Book of Mormon - London (WE) 2013
May 5, 2013
Places & Faces Magazine
The theatre is usually a place for opinions rather than facts but this year there is one theatrical fact that cannot be disputed: The Book of Mormon is a huge hit.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker's musical comedy, written with Avenue Q's Robert Lopez, has been propelled across the Atlantic by laughter, awards, and the New York Times hailing it "the musical of the century". Its advertising budget seems to dwarf the national debt and it has been the first show to run full page ads entirely devoted to tweets written by members of the public.
It is now certain to be the biggest commercial hit to emanate from Broadway since Hairspray and with the biggest buzz since The Producers. But where those shows had the star turns of Michael Ball and Nathan Lane to boost their arrivals (and never quite survived their exits), with Mormon the only star is the show itself.
To take ones seat in the Prince of Wales is to set oneself up for chronic disappointment: nothing with so much hype can possibly match it, right? Wrong.
Everything everyone says is true. It's fun, funny, catchy, quirky, sincere and incredibly well staged. It has the best ensemble cast of any West End musical since Jerry Springer - The Opera a decade ago. And it treats the audience as grown ups, with a self-awareness and an intellectual integrity that should shame most of the poor crop of new musicals that opened in London last season.
A group of perpetually-smiling young Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda to convert the natives to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Their only reference point to Africa is The Lion King and their only experience of struggle is whitening their teeth and, in some cases, asserting their sexualities. They get a rude awakening (in several senses) but in trying to understand the people they find they come to better understand themselves.
Ok, so the tribes people triumphantly chant that God should go forth and multiply (or words to that effect). And yes, one of them does say - in the (authentic) belief that sex with a virgin will save him from the scourge of AIDS - "I'm going to go and rape a baby". This isn't Annie.
So is it really just a show for young folk who want to wallow in the bad taste?
Scandal is in the eye of the beholder. But from my seat in Row P, The Book of Mormon struck me as more warm-hearted than naughty, more happy than heretical. There's no nudity, no sex, no drugs, and it has much less swearing than Jerry. Instead it takes a sizeable swig of Monty Python's cocktail of satire and silliness, aided by Scott Pask's design which reinstates the painted backdrop to the West End musical for the first time since Spamalot.
It's a spoofy, hall-of-mirrors style satire in which the Africans sing cheerfully "80% of us have AIDS", the goofy guy is (inevitably) fat and the Americans know nothing about anything. This is not That Was the Week That Was.
Anyone who finds offense in a character called General Butt-F***er Naked or who gets flustered by the translation of "Hasa Diga Eebowai" (in the show's Hakuna Matata spoof) should have read about the show before buying a ticket. Whether you personally find this kind of thing funny or not, it seems silly to take offence when seen in the context of a show that wears its brain as clearly on its hat as it does its heart on its sleeve.
Contrary to the wholesome reputation of the art form, musicals have not been strangers to controversy down the years.
Oh Calcutta!, the first show to open after the censor was abolished, was awash with nudity and jokes about buggery. It ran for nearly a decade.
So did Hair, disproportionately remembered for a nude scene in which students protested Vietnam. It was probably never on a coach trip wish list for the WI. But it wasn't filth either.
Jerry Springer - The Opera was an award-laden hit, but those who used the amount of swearing as a stick with which to beat the writers (apparently never having seen the expletive-heavy talk show it was based on) missed the point as resoundingly as Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee hit their target.
Like those shows, Mormon's rudenesses are not scatter-gun, they are precisely targeted. In any league of bad taste seen on West End stages in the last few decades The Book of Mormon is some way down the list because it is so clearly a cartoon with a brain, not a shock-fest with an agenda.
The only question that should really matter to anybody is whether it's good. And it is.
To call it the musical of the century may be a bit far fetched. But to call it the entertainment of the year understates the considerable achievement of a show that is so expertly crafted, so intelligent and so joyous.
If you think you're going to take offence, don't buy a ticket. You probably can't get one anyway. Tough s***. (No offence.)