So, we saw BoM last night.
Here’s my initial thoughts:
Spoilers will occur.
First off, I never in my life thought I’d live long enough to see such a bold and brazen takedown of; religion in general, broadway musical tropes, first world audacity and indifference to the third world, etc, and I also never thought I’d live long enough to see that kind of show win the Tony and become one of the most successful shows in history.
Maybe I should have since I fell in love with Avenue Q a decade ago and that show was irreverent and snarky, also won the Tony and the music was written by the same guy. (Robert Lopez, who also wrote the score for Winnie the Pooh and Frozen, the most successful animated movie of all time. He has an EGOT and yet, not, it seems, so much ego. He appears to be a really nice guy).
Full disclosure: I bought the BoM soundtrack a couple years ago when the play first hit Broadway. I was very familiar with it.
Familiar enough to not be surprised that the best songs, most hummable songs, are in the first act and come pretty furiously one on top of another.
The cast, the touring cast that is, is spectacular. Hilarious. Spot on. Their joy is infectious and it’s hard not to tap your feet or root for them the entire show.
I should probably say that I compare all musicals to what I consider to be the greatest American musical, the pinnacle of that form, Sweeney Todd.
Sweeney also broke traditions, while using a time honored form. The score is infectious and clever but also moves the story along. That show also enjoys mocking certain tropes of the theater, most notably the ingenue. That character is at once lovely and completely ridiculous. She is impossible to root for, since she’s basically an air headed idiot, made so by circumstance to be sure. You root for Sweeney, if you root for anyone. He’s the most likely protagonist of the story, even though the lovers normally would be the focus. And, while Mrs. Lovett attempts to steal that focus, she is never quite successful. The show is about Sweeney.
Why bring this up beyond just to put something at the top of a scale to be compared to?
BoM has sort of the same thing going on with it’s two protagonists. Who is the lead of this show? Is it Elder Price or Elder Cunningham? The show can’t quite make up it’s mind and toss in with one in the end so it sorts of skirts that issue and makes them both the main characters, when it certainly should have gone all in with Cunningham. But, he’s a dolt and not much of a person and Price is such a narcissistic ego maniacal missionary it’s hard to not just want him to be shot in the second act (Something I actually would have welcomed as it was alluded to in the first act). So, there really isn’t one “lead”.
Is this a bad thing? Apparently not, since audiences are queueing up across the globe.
But is that the reason they are? Certainly not. It’s the irreverence. The release of a society moving ever closer to atheism. (A recent chart shows that non belief is growing in youth culture and that hardcore believers are getting older and older). In fact, the second lead of the show, in a moment that redeems his being allowed to survive his experience with the General, flat out states that what he was raised to believe was just…well….unbelievable. On the heels of the very assertive evolution episode of Cosmos, I believe that this is the core of the play’s success.
That and the fact that there’s a lot of good natured cursing.
The first act’s show stopper (there are really two, the other being an ironic song about just “turning off” emotions, instead of dealing with hard ones, like accepting one’s own homosexuality), is a song whose title is translated into, literally, “Fuck you, God.” Because “God” isn’t there for the people who really need him. They have AIDS. They have hunger. They are poor and sick. They are murdered by whatever gang-lord decides it’s his turn to take over. God doesn’t exist for them.
Because, maybe, God doesn’t exist. And we are on our own.
(Trey and Matt examined another recent religion a few years ago with their Scientology episode. Which also blew apart the stupidity of that religion’s genesis story)
And, that is what I think is the real message of Book of Mormon. Which makes it brilliant.
All of this is hung on a plot that is really flimsy, but doesn’t need to be better. In fact, the show-in-a-show theatrical presentation of their interpretation of the Joseph Smith story as explained to them by the other protagonist (who just made it up cuz, even though he’s become a Mormon “elder”, he never even read the book. I suspect this is true for a lot of religious leaders) is akin to something one would see on a cheesy sit-com.
Which is also why it works. It’s familiar. And it isn’t really challenging the audience. It’s a trope so comfortable because we’ve seen it on, I dunno, Blossom, or Saved by the Bell, that we buy it. Because it’s also a commentary on that kind of flimsy storytelling. Holy meta.
Ultimately the show is a cavalcade of fun tunes hung together on a string of snark and “plot”.
It could use a 20 minute trim (When did second acts get so long???).
But, on the Sweeney Todd scale, I’d give it an A.