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The best new musical in years

The Book of Mormon works brilliantly because it does something unusual: it respects both its subject matter and its form.

Christian Butler

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I always dread going to see a musical comedy. Not because I demand a Les Misérables level of seriousness from every production I see, but because far too often the ‘comedy’ is emphasised far too greatly over all else. Laughter’s no bad thing, but why should story, character and, of course, the music be sacrificed for cheap gags and patronising glibness?

I would like to think it’s because the composers are simply lazy, but the form demands years of development before even the most hackneyed of efforts are thrown to the lions/theatre critics. The Book of Mormon, a multi-Tony Award-winning musical penned by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (with help from Avenue Q co-writer Robert Lopez), took nine years to reach the West End. But, for once, this was time well spent. Not only is it the best musical comedy I’ve ever seen, but it’s the most finely crafted new musical London has seen in years.

As I sat in my seat at the Prince of Wales Theatre, it was refreshing to see such an atypical audience around me. Not since Jerry Springer: The Opera has a show managed to get so many uninitiated twentysomethings through the front door. But what sets Parker and Stone apart from previous comedy writers who have tried their hand at writing for the stage is that they actually know musical theatre and its history.

Indeed, in their previous work, Parker and Stone have displayed a deep reverence for the form. South Park’s 1999 big screen debut, …Bigger, Longer and Uncut, was itself a foul-mouthed take on the Disney animated movie-musical which gifted us with fine ditties that nodded to some classic standards: ‘Uncle Fucka’ cribbed its tune from Judy Garland’s ‘The Trolley Song’, while the Oscar-nominated ‘Blame Canada’ nabbed its opening line from Anything Goes (‘Times have changed!’).

As they made the transition to a fully fledged stage production, Parker and Stone turned to one of their most enduring obsessions for inspiration: that most wacky of US Christian sects, the Mormons.

The show uses the specifics of Mormonism to comment on all religion, much like Fiddler on the Roof did with Judaism. But where Fiddler centred on a poverty-stricken Russian family in the midst of genocide, The Book of Mormon’s leads are two middle-class American teens who have had little taste of the harsher side of life. They meet while awaiting their assignments at a Mormon missionary school in Salt Lake City, Utah. Elder Price (Gavin Creel) is the handsome, self-obsessed, ‘model Mormon’, hoping God will answer his prayers and have him dispatched to his own personal holy land: Orlando, Florida. Meanwhile, Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner) is his podgy foil, who still seems to be getting to grips with the finer points of his faith.

What follows is both a buddy comedy and a coming-of-age story, where the mismatched Mormons struggle to make conversions on their mission, which, it turns out, is to a troubled Ugandan village. The pair’s only understanding of Africa is from watching The Lion King, and upon arrival, they’re shocked to discover villages brutalised by warlords, riddled with AIDS and sick of Western God-botherers spewing empty promises. Both Creel and Gertner bring a humanistic touch to their absurd characters, as they head out onto the savannah, scripture in hand.

Not exactly the most hilarious of settings, perhaps? But it lays the perfect foundation on which the comedy and characters build. The composers don’t force the laughs, and allow pathos and satire to mix, creating songs that work on both levels. The beautiful ‘Sal Tlay Ka Siti’, sees one villager rhapsodise about the Mormon’s hometown (Salt Lake City, geddit?), convinced it is the very same paradise her mother told her about as a child: ‘With waterfalls and unicorns flying/Where there was no suffering, no pain /Where there was laughter, instead of dying.’

Over the course of the tight, two-act show, Stone and Parker lampoon Mormonism and its downright barmy beliefs – from the idea the Garden of Eden was actually located in Missouri, to the notion that in the afterlife each believer secures their own personal planet. But they manage to maintain a light touch. Where Jerry Springer: The Opera revelled in shallow blasphemy and purposefully courted controversy, Lopez, Parker and Stone build their story on an honest curiosity for what Mormonism – and, by extension, religion – is all about.

For The Book Of Mormon, respect is the key word: respect for religion, respect for the musical and, most importantly, respect for the audience. Balancing the tightrope between thought-provoking satire and pure entertainment, this show pulls off something of a minor miracle.

Christian Butler is a writer and musician based in London.

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