep it spoiler free. I don’t think any of the following details will ruin the experience of seeing the play for the first time. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Door Approach – Missionaries indeed practice proper “door approaches” in the Missionary Training Center just like in the opening song.
Elder – Mormon Missionaries take upon themselves the title of “Elder” and it essentially replaces their first name, as in “Elder Price” and “Elder Cunningham”. Females are called “Sister” as in “Sister Monson” Notice how in the play several of the Elders’ names are somehow related to money… Price, Green, etc… very funny.Missionary Training Center (MTC) – There are several training centers worldwide but most North Americans, and therefore most Mormon Missionaries, are trained at the large MTC campus in Provo, UT. It is across the street from the LDS Temple and a block from Brigham Young University campus.
MTC Teachers – During MTC training, missionaries will have several teachers. They are almost exclusively BYU students who have recently returned from their missions. Teaching in the MTC was my part-time job while I studied at BYU. In the musical, an older “Mission President” is conducting the training; chalk that up to artistic license.
Two by Two
Mission Calls -This process has been noted by others as inaccurate in the theater production. Before training, missionaries already know where they will be going. They don’t find out as portrayed in the musical. There is a rigorous interview process back at home, not to see if the young man is qualified, but to see if he is “worthy.” After health and dental checkups are done, the missionary-to-be sends in his “papers” or application. The Mormon concept of the process is that the prophet determines each missionary’s destination based on “revelation”. In truth, there’s a committee of folks (paid or unpaid, I don’t know) who sift through the hundreds, if not thousands, of “papers” on a weekly basis and determine assignments based on need. A letter is sent home to the individual announcing where he has been “called” to serve. This is a big event for Mormon families. This “mission call” also designates a day he will enter the MTC alongside a group of other new missionaries.
Mormons are taught to not desire to go to a particular place like Elder Price, but everyone secretly does. Some want to go abroad, while others want the comforts of a stateside mission. When I got my mission call to Brazil, I was momentarily disappointed because I didn’t want to speak Spanish. It was great to immediately realize that they speak Portuguese there!
Companionships – Upon entering the MTC, missionaries are immediately paired off into same gender partnerships and then bunched together in groups of 6-10 called “districts.” They will all study, eat, pray and worship together. These districts are grouped based on target language and cultures. Missionaries going to Uganda would probably all be put together in the same district in the MTC. They’d travel to the country together and be reassigned a new, more experienced companion there.
Females vs males – Mormon men are expected to serve a mission at age 19. There’s really no acceptable exception to this. Those who don’t are definitely oddballs and quasi-outcasts. Some young women wouldn’t even date a Mormon boy who didn’t serve a mission. Females, on the other hand are welcome to serve a mission but not until they are 21. It’s certainly not expected of them to any extent that it is of the men. In fact marrying is considered a “higher calling” for women than serving a mission and the joke is that only women who couldn’t get a man end up on missions.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -Fun fact…Joseph Smith’s church went through several iterations and names before zeroing in on this one. As a Mormon I never knew this. It’s only significant because Mormon missionaries make a big deal over the proper name of the church as if that alone makes it true. The logic often being that it bears the name of Jesus Christ so it must obviously be His church. Until you look at former official names they used which didn’t near his name. Were those periods of apostasy?
Mormons use the term “saints” here to refer to themselves as the true followers of Christ. They don’t mean it in the Catholic sense that they are more holy and sanctified than others.
You and Me (But Mostly Me)
Stereotypes – Elder Price and Elder Cunningham embody 2 stereotypical missionary archetypes (I’d like to think I was somewhere between the 2):
- The overzealous 19 year old who has dreamed and prepared for his mission his whole life imagining how significantly he’ll be able to change the world and convert thousands to Mormonism on his efforts alone.
- The unprepared goof-ball who didn’t listen in Sunday School class, who has never even read the Book of Mormon and who is only going on his mission to get the approval of his parents, or because he doesn’t know what else to do at this stage in his life.
Farewell – Anyone who has been to the Salt Lake City airport will recall seeing families meeting up with their missionaries flying off to their assignments. This will be the first time they are permitted to see their families since two months previously when they said goodbye as they entered the MTC in Provo. They won’t be permitted to call or visit with family again until they return from their mission.
Hasa Diga Eebowai
Vulgarity – This song explains itself. As Mormons are nice, any sort of cussing makes them extremely uncomfortable. If a Mormon were to walk out of this show, my guess is that it is during this song when they’d do it. Be advised that Mormonism isn’t a target here. God is. So, sensitive believers of any stripe beware. Others who can take a joke should be prepared to die laughing. Notice also how Mormons being overly nice is parodied throughout the play, beginning here.
Problems – This song also introduces another common theme in the entire play. That is, the juxtaposition of the weighty life challenges of the African natives when held up against the lightweight and relatively inconsequential concerns of the of the American Mormons.
Turn It Off
Put it on a shelf – Mormons will deny this, but “turning it off” is certainly something Mormons are taught to do. I’m not sure where it originated but most call this “putting it on a shelf”… it’s an ability to live in denial. It’s not just suppressing. It’s actually denying a problem exists. And Mormons are by no means alone in this habit. They’re just incredibly good at enforcing it.
Being Nice – As the musical points out several times, being nice seems to be a high level Mormon commandment… and who can complain about that? Except that it means most will avoid conflict and contention at all costs and many difficult issues fail to ever get addressed or become resolved.
I Am Here for You
Rules – A detailed rulebook known as “The White Bible” instructs missionaries on every detail of their daily living. Elders Price and Cunningham are breaking a rule here by sleeping in the same bed together. They are supposed to be in the same room but not in the same bed.
Garments – Mormons will be shocked in this scene when the Elders strip down to their religious underwear, called “garments” as they prepare to sleep. When Mormons go to the Temple for the first time and participate in that ceremony, they are given the garments “as a protection and a reminder of the covenants they made” that day. There are markings sewn into the garments to remind them of the promises they made in the temple. Those promises have to do with obedience, sacrifice, sexual purity and giving everything (time, talents, money) to the church. Initiated Mormons are supposed to wear them 24/7, night and day with a few exceptions: Showering, sports activities, swimming and sex.
All American Prophet
How Mormon lesson manuals portray Joseph translating the Book of Mormon
Mormon Origins– Part of the telling of this Joseph Smith story is what actually happened rather than the official LDS version. Most active Mormons don’t actually know that Joseph Smith’s method of translation was to put his face into his hat with a special stone at the bottom.
There are some minor but inconsequential inaccuracies too. Moroni, the angel, in the official version is said to have appeared and instructed Joseph of the exact location of the plates rather than appearing after Joseph stumbles across them in his backyard like in the play.
Also, Joseph Smith never really designated Brigham Young as his successor as the play portrays. He was just one of many who claimed to be the rightful new prophet. There are actually several less known off-shoots of Mormonism that can trace their roots back to Joseph Smith’s death and the ensuing disagreement over who should take his place as the Mormon prophet. Brigham Young was the most popular choice and therefore his following was the most successful. That doesn’t necessarily make him or his church the most right. Those other lesser known off-shoots have just as much claim to the term “Mormon” as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does.
How even Mormon historians admit Joseph "translated"
American – Mormons will bristle against any of the faith being uniquely American even though it clearly is. The Book of Mormon is uniquely 19th Century American. All the concerns and beliefs specific to Joseph Smith’s time and place are addressed in the book. Mormonism, even now, is rigidly American in many of its policies and practices as the Elders’ staunch uniform demonstrates.
Sal Tlay Ka Siti
False hope – On my mission the vast majority of folks that were interested in our message were actually more interested in the promise of the American dream. Obviously they misunderstood, but this song captures that truth quite well.
WWJD – Like mainstream Christians, Mormons will try and apply life decisions to what Jesus would hypothetically do in their shoes.
Why do bad things happen? – I love that Elder Price is superficially concerned with this age old philosophical question. His real question is “Why do bad things happen to ME?”
Orlando – Mormons and Disney! Man, the comparisons could be endless!
Making Things Up Again
Lies – Lies are bad in Mormonism just as in any religious tradition. But the brilliance here is how the play demonstrates that Elder Cunningham’s lies actually produce good fruit. This is a metaphor for how Mormonism and other religions rely on very foundational lies (or myths) to achieve positive ends. One man’s lie is another man’s religion.
Spooky Mormon Hell Dream
Rules – Leaving your companion alone is a grave violation of mission rules. As mentioned in my previous post Mormon missionaries are guilt-induced into frantic states over petty violations of mission rules…just as Elder Price is in this number.
Johnnie Cochran – I’m not sure why but every faithful Mormon I know really got into the OJ Simpson trial. The ones I associated with at the time were aghast that Johnnie Cochran could sleep at night after he helped get OJ off. It’s hilarious that Parker and Stone tapped into this tidbit and placed him in the company of other evil men. My LDS friends have a hard time understanding certain democratic principles such as the right to a defense. I think they get the concept but can’t fathom anyone actually performing the role of legal defense and sleeping peacefully at night.
Gentiles – “Catholics and Jews.” Mormons have actually adopted this term and use it to describe anyone who isn’t Mormon just like Jews might use it to describe all non-Jews.
Hell – I’ll say it again. Mormons don’t really believe in a hell like the one portrayed in the musical. Instead they believe in different levels of heaven, or kingdoms. From the highest to the lowest, there’s the Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom and the Telestial Kingdom. In Mormon theology very few people make it into hell. The evil men represented in the musical most likely qualify for the lowest rung on the heaven ladder, the Telestial Kingdom. Actual hell, or “outer darkness”, is reserved for “sons of perdition.” These are people like myself who once had a testimony of the truth of Mormonism and have later denied it or “denied the Holy Ghost.” That’s right, someone like myself who leaves Mormonism is worse off than, say, Hitler.
Making it into the highest heaven, the Celestial Kingdom, is based on what you DO, not on what you believe like many born-again Christians would believe. That’s why Elder Price is so distraught over something he’s done.
On a side note, one of the main requirements is to be married, or “sealed” as it is call in a Mormon temple. Even today, Mormon men can be sealed to several women (for example if one wife dies he can be sealed to another in succession), but Mormon women can only be sealed to one man…ever. In other words, Mormons still believe in a form of Celestial Polygamy, but you’ll be hard-pressed to get a Mormon to admit this.
The Word of Wisdom – This is the Mormon health code, which is a significant distinguishing trait of Mormons. As it is now interpreted, it prohibits the intake of coffee, tea, illegal drugs, & tobacco. It is actually much deeper than that and parallels the popular “temperance movement” of the 1830’s in the USA at the time of Joseph Smith. As history records it, Emma Smith was disgusted by the use of tobacco during her husband’s “School of the Prophets” meetings in Kirtland, Ohio. She complained about having to clean up after such meetings and this “revelation” is the result. It also includes prescriptions for limiting meat intake and increasing fruits, grains and herbs in the diet, but those are no longer considered essentials to obeying this code.
The Word of Wisdom was originally offered as advice rather than as a commandment. In fact, evidence suggests that Joseph Smith himself paid little attention to its practice. Today’s Mormon, however, puts a high value on obedience to the rule (It became a requirement for entering the temple during the prohibition era) and shunning coffee and tea is now seen as significant an effort as obeying other commandments. It stands up there with “Thou shalt not kill” in a Mormon’s mind, as the play lampoons in this song.
Doubt – Doubt is definitely not not a prized Mormon character trait. In fact, it is shameful to admit doubt. It’s rarely done publicly. An infamous apostate, Paul Toscano, was part of a group of excommunicated scholars known as the “September Six” for his public speech called, “The Sanctity of Dissent” back in the early 1990’s.
Know – Mormons rarely use the word “believe.” In Mormon lingo, this song would actually be called “I Know” for that’s how Mormons are taught from infancy to express their faith. They would say something like, “I know this is the one true church.” In fact Mormon children and youth are taught that they should say this even before they actually do “know.” It is taught that such a testimony can be gained by actually saying it first. Modern psychology/sociology will tell you the same thing… that if you can get someone to declare a tenet out loud, then that person will be highly unlikely to renege on his verbal statement even if it’s later proven untrue.
Fun fact – Everything Elder Price claims to believe in this “I Believe” song is actually a Mormon teaching. Some Mormons will deflect many of these esoteric or odd beliefs saying that it’s not part of their daily faith and not “essential to their salvation.” And that’s true in part. For example, “Kolob” is the star near where God dwells, but it is rarely discussed in meetings or lessons. Nevertheless, it was a teaching of Joseph Smith’s and it still remains the topic of a well-known Mormon Hymn. Parker and Stone got their facts straight.
Baptism – This is the end goals of every missionary, to baptize. Mormons perform baptisms by immersing the convert completely in a body of water while both are clothed in white. The Elder cites the official prayer verbatim and just inserts the convert’s name. I actually found the visual of this group baptismal scene to be beautiful; it reminded me of my mission.
Sexual attraction – A LOT of missionaries fall for a young woman (and vice versa) on their missions even though dating is against the rules. One of my sisters married a missionary from Canada who served in our congregation. My first missionary companion eloped with a local girl.
I Am Africa
Adopting a new home – Most Mormon missionaries come home with an affection for the people and for location in which they served a mission. I did.
Joseph Smith American Moses
The pay-off – If you paid attention to the missionaries’ telling of the Mormon founding story in All American Prophet and Elder Cunningham’s later adaptation in Making Things Up Again this song is the reward. Not only is it hilarious in and of itself, but the audience is treated to the more conservative and somber reaction of the Mission President as he watches the song unfold.
Mission Presidency – Every Mormon organization is led by a leader and his two counselors, even a mission as you see here. Some of these mission presidents are tight, sour-pussed authority figures. Others are a bit more laid back.
Tomorrow Is a Latter Day
Latter Days -To a Mormon this means the end of times, the period just preceding the second coming of Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that that time is close and that they are the last true believers, or “saints” who are preparing earth for His return by “preaching the gospel” one last time.
Conclusion – I’ve read all sorts of explanations of this finale and what conclusions can be drawn from this song and the entire play. Draw you own conclusions and come back and tell me about them.
Grooming – Missionaries are required to keep their hair short without sideburns, and wear a white shirt and tie. Elder Cunningham’s hair is far too long to be acceptable. A mission leader would make him cut his hair.
“Praise Christ” – Mormons don’t really say this or anything like it. They certainly have their own lingo, but this sort of interjection isn’t part of it.
Titles – Mormons do call each other “Brother” and “Sister”. Historically this was done as a more intimate moniker and it was used before the person’s first name as in “Brother Joseph” and “Sister Emma”. It has since evolved into a more formal indication of respect and the last name is now used, as in “Brother Smith” and “Sister Young”. Mormon leaders are ALWAYS addressed by their title whether it be “President”, “Bishop” or “Elder.” We were chewed out by my mission president if we failed to show such respect. Among equals, it’s OK to just use first names. Once I got married, I could then address other adults by their first names rather than using the title before their last name.
Missionary apartment – There are some fun details here. Every missionary apartment has a baptismal chart like the one on the back wall. It lists how many people they are teaching and how many they have baptized. My mission was very focused on numbers and statistics in this way just like any sales force. Notice also the pictures of Jesus AND the pictures of the Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City just as prominently displayed.
The Music – Much of the music is a parody of American musicals in general. You’ll hear faint nods to Roger and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Disney and many more. This is the genius of Robert Lopez.