Tonight is opening night for the Book of Mormon musical at Proctors in Schenectady. I’ve been following the musical since it debuted a few years ago, and my opinion on it has gradually changed over time. So today I wanted to spend some time talking about what the musical is, and isn’t, and how and why my opinion has changed.
Before BoM debuted on Broadway, there was a South Park episode about Mormons, and in a lot of ways, it was quite good. I’ve seen a lot of portrayals of the Church in various forms of entertainment, and South Park actually came a lot closer to showing what an actual Mormon was like than many of the other appearances the Church has made. Plus, South Park gets credit for making fun of everything, they can legitimately claim that. Even within the episode, they made fun of some of the anti-Mormons. So they do get some credit for at least being a little balanced there. Now that said, I’m not sure how many churches or organizations have had a major Broadway musical targeting them directly. We actually had a Rabbi come to visit our Stake Center once to apologize, and tell us he couldn’t believe something like this was happening and well received. Hollywood just seems to not like us very much. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a piece of entertainment about Mormons, that hasn’t been made by Mormons, that is favorable, or even truly accurate. I haven’t been able to relate to any of the Mormon characters I’ve seen on TV or in movies, not only that, but the characters don’t remind me of any Mormons I actually know. And certainly not the missionaries. My job in Church right now is to work with the missionaries, and I’ve gotten to know quite a few of them over the years. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an appearance from missionaries on a TV show or movie where they weren’t just being used for a laugh (Yes Man, Orgazmo), just kinda creepy (Big Love) or homosexual (Latter Days AND The Falls) But I had at least some hope that if anyone could be fair, it would be Parker and Stone.
When the soundtrack came out, I downloaded it and listened to it a bunch of times. My first thought was this is very entertaining. The songs were well done, and some of them were funny and just good to listen to. But I wouldn’t call it entirely accurate. The more I listened to it, the more I paid attention to what they were actually saying, instead of just listening for entertainment. They obviously went to great lengths to be accurate about many things. It’s more about inaccuracy through omission. Imagine if I would describe a giraffe like so; “They have four legs, two eyes, a nose, and they enjoy eating crackers” Have I lied? Nope. But would you be able to recognize a giraffe based on this description alone? No way. I’ve focused on the wrong parts, and left out some very important details. That’s the way I feel about the musical. You can look at it as entertainment, but if all you’ve done is watched the musical, you don’t really know anything about us.
The turning point for me was the Tony Awards. I tuned in to see how it did, and how it was received. At one point, they performed a song from the musical.
My biggest problem was the crowd reaction, and it felt like a kick to the gut. When I listed to the soundtrack myself, I found it pretty entertaining, and funny at parts. But hearing the way others were laughing at it just wasn’t fun for me. It was a song where they make fun of a lot of Mormon doctrine. For a while, I thought maybe I could handle seeing the musical. I thought that would be a good way to really make up my mind. But being in a room with other people laughing at, not with, my faith would be really upsetting. There’s been some talk about making a movie about it. I could probably handle watching that alone or with friends. I still want to know more about it so I can better answer questions when people ask me about it. But really since the Tony’s I’ve had a hard time listening to the musical at all. I did make it to the end of the broadcast, where BoM won best musical. By that time, I was already pretty upset, but I found the acceptance speech to be distasteful. Whoever was accepting it, said he wanted to thank his co-author, who had sadly passed on. He then goes on to thank Joseph Smith Jr. And basically dedicated the award to him. There’s been a lot of criticism of Joseph Smith over the last two hundred years, and he’s pretty much always been surrounded in some sort of controversy or another. But one thing that nobody can dispute is that he was killed for what he believed in. I just don’t see anything funny in that.
So, where do we go from here? I am surprised that such a musical can exist, and have such mainstream appeal in this day and age. But like most within the Church, I don’t favor a boycott or protest. I’m just not a fan of them in general. And I’m certainly not a fan of telling other people what to do for entertainment or on their own time. I wouldn’t discourage someone who wanted to see the show, but I would try and share with them what the Mormon life is actually like, and what missionaries actually do. Someone who sees the musical needs to understand they are getting a very incomplete look at Mormon doctrine, and Mormons in general. I’ve known a couple dozen missionaries over the years, many quite well. And I don’t see any similarity between them, and the way they are presented in the musical.
There are some more realistic portrayals of a Mormon mission, and some of them are entertaining, but these are movies that have been written and directed by Mormons. My favorite is a film called “The Best Two Years” referring to the two years a mission lasts. It’s got a lot of comedy, but there are some serious and spiritual moments as well. WE get the see the day to day life of four Elders serving in Europe over a several month period as one Elder begins his mission, and another is struggling to wrap up his. There’s another film, focusing on Sister missionaries in Europe, called “Errand of Angels” Slightly more serious, it follows one Sister from the beginning to end of her mission, focusing on her relationship with her companions, and the successes and setbacks she has on her mission. The final movie I would recommend is “The Other Side of Heaven” This is based on a book that now has the same name. And it’s a true story of one Elder called to serve in Tonga in the 1950’s. The book is excellent, and it’s a bit more specialized. The movie was picked up by Disney, and to make it more mainstream, they never mention the name of the Church, and shy away from a lot of the religious content. It also focuses more on his relationship with the woman who he left behind when he went on his mission, played by Anne Hathaway in one of her first film roles. It’s still a very beautiful and inspirational movie though.
My final suggestion is to check out next months General Conference. Sometimes we are accused of being secretive and a closed group. But we’re not, in fact, we love visitors. And at General Conference, anyone can see the most important messages of the year from the privacy of their own home if they want. Conference is the first weekend of April and October, and can be viewed at any Church building, or online at http://www.lds.org For two days, Church leaders speak to the membership of the Church. There’s no secret to it, anyone can watch, and the messages often set the tone for what members talk about and do for the next 6 months. I would challenge anyone who has watched the musical to check out one of these books, movies or broadcasts to see what Mormons actually believe in and do. And if there are any questions, feel free to send me an e-mail or message.