'Book of Mormon' packs fresh irreverence into traditional musical formula

Production arrives this week at Hippodrome

  • Mark Evans, left, as missionary Elder Price and Derrick Williams as a Ugandan warlord in "The Book of Mormon." The national touring production plays the Hippodrome Feb. 25-March 9
Mark Evans, left, as missionary Elder Price and Derrick Williams… (Joan Marcus, Handout )
February 25, 2014|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

The curtain-raising scene of Jesus appearing "in ancient upstate New York" is the first little clue that "The Book of Mormon" is not your average Broadway musical. By the time the show ends, every politically incorrect button has been pushed, every doorbell rung.

With true missionary zeal, the creators of this hugely popular work, which reaches Baltimore on Tuesday, satirize not just one religion, but all of them. Various peoples, practices and conditions are heartily targeted in the process, too.

But when all is said, sung and stung, "Book of Mormon" is really a big, old-fashioned musical, one with the same basic structure that served Rodgers and Hammerstein so well.

Speaking of Rodgers and Hammerstein, they also come in for some ribbing (one production number suggests a parody of a scene from "The King and I"). For that matter, the whole show can be seen as sending up lots of Broadway, with "The Lion King" getting spoofed in a particularly rich manner.

That it all adds up to an unusually entertaining, wickedly funny experience helps explain how "The Book of Mormon" earned nine Tony Awards and has been going strong on Broadway since March 2011. It has been an equally hot touring property for the past two years.

The back story to the musical has a distinct air of inevitability about it. You might call it divinely preordained.

Robert Lopez, one of the show's creative trinity, developed a taste for musicals and satire early on.

"I was a devotee of 'The Simpsons' in middle school and all through high school," says Lopez, 38. "They really took the stuffing out of musicals — Madge as Blanche DuBois in the musical version of 'Streetcar Named Desire' was really something."

Later on, Lopez happened upon such inspired parody films as "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Waiting for Guffman," which also proved an influence. Then he discovered "South Park," the edgy animated series created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

When he saw "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut," the 1999 musical number-filled cinematic extension of the TV series, Lopez realized that it was exactly the sort of thing he wanted to do. A week later, he hatched the idea that would be developed into "Avenue Q," a coolly subversive Broadway musical that opened in 2003 featuring puppets who were anything but childlike.

Now comes the spooky, serendipitous stuff.

Parker and Stone decided to check out the buzz-generating "Avenue Q" and noticed in the Playbill that Lopez thanked the two of them for their inspiration. But they didn't know Lopez. In short order, the three men met and learned that — cue the rumbling organ chords — they all shared a common interest in a certain faith.

"I had been wanting to write an epic musical about religion, one of the great subjects to tackle," Lopez says. "At first I was thinking of a sequel: 'The Bible, Part III.' But that had already been done by Joseph Smith, and it was called Book of Mormon."

Parker and Stone had also been thinking about building a project around Smith, who founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after he said he uncovered, in an upstate New York hillside, golden plates that detailed connections between Jesus and America in ancient times.

Deciding to collaborate on a Mormon musical, Parker, Lopez and Stone moved the focus away from Smith — his history would still be woven into the plot — and toward a couple of young Mormon missionaries sent off to proselytize. They are the totally prepared and dedicated Elder Price and the not-quite-ready, friendship-challenged Elder Cunningham.

For Lopez, all of this made perfect sense as a stage vehicle.

"I was raised somewhat Catholic and parted ways with it in college," he says. "But my job for extra money was singing in an Episcopal church choir, and I got to know the ritual of the Mass better. I saw how it was clearly related to musical theater — there's a story, songs, community feeling, trying to give people guidance. I don't feel it cheapens religion at all to say it's a kind of musical theater, musical theater at its best."

Musicals were not an interest for Christopher John O'Neill, who has played Elder Cunningham on the tour since late 2012. His background had been solely in comedy when, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a couple of years ago, he was spotted by a "Book of Mormon" casting director.

"All I knew about the show was how impossible it was to get tickets," O'Neill, 31, says, "and that it was by the guys who created 'South Park.' They sent me to see it in Los Angeles and, obviously, it was the best show I'd ever seen."

Another lapsed Catholic ("I just believe you should be a good person and everything will work out"), O'Neill had limited exposure to the musical's subject.

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