January 7th, 2016

art, horned

The Book of Mormon Musical, As Experienced By Lis (Spoilers Ahoy!)

Ever since The Book of Mormon musical came out, folks have been telling me that I had to see it. They were sure I would love it, ex-Mormon that I am. And many of my ex-Mormon friends loved it. They even gave me copies of the soundtrack. (Which got misplaced during a move before I had the chance to listen to it. Thank you for thinking of me though!)

So it is with some trepidation that I announce that I saw The Book of Mormon...and did not love it. I feel like I'm letting the side down somehow, because I know the affection and cartharsis that a lot of ex-Mos get from the Book of Mormon (musical). Almost as much as some LDS seem to get from the Book of Mormon (book).

I got my tickets from a friend who sold hers to me, since she'd miscalculated on flights back after the holiday. I went in, rather excited, to finally see this musical and left....well...let's say, conflicted. I was duly amused. I laughed at a number of spots. I cringed at others. I twitched over certain inaccuracies and waved off others. And I left feeling rather unsatisfied. I suppose when folks have told you over a period of four years or so that you REALLY NEED to see this musical, it would be hard for any experience to live up to the hype.

Let's get some details out of the way: As any long term reader of this blog knows, I'm ex-Mormon. Officially. I've possessed my letter of heretic-hood for going on ten years. When I was LDS, I was VERY DEVOUT. Some ex-Mos always knew they were destined for heresy. I was not one of those. I had a sequoia up my ass and followed the rules and read my scriptures and didn't drink Coke and participated in every LDS touchstone up to and including one year at a church school. (Ricks College.) And somehow I studied my way out of the church.

I'm very fond of the South Park episode about the Mormons. It's more accurate in some ways than many Mormons know. It is, like every one of Trey and Matt's endeavours to understand Mormonism, still fundamentally flawed in a few ways (which I will touch on momentarily). And it is also riddled with the occasional inaccuracy. (As is Orgazmo, which premise makes me twitch whenever somebody tries to describe it. My "Yes, but that's completely wrong," thing kicks in.)

And I get rather touchy about inaccuracy re: explaining Mormonism, because when you are an ex-Mo, you have to face a constant onslaught of relatives trying to explain to you how the stuff you dug up on the internet isn't accurate, and they often use the very laughable and should-be-easy-to-verify mistakes of the likes of Jack Chick, Southern Baptists, and old media stereotypes about Mormons. When you're confronted with those obvious and silly errors, it becomes easier to dismiss the stuff that seems outlandish but was actually true. The LDS church as an institution is a chameleon. (A kind of slow, large and cumbersome chameleon, but it slowly morphs over time and adapts.) And the information they present to the faithful as history or doctrine is carefully winnowed over time. Things that were once taught and emphasised fall by the wayside when they prove to have too a high a cost in member retention. But this does make discussing the church history tricky with current members, because they are not likely to believe a number of things that are historically verified, because they've been conditioned their whole life with an onslaught of Media Mormon Stereotypes.

And my first peeve with The Book of Mormon is that it contains a bunch of easily fixable details but are wrong on a base level. Some of them I can actually handwave away as being in service to the story, such as the Scary Mormon Hell Dream song. Mormons may not believe in a traditional Hell, having only Outer Darkness to compete with it--and we'd been told our whole lives that it would be all but impossible for us to go THERE since that's reserved for the Sons of Perdition. Lacking temple experience, as heretical as I get, the furthest down I can go is the Telestial Kingdom--a place so awesome Joseph Smith said we'd kill ourselves to go there. Clearly Hell shouldn't be a hugely motivating factor with LDS folks. And it isn't. WHAT IS a motivating factor is guilt. So Scary Mormon Hell Dream was a way of introducing Mormon guilt in a shorthand visual referrant that would make sense to most of the never-Mormon audience.

(Scary Mormon Hell Dream was probably my favourite sequence of the show and it certainly works within my experiences of being Mormon. And I was amused seeing the dancing Starbucks Cups kicking it with Hitler.)

A lot of the other details about the missions, the MTC, church protocols and whatnot didn't match either. Again, many of these could be handwaved in service of the story. Certainly you don't send out two greenies together, nor would they be each other's companion for the full two years. But I get that's what the story needed. Okay. That's fine. Whatevs. Again for the mass audience, that's not noticeable. It's just me in the mezzanine, twitching over my old religion.

The story goes like so: Two greenies, one a Golden Boy, one a doctrinal failure, get assigned to the Uganda District 9 mission. Golden Boy (Elder Price) had hoped for Orlando and prayed to Jesus to get that and is upset that his prayers aren't being answered. And Doctrinal Failure (Elder Cunningham) is excited because for the first time in his life, he has a companion who can't (because of rules) leave his side and who will be his best friend, he thinks. Needless to say, they get to Uganda and encounter a village having problems with a local warlord who wants to circumsize all the women. And AIDS. There are a lot of AIDS jokes. There hasn't been a single baptism yet in this village, and the current crop of missionaries are sad. Despite Golden Boy's best efforts, his by-the-book training is failing to produce anything useful for these villagers and their lives, and dispirited, he slinks off to beg for a transfer to Orlando. Meanwhile Elder Cunningham has been teaching the history of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon to the villagers in his own special way.

Doctrinally there was a lot of simplification. But a real big beef I have was in the historical presentation of Joseph Smith. I feel like they pulled their punch at the end. Elder Cunningham, teaching the Ugandans, makes up a bunch of the Book of Mormon because he's never read it. Because it's boring. (It totally is. Most of the narrative is meandering, incoherent, illogical, and boring boring boring.) And while the Ugandans present their version of the Joseph Smith narrative (based on Elder Cunningham's nerd fantasies and pop culture references), it is contrasted constantly with an "official" version that allows for Joseph Smith's credibility. Eventually the villagers find out that their version of the Book of Mormon isn't quite the same as the Official Book of Mormon. In the end, the takeaway is that this is all metaphorical and we should allow people to believe whatever makes them happy.

Why did I feel they pulled their punches?

- I didn't feel it drew a clear enough line from Elder Cunningham's making stuff up to Joseph Smith's making stuff up. In fact, at one point, they have Joseph chastising Elder Cunningham for lying. You could say that they were going for irony--and I think they were aiming for it--but this is undercut by contrasting the ludicrous Obviously Wrong Joseph Smith story with the in-universe Real Story where Joseph's credibility isn't ever touched on. You laugh over how wrong Elder Cunningham and the Ugandans got it because you've already been given a "The Real Version."

- The narrative supports the idea that the two missionaries were brought to Uganda because they were meant to be there and that Elder Price was supposed to learn that prayers don't get answered the way you think they will.

- I felt it supported much of the status quo about the church as an institution. In fact, while there is a song about "Shutting Off" these strange worries and feelings, the whole musical actually makes a case for "If it makes you happy to ignore the doctrinally strange and illogical stuff, you should do that. Because happiness." But this is as satisfying as seeing somebody achieve temporary peace and happiness by shutting down their lines of inquiry. And when the female character makes the discovery that her doctrine isn't real, she gets herded back into line because the village has decided this makes them happy now.

(I should go to sleep. It's getting late.)

Some more notes:

- I felt uncomfortable with the portrayal of Ugandans as technologically backward, gullible villagers. A few moments subvert this (such as the song about Africa, parodying Bono and white charity efforts in Africa) and a villager talking about metaphor, but they really come few and far between. There's a running gag about Elder Cunningham not being able to remember the female character's name--so much so that I don't even know what her name is. Which is...less...ha ha...and more something that happens to PoC all the time. (Recently there was a great inversion of this where a black girl started mispronouncing her white coworker's name after he told her he didn't even plan on making an effort on her name. That punches up, changes the dynamic.)

- I would have been much less critical about ten years ago. I also liked South Park more ten years ago.

- The music isn't that memorable. The staging was fine, but nothing spectacular. On strictly musical terms, I'd give it 3 stars (of 5).

- It doesn't pass the Bechdel test. It's just annoying to see that the only differentiated female character is one of the most gullible.

- I enjoyed the song about Mormons just believing. I liked Scary Mormon Hell Dream. The opening number was fun.

- A lot of great little references made me smile: getting your own planet, feeling guilty over eating a donut, etc.

- I would like more of this if I felt that the narrative hadn't been encouraging us to think of this as an arc, and if it had been more in the nature of observing Panglossian missionaries. And while this has essentially the same thesis as the South Park episode, I felt it worked less well in a longer format.

- Meh. I really need to sleep.

RULES: ONLY ONE COMMENT PER PERSON. (I don't feel like referreeing any back and forth on this. I'm just trying to sum up my experiences.)