Book of Mormon is not bad, but it is nothing like good enough to justify its hype. Granted, hype is an amorphous construction that sits somewhat outside an artwork, and a given piece isn’t quite legitimately answerable to its reception. Nevertheless, it’s very difficult to go into this musical unaware of the kind of commercial enterprise it is.
Even inside the venue, the degree and nature of Mormon’s success are impossible to escape. The building was crowded with unusually over-dressed people wearing giant shoes, like they’d come to a club or their proms, tottering about slowly. The show started late, in part because people didn’t have access to shared knowledge about how to move in a space like this and in part because they didn’t take final calls seriously. The tourist-heavy, US-weighted (American accent-peppered) crowd displayed different audience behaviours than what you’d see from the attendees of a shorter-running production selling largely to a theatrically-experienced British public. My partner and I had wanted to see Mormon primarily because it was such a big-ticket item, and so raved about. Having seen it, I feel it’s big with people who do not Theatre much, and that that’s actually part of the mechanic of its appeal.
This competent but not exceptional performance got a standing ovation. I used to watch bullfights in Seville. That is a tough crowd. It’s a major arena, one of the big three, and the Sevillanos do not, as a rule, award trophies. Then one day I went to this tiny town with a podunk ring for some novilladas—so novice fights. And these rural spectators could not stop giving out trophies. That is what crowds for Tourist Musicals are like: a collection of bb David Copperfields who act as though every play is the BEST PLAY, by virtue of existing on a stage. (I’m talking about the really sweet bit where David thinks a production of Julius Caesar is the best thing to ever have happened to humans and Steerforth is like oh honey, it seriously blew, but bless your little face.)
Several factors go into making up this sort of house. It has to do with a play’s buzz, its run-length, its subject matter, the amount of Pagentry involved, the venue (that venue’s size) and the (exorbitant, Luxury-marketed) ticket price. I would almost avoid big shows or good (expensive) Friday-night seats at something like Les Miz because the stalls will be: fucking full of out-of-towners.
Yes, I’m being a giant snob about this, and yes you can go and enjoy theatre if you don’t go often or live somewhere with a lot of theatre, etc. I’m from rural (well, it was at the time, now the town’s really grown up) Missouri, so like, I had a learning curve myself, and it’s also to naïve to suggest Londoners can’t be awful (we can) or that there is a Singular Right Way to Theatre (there isn’t, and public behaviour arguments are often dispatched to truly gross ends, like policing black enthusiasm in theatrical spaces). But let’s not pretend the atmosphere of a house doesn’t affect your reception of a performance, and that entire character of theatre for tourists isn’t a different enterprise from something like Curious Incident, which can attract tourists but is not built expressly to do so.
A friend wondered why Americans would go see Book of Mormon in London. I think Americans from an area without a big theatre community often like to get in that combo-vacation: the attractions of another country blend with the attractions of any large urban area (‘oh, we can go to Ikea while we’re there!!’ is, for example, a real thing I have said to real relatives). Plus the West End can have better availability than Broadway, and the prices vary from ‘cheaper than Broadway’ to ‘ridiculously cheaper than Broadway’. If you’re going with a group—flying from say, St. Louis, then coming to London for a show—even with plane fare, you might find going to London cheaper than trying to see a blockbuster show in New York. For example I guarantee you US people will come see Hamilton here, especially with Lin Manuel Miranda transferring. (Resold, a Hamilton ticket is currently running $800, apparently.)
With all that throat-clearing out of the way, and with me having exposed myself as an awful snob who doesn’t want to see Thriller Live with your Auntie Leslie from Versailles, MO (pron. Ver-sails) on any account, let’s talk about the musical.
A small note: I initially suspected the set-painter to have been a rogue Canadian, because a Tim Hortons was depicted in Salt Lake City. But now I learn those snow-encrusted bastards are making inroads south, to the tune of 650 US restaurants in the last years! I have never before suspected this threat, and now see that we must act to prevent the White Menace from consuming our sweet native franchises.
The story follows two young American Mormon men going out on their two-year mission journey. They’re rather surprised to learn they’re being dispatched to Uganda, a country about which they know nothing. An awkward geek, Arnold, is paired with Kevin, the flower of Mormon youth. Kevin is an entertainingly self-obsessed boy whose messianic conviction of his own virtue and importance has always chimed perfectly with his community and its faith.
The characterization and music alike both have some Moments, but aren’t great. I had some laughs, but not as many as I might have expected, and now, with a few days’ distance, I can remember almost nothing I found particularly great? Essentially this is, as you might expect from the creators, South Park humour and plotting: that level of liberal thinking, that scatological quality, that irreverence that actually doesn’t challenge much, that ‘or did I just blow your mind’ fauxfundity. The acting was very good, but the parts didn’t necessarily ask the world of the performers. The staging was expensive, but I’m not sure it was particularly good as such. Mormon felt—like a super-glossy version of a random Fringe musical. That level of writing skill, etc. Which is fine, but the production doesn’t really scream to be brought to the West End and have tons of cash heaped on it.
Obviously, this musical’s racist as hell. Like, it pushes through that so you think it’s not and then enters back into it, leaving none of the fundamental underlying assumptions unchallenged. Yes, the show does think it’s dumb that white Americans have simplistic, entertainment-based narratives about Africa and want to make sweeping changes there with little idea of the factors involved in the continent’s issues (or even much idea of the size and diversity of said continent, and thus the diversity of its issues). The song “We Are Africa” is kind of great for evoking and mocking these assumptions.
But the musical, about missionaries introducing faith to a beleaguered village, never says a word about the role white people and missionary drives, and colonialism more generally, have played in creating this current depressing state of affairs. So when belief, in an admittedly rather sophisticated manoeuvre, is presented as a possible social good in and of itself at the musical’s conclusion, that feels amnesiac. Belief caused this: belief is going to fix it as well? Mormon never once asks about the faith, or lack thereof, of the inhabitants—we’re shown folk beliefs born of desperation, but never the religion Mormonism is supposed to displace. The village is a tabula rasa.
Mormon is fundamentally the story of its white characters, with the black cast used as backdrop. And it’s funny when done consciously in “We Are Africa”, which features awkwardly smiling Africans on the periphery, silent, and white men making tits of themselves centre stage. But it’s less funny when the entire plot mechanic is reliant on this effect. A warlord shoots a villager, and we zero in on how worried this makes Kevin, and then forget even that trauma quickly. No one in the village grieves their friend, who ultimately exists to be a comic bloodstain on Kevin’s shirt (and then to be forgotten when the tempo picks up and Kevin changes).
Yes the black characters deservedly mock the Americans’ prissiness, earnestness and cluelessness, but it’s all a bit Heart of Darkness, isn’t it? This is never their story. Mormon’s not quite minstrelsy, but there are times I felt uncomfortably conscious of that vibe. Are we laughing with the characters who have real problems these newcomers blithely think they can solve with bible study, or are we laughing at this stupid girl who doesn’t understand what ‘texting’ is? Can Nabulungi’s dimness be just her own, in a context where we’re told so little about her social situation? Can the dim white character/her love interest’s comedic inability to say her name right and disinterest in learning how to do so ever not be racist? Is the fundamental naïveté of these Africans okay because this is just a musical comedy, or a kind of creepy reflection of the degree to which the creators and appreciative audiences understand people in very different situations to their own to be thinking beings? And what does mocking American monolithic ideas of Africa actually do, when what we see in this musical is exactly that Elephant Graveyard out of Lion King (complete with the massive skeleton from Julie Taymor’s production’s set design) in village form and a floating, contextless clit-hating warlord?
In the end, via a transformation of the faith they’re peddling (largely Arnold’s limp, unfunny, nerd pop-culture reimagining, rather than the Ugandans’ making Mormonism something that works for them), the work of the missionaries is fundamentally successful. (To be honest, it felt like the warlord could and even logically should have gunned this village down in the climactic scene. Why did no one bother to clinch this climax?) So you don’t have to ask questions about Western complicity in this village being in this position in the first place or continuing Western involvement in Africa. You don’t even have to ask too many questions about Mormonism’s pros and cons. The mechanic of this show’s plot is, at its core, complacent. This is a production that aims to generate publicity-making Daily Mail outrage, and nothing more. It’s Urinetown’s failed ending, all over again.
I’m so sick of media that bungles its message via bad editing. It’s such a salvageable situation, if the problem’s thoroughly addressed early on. I think a musical shaped like this could have sold like this has, even if it had a more challenging core, and that that’s the difference between something that sells well in the moment and a long-sighted project that endures as a cultural artefact (and thus may ultimately make you more money—why does no one think about this when thinking about quality? Why are capitalists so bad at capitalism?).
Overall, (and I’ve not seen it since it came out, so could be misremembering) I thought South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut had better jokes, more of a sense of its form and more heart. I’m not mad I saw this musical, though I am deeply uncomfortable with its thoughtless, white as hell delivery of what I suspect are well-intentioned politics. I would be mad if I hadn’t gotten in via lottery and thus gotten cheap seats.