The Worst and Most Perverse

I finally saw The Book of Mormon, the new Broadway musical from the South Park guys.

It feels sorta like if Andrew Dice Clay had written The Music Man. Tons of vulgarity but all in the form of an old-school 1950s musical comedy. But with shows like Next to Normal, American Idiot, The Scottsboro Boys, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and other incredibly exciting new shows in our recent memory, it's hard to get excited about a 1950s musical comedy, even if you're a fan of over-the-top vulgarity, which I usually am (everyone remember Johnny Appleweed and The Wild Party?)...

There are some outstanding performances at the center of it, but it's still disappointing. About two-thirds of it is very funny and occasionally as satirically insightful as the brilliant South Park. But the other third (which is a pretty big chunk) is lame. Jokes that misfire. Sincerity that doesn't mesh with the running joke about maggots on one character's scrotum (I'm not kidding). And fairly bland music even when the lyrics are excellent...

And too many references to other musicals! That stopped being funny quite a while ago. Haven't we moved beyond that yet? It's a truism that to be funny something must be a surprise. If you see the punchline coming, you don't laugh. Even a running joke can be funny if the audience can be repeatedly surprised that it keeps coming back. But musicals referencing other musicals is no longer a surprise. The most obvious examples are [title of show], Spamalot, and The Musical of Musicals, but there have been dozens more recently.

Urinetown was different because it didn't just reference other shows; it referenced its own structure and narrative devices. It literally deconstructed itself before our very eyes. Urinetown was entirely about the subversion of musical theatre conventions -- plus it opened ten years ago when everybody wasn't doing it yet. The Book of Mormon is not nearly as smart or original as Urinetown. It repeatedly substitutes references for cleverness. In other words, though I don't think it's a "bad show," it's surprisingly old-fashioned and not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. (Full disclosure: I'm also one of those who thought [title of show] was wholly unoriginal and only marginally funny.)

Also, The Book of Mormon is set in Uganda, and some of the jokes at the expense of the African characters feel clumsy and even unintentionally racist. Sort of a re-hash of that indie film The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981), which I also didn't find terribly funny for the same reason. Satire has to get at truth to be truly funny. The show's creators need to cut a shitload, but they're getting pretty great reviews, so I doubt they will.

I have to wonder who their audience will be and if they can tour this show, with jokes about clitoral circumcision, scrotum maggots, and Jesus... While watching the show, I kept thinking about how the Fox audience would react, as I remembered the suburbanites sitting around me for the tour of Avenue Q at the Fox, all of them totally not amused because it was too dirty for them. Ack!

So I posted something on Facebook about my thoughts on Book of Mormon, and I immediately got attacked from someone working on the show, who told me I just wasn't getting the "nuances" in the show. Yeah, right, like the nuance of the running joke about scrotum maggots...? He rambled on and on about how there are so many references that "most of the audience doesn't get." So I asked him -- doesn't that mean the show and/or the production is doing a bad job of storytelling, if "most of the audience" doesn't get a lot of the show...?

He proceeded to tell me I'm just not "an informed New York theatregoer." Really? How about you make that argument again after you've written nine musicals, six books on musical theatre, and run a nationally respected musical theatre company for twenty years, fuckface? Whatever, dude.

I can't help but compare Book of Mormon to bare, which I'm currently working on and which is so entirely original. Yes, bare has been compared to Rent, and it does owe an artistic debt to Rent, but bare really is something new and utterly sui generis. And living inside the music of bare these last couple months makes Book of Mormon seem to me even clunkier and clumsier than it might have otherwise.

bare is difficult to pin down. In its form, it’s closer to an opera than a musical, but it’s not exactly either. Its musical vocabulary is closer to alternative pop than pure rock, but there’s plenty of both in this score. It’s a story about the breakdown of our institutions – religion, education, the family – and the moral hypocrisy that traps many of us behind masks of conformity. And it's a far more intelligent and insightful look at religion in America than Book of Mormon is.

Acting guru Stella Adler once said, "Unless you give the audience something that makes them bigger – better – do not act." (I love that quote!) Actor Ben Kingsley has said about actors, "The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman/healer, that's what the storyteller is, and I think it's important for actors to appreciate that. Too often actors think it's all about them, when in reality it's all about the audience being able to recognize themselves in you."

That's what's missing from Book of Mormon and what bare has in abundance. Truth. Insight. Balls. As much as I love most of Trey Parker's work, The Book of Mormon has no balls -- it just talks about them a lot.

I've realized that over the years I've been so fortunate to get to work on the absolute best musicals ever created for the stage. And I'll include bare in that list. But I think it's made me less patient with and tolerant of mediocre work. I can't sit through crap like Spamalot or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels anymore. All I can see is what shows like that haven't achieved, the opportunities they've missed.

I guess it's like a master chef who eats only the best, most interesting food -- he probably won't be found at McDonald's very often...

bare opens a week from tomorrow. I cannot wait to share this beautiful, amazing show with our audiences!

Long Live the Musical!


Jenny | May 26, 2011 at 10:27 PM

thanks for this review! i'd heard about the show but really didn't know anything about it.

The Book Of Mormon | September 7, 2012 at 10:40 AM

bare opens a week from tomorrow. I cannot wait to share this beautiful, amazing show with our audiences! Thanks for sharing this info!

Scott Miller | June 19, 2015 at 5:24 PM

To the cowardly "Anonymous" -- nope, what I wrote is still true. Three years later, it's still a shallow, juvenile mess that's far less funny and less insightful than South Park.