Remember May 2011? Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces; Mitt Romney was preparing to face Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann in a presidential debate; and Ben Brantley of the New York Times called Book of Mormon "THE BEST MUSICAL OF THIS CENTURY."
Well, that's how the quote appears on flyers for the show today. More precisely, Brantley wrote that the play, which had recently landed 14 Tony nominations, "happens to be the best new musical (so far, anyway) of the 21st century."
That conditional statement left room for other contenders, and there's certainly one on Broadway now. Hamilton just broke a record with 16 Tony nominations, and is being hailed as an early contender for lists of the towering works of art — on or off the Great White Way — of the 21st century.
Like Romney, though, Book of Mormon is still around. Unlike Romney, it's still a hot ticket. Having already stormed through Minneapolis multiple times on its national tour, it's now back at it again with the white men at the Orpheum Theatre. On Wednesday night, I saw Book of Mormon for the first time, having been otherwise engaged (not on purpose, I swear) when it previously came through town.
Was I surprised? Impressed? Delighted? Amused? Shocked? The answers are not really, yes, I wouldn't say that, often, and not exactly, but sort of uneasy.
It's certainly an extraordinarily well-crafted show: Its creators' devilish accomplishment is to run circles around their competitors in terms of sheer musical entertainment while ruthlessly mocking a major American faith — and evangelism in general. Thirty-seven years after Monty Python's Life of Brian, it still feels surprising to see a major popular entertainment turn the crucifixion into a song-and-dance number.
Book of Mormon pushes further than Life of Brian, though, because it's not set in the safely distant past: It's set in the present, in war-torn Uganda. AIDS and genital mutilation are portrayed as being near-inescapable, as the village visited by Mormon missionaries suffers under the grip of strongman General Butt Fucking Naked.
The musical's intentionally provocative humor is no surprise, coming from co-creators Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q). South Park, the cartoon series created by Parker and Stone, is similar in tone, but makes its points quickly, with intentionally cheap-looking animation. Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is a lavish Broadway production. The idea that these villagers don't have time to worry about Joseph Smith when Joseph Kony is on the loose isn't just a one-liner — it's a fact repeated and explored over the course of two long acts, in a show that seems likely to keep profitably touring for years to come.
That's part of the show's achievement: Its scope allows it to go beyond a quick punchline and make a broader argument about cultural relativism and the nature of faith. The ultimate targets of its satire aren't just Mormons, but anyone who insists that any god, ever, created a single sacred text that's meant to remain immutable across millennia even as the world around it transforms. You're not going to get there in a half-hour cartoon episode.
Still, the show's scope is also what makes me wonder if it should have an expiration date. Book of Mormon was a significant statement when it opened, and it was well-made enough to win a wide audience. Five years out, though, the shock is over — and here are these continuing sellout audiences, still guffawing at the guy with maggots in his scrotum. AIDS! Rape! Genital mutilation! It's all so edgy! Let's take a quick selfie with the marquee.
Hamilton's acclaim stems from both its achievement as a work of musical theater and its resonance in an era when many Americans seem to need reminding about our origins as a nation founded on multicultural compromise. Book of Mormon also argues against simplistic ideas of monocultural superiority, but the frat-bro tone of its humor lets its audience get away without thinking too hard about that. Maybe it's time for us all to think a little harder.
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