In Just 10 Years, ‘The Book of Mormon’ Musical Goes From America’s Favorite To America’s Latest Problem – The Reverse of Mormon History

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Book of Mormon the musical on Broadway. If this show was a true Mormon, a tenth would be what would be given as a tithe to God. Thanks to the pandemic, that’s more or less what happened. the Book of Mormon The cast and crew closed in March 2020 and will reopen in November – a year for an act of God plus eight months given to the devil in detail.

The details, in this case, have to do with race. During the Broadway shutdown, black actors from the Book of Mormon petitioned the show’s creative team to rewrite parts of the hit musical, they felt they were reinforcing harmful racial stereotypes of Africa and African people. This is not an easy task. Anyone knowing the Book of Mormon is susceptible familiar with his ability to be rude. The cartoonish world of series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone paints white Mormonism and black Africa with such broad brushstrokes that they blend both the ridiculous and the real. Broadway audiences sometimes had trouble telling them apart.

Some heartfelt tenets of the show’s Mormon missionaries often seem hilariously inflated to an outsider, while the war-torn and corrupt Uganda where they proselytize remains flat, one-note and unimaginative. To write the insensitive portrayals of the series, well, everyone is kind of asking for an entirely different show. So be it, say many. The world changed its mind about this unique monster hit. We have developed new languages ​​for naming indecency and developed thorns for saying them out loud. A tithe seems appropriate. Ten years is a long time to be on top without giving anything back.

The trajectory of the Book of Mormon from America’s darling on Broadway to America’s latest problem charts an inverted path that Mormonism itself has taken in this country. Born in 1830 in upstate New York, Mormonism spent much of the 19th century increasingly retreating to the middle spaces of America in the face of rejection and violence. Mormons practiced polygamy and built communities of shared resources – qualities that historian Paul Reeve has shown disqualified this almost totally white religion from the protections of whiteness.

Looking but not acting white in 19th century America meant not to be White. And, in 20th-century America, the music scene has become one of the most important spaces where the racialized identity of Mormonism has been challenged in the court of public opinion. Operettas and vaudevilles branded Mormons as villains, often socially and racially linked to Muslims and other social outcasts at the time associated with China and Africa.

It was not until the mid-twentieth century that Mormonism offered a narrative of itself that turned the script on its racial identity. The Church abandoned polygamy and opened its arms wide to America. Mormons became tied to the highest favors of middle-class whiteness – industrious, capitalist, monogamous. Their social retribution even took shape through the very mechanism that had once set them apart: musical theatre. Mormons developed a dynamic culture and practice of musical theater it persists today, which mostly paved the way for Broadway’s satirical and full-blown comeback to Mormons in 2011 — more than 180 years and several iterations later, Mormonism was back in New York where it began.

Mormons were an easy target in 2011, with the Mormon Church’s opposition to marriage equality and the seemingly perfect life of Mitt Romney, perpendicular to a nation paying heightened attention to America’s imperfections. Contrary to the source of their nineteenth-century ridicule, twenty-first-century Mormons were now too much White, too much American, too much representation of values ​​falling back into a problematic past.

The Mormons found few defenders when the Book of Mormon swayed out of the Broadway doors; left to himself, the church was making lemonade by placing advertisements in Playbill. “You’ve seen the play,” boasted one, “now read the book.” Clever. But it could just as well have been a 19th century postcard. Here we are again, Mormons back on the scene, losing a battle of wills with a country uncertain of the terms of its membership.

America found other villains in the years that followed. The #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements trended in 2013 and 2017, bringing new urgency to conversations about racial violence and sexual assault. How these subjects are portrayed on stage matters to a heightened degree. What no one could have predicted was how much the Africa imagined by the musical would look like the very real America of today ten years from now. Ugandans in The Book of Mormon are facing an epidemic (in the case of the show it is AIDS). They bow to superstition and choose sexual assault as a remedy. In the real world, Americans suffering from our own pandemic are rejecting scientific reason and resorting to consuming horse dewormer. It’s the world the Book of MormonThe curtains will open in a few weeks. It’s hard to imagine a more blatant and deeply unfunny satire than the one we’re experiencing.

Which means the Book of Mormon puts identity at the center of its humor in a much more risque way in 2021 than it did a decade ago, its jokes assuming too much idealization for whiteness and what it stands for. Like True Mormons, the satirical musical’s carefully constructed trajectory through America’s heartland now seems miscalculated. By positioning Mormonism’s exaggerated whiteness and bright-eyed Disney demeanor against an equally buffoonish and gullible made-up Africa, the musical has had too much fun hitting and now looks too much like the thing it tried to poke fun at. Whiteness, once the cause celebre of the musical, is now its handicap. It took Mormons most of the 20th century to chart an exponential path from not being white enough to being too white. The musical parody only took ten years to do the exact opposite.

As for the Mormons, they no longer exist in fact…no name anyway. In 2018, Church leaders dropped the once derogatory nickname their 19th-century enemies gave them, instead emphasizing the mouth of a name God had given them: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (or Latter Day Saints for short). In November when the Book of MormonElder Price’s protagonist performs the phrase “I am a Mormon” – the five-note leitmotiv itself from the now-defunct Mormon musical drama The Hill Cumorah Competition– he will sing ghosts. The Mormons are gone. They considered the last ten years and gave a tithe of themselves. A tithe is a sacrifice, after all – an opportunity to move through the world with a little less baggage and a greater measure of intent.

Now we’re watching to see if the musical will follow. Its actors asked for a show that takes “systemic and racial inequality” in theater seriously. “No one goes back on stage until they feel well,” promised Matt Stone. I’ve been a Mormon for ten years, and now a tithe is on the table, a down payment on a more just and equitable world. What the musical chooses to give will say a lot about the world it wants to cling to.