Mormon II – Beyond the Tonys

Here come the Mormons. Forget about the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, where two of the aspirants are Mormon — one announced (or revealed, as religious parlance would have it), one not.

The Book of Mormon, brought to you on Broadway by your friends from South Park,  took 9 Tony Awards last Sunday night. The coup reminds you that satire is alive and well on Broadway, even on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack, as long as it’s in a more or less recognizable container.  The Book of Mormon already proved that it could attract the same young audience that watches South Park and The Simpsons, and that it could make money in New York on what might be condemned as blasphemy in Salt Lake City. Who said that sin doesn’t sell.  Who says it’s sin?

Now The Book of Mormon has proven something else that we had known all along – that such a musical could rally New York critics and theater folk who are the Tony voters. Sunday night proved that perception was official.

Leaving no insult behind, Trey Parker, the show’s creator, thanked Mormon Founder Joseph Smith for his help on the play. The blasphemous acknowledgement is a twist on the old gag that has Hitler standing at an awards podium, and gushing, “I couldn’t have done this without all of you.” Parker is lucky that the Mormons don’t have a hit team, so far.

The sweep by The Book of Mormon points to a generational shift on Broadway. The crowd for a revival of an old chestnut like Anything Goes by Cole Porter (a Tony winner this year) is still there – but that graying and dying crowd is soon headed for Mormon genealogies rather than for theater seats.

Yet consider the upside. There’s a youth audience out there that watches South Park, The Simpsons, and Family Guy, and those kids come to New York with their families. If the parents want to take them to the theater, The Book of Mormon is a musical that won’t bore either generation. Hence at least one aspect of the show’s success. And you can count on the audience wanting to see more shows like this. Hence the quip from Robin Williams at the awards –  “coming to Broadway next season, Moammar Qaddafi in Catch Me If You Can.” Don’t say nobody warned you.

Another fact that this year’s Tonys confirmed is that Broadway successes are increasingly linked to sources in other pop culture media.  – moving pictures, comics, television… and money. Scott Rudin, producer of The Book of Mormon, is a well-known film producer.

Just think, decades ago, Oklahoma was a warm-hearted homage to a state of land-rush farmers and oil speculators who trampled the place in 1912. If all you knew was the musical, you didn’t know that territory was reserved for Indians until the White Man discovered how valuable its natural resources were. The truth-telling in The Book of Mormon represents a pivotal moment, but is it a revolution? Not yet.

If The Book of Mormon did take awards for a Broadway musical by storm, it didn’t achieve that victory by reinventing the form. Its music, which won a prize in this year’s Tonys, had the same sweet blandness of much else on Broadway. It isn’t the audio grotesquery of the South Park television show. But listen to the words, and you’ll hear that the musical is an evisceration of all things Mormon. The music in which that message is wrapped lulls the listener into thinking that maybe something different is being communicated. Isn’t that how seduction and show business work. Maybe that explains why the show has such a large Mormon audience. The musical as the Trojan Horse?

Back to reality for a moment, if anyone’s campaign for president can be called that. If you saw the Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, you saw candidates go easy on Mitt Romney, the front-runner. Evangelicals tend to mistrust Mormons, whom they don’t consider to be Christians, so it may not be long before another candidate who’s answerable to that constituency brings up the fact that Romney’s great-grandfather had five wives and one of his great-great grandfathers had twelve. And the there’s John Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, who isn’t so sure that he’s a Mormon now, or at least not sure that he’s a practicing one. First a duel among Mormon to determine who’s the best Mormon for the nomination, and then the Mormon nominee against the Satanic world? If that’s not a sequel to The Book of Mormon, what is?


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