The Book of Mormon: out of the comfort zone

Elder Kevin and the General

The musical by the creators of South Park runs and runs because of its biting humour and its evisceration of the White Saviour complex that is prevalent amongst evangelical religions. And yet …

I’m a big South Park fan – so the news that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were doing a musical got me nervous. Not because of any misgivings about these particular two, but because of the high disappointment rate of commercially lucrative West End and Broadway productions. When the number one selling point is a big name – either well-known writers or a well-know story it’s based on – all to often the actual musical fails to live up to the hype. However, The Book of Mormon has run and run and run so we can safely assume it’s been doing something right.

First, a recap of South Park Lore. There are two strands of South Park that heavily feed into a live-action stage musical. The first obvious source is the episode All About Mormons, which was a bit of a dilemma for Parker and Stone when they first wrote it. They’d already been brutal about most other religions, but the difficulty with Mormonism is that all the Mormons they knew in real life were such nice people – but the story they believe in is just dumb. The boat that carried two of each of the 1.2 million species on earth for a month is positively believable compared to the story of Joseph Smith. The other less obvious source are the episodes with Starvin’ Marvin. This is a favourite example of the South Park haters who love to accuse the programme of punching down. “You’re making fun of black people in Africa”, they claim. No, for anyone who watches his, it’s clear that the real target are the missionaries who don’t care in the slightest about saving lives as long some of them right read their Bibles.

South Park fans will quickly recognise both themes here. Elder Kevin Price is the star pupil of a Missionary Training Centre, learning how to tell people the good news of the Church of Latter-Day Saints far better than any of his peers. Underneath, however, Kevin is a shallow character, who assumes that being top of the class will earn him a cushy mission in Florida, preferably near Disneyland. Unluckily for Kevin, the Mormon bigwigs thinks he’s such a great Mormon he’ll be perfect for Uganda, where, for some reason, the people seem more concerned about not being killed by local militias. And worse: insecure, needy and generally annoying Arnold (who worships Kevin as much as the Lord God himself) has been partnered with Kevin in the hope he’ll make a proper Mormon of him.

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