The Book of Mormon on Broadway: Is It Really That Controversial?

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South Park creators Matt Stone (L) and Trey Parker

REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

The Book of Mormon, the new musical from South Park’s creators, opens on Broadway tonight at a theater named for a playwright who had a somewhat more tragic outlook on life than Trey Parker and Matt Stone. (When the two appeared on his show a few weeks ago, David Letterman joked, “I think I just heard Eugene O’Neill turn over in his grave”).

Previews of the show about young Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda began last month, but it’s been in the works for some seven years. And as TIME’s Richard Zoglin recently wrote, the arrival on the Great White Way of “the bad boys behind TV’s most notoriously potty mouthed cartoon show … shouldn’t be all that surprising.” Broadway is more eclectic these days (think puppet musical Avenue Q, whose Robert Lopez is a co-creator of Mormon), and hey, these guys just happen to love song and dance. “The highest thing we were going for, and this sounds kind of corny,” Stone told TIME, “but we wanted to do a traditional Broadway musical.” One of the duo’s early projects was the film Cannibal! The Musical. NewsFeed hasn’t seen it, but we’re guessing it’s not exactly Sweeney Todd. We do however, have a fondness for “Blame Canada,” the Oscar nominated song from the South Park movie.

(Read TIME’s full article: Book of Mormon: South Park Creators Hit Broadway.”)

On The Daily Show earlier this month, Parker told Jon Stewart,  “I’ve been wanting to make musicals since I was a kid.” Stone added, “we’ve been doing stuff with Mormons for a long time.” (see: Orgazmo; Joseph Smith in South Park). It’s not cynical stuff, at that. “We like Mormons!” Stone tells Gothamist. “The Mormons in the show, their spirit saves the day.”

Some Mormons seem to agree. “I was prepared for scatological humor, generous doses of the F-word, and off-color bawdiness—this is South Park without network censorship, remember?” a reviewer blogged on BeliefNet, “but I wasn’t prepared for my Mormon faith to be lampooned with any sensitivity. I was happy to be wrong.”

“I was expecting to be offended,” The Salt Lake Tribune quotes Anne Christensen, a 22-year-old Mormon New Yorker who saw a preview, “but was pleasantly surprised by how incredibly sweet it was.”

Yup, sweet. Even with the inclusion of Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Darth Vader. Can’t say this show isn’t colorful.

But the Financial Times Brendan Lemon does say it isn’t original or entertaining enough. “It is not melodically memorable,” he writes, later noting, “The obscenity-laden The Book of Mormon is not offensive, unless you have not plugged into popular culture for at least a decade.”

(More on South Park in the top 10 controversial cartoons)

Here’s what some others have been saying ahead of the official opening:

Reason: “There are a number of elements… that have almost certainly never before been seen or even approximated on a Broadway stage. A luckless companion-animal called the Fuck Frog, for instance—I’m pretty sure that’s a first. And a musical number featuring a sort of singing clitoris—that’s a new one, right? … The show is breathtakingly funny.”

Ben Stiller on Twitter: “Went to see Book of Mormon on Broadway tonight. It was really funny and kind of irreverent.” Three minutes later: “Maybe a little more than kind of. Most inventive use of an Xray in a musical I have ever seen.”

Hollywood Reporter: “Religious zealots are not going to roll up, but the show has a comic field day with Mormonism while simultaneously acknowledging — maybe even respecting — the right of everyone to follow any faith they choose. Or invent.”

Salt Lake City Weekly: “What’s surprising about The Book of Mormon isn’t that parts of the musical push Broadway to new levels of obscenity, blasphemy and outrageousness …. What’s truly astonishing is that the other half of this musical is so cute, it could have been written by Mormons, for Mormons.”

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

(The Book of Mormon as a musical, though, just might be a bit catchier.)

(More on Are Mormons misunderstood?)