Joseph Smith, revered by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a prophet, seer, revelator and founder of faith, frequently declared the paramount importance of missionary work, regardless of persecution, in a letter he penned in 1842:
“The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing,” Smith declared. “Persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.”
Since then, the message of the church and its core beliefs, found in the Bible and Book of Mormon, have spread with a current force of over 67,000 missionaries in roughly 400 missions that dot the globe.
But whether one looks at those teachings from an inside perspective, or even from the exterior, there’s plenty of unique things to note, beginning with the fact that the majority of that missionary force is still in its late teen years and early 20s.
And that fact is at the core of “The Book of Mormon” musical, which has also been making its way around the world, with a current run in Salt Lake City as a part of the Broadway at the Eccles program.
"Naturally, when we're 17 or 18, we all think we know everything, and then life slaps you upside the head,” said Trey Parker, a co-creator of both the musical and the acclaimed yet raunchy television series “South Park” during an interview with NPR regarding the Broadway show. “And I think that happens for a lot of people just when they go away to college or they move out of the house. But a lot of these kids go to another country or another culture — and a lot of them end up in Third World countries — and they're probably seeing things that they have never seen before. So in addition to the coming-of-age story, we have a fish-out-of-water story — and it just seemed really funny to send these two kids who've grown up in this perfect place to a place where nothing makes sense.”
Parker and “South Park” co-creator Matt Stone have dabbled with themes and cameos featuring The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for years on their show, but it was in 2011 that they launched, with musical stylings by Robert Lopez of “Avenue Q” and later Disney’s “Frozen,” the irreverent, profane and sexually explicit Broadway production that would go on to earn nine Tony awards, including one for Best Musical, and a Grammy award for Best Musical Theater Album.
Though a roast on any mainstream religion can cause, to put it lightly, some ruffled feathers, in February 2011, the church released the following statement in direct response to popularity and hype for the musical:
“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 release was exactly what Stone and Parker had hoped for.
"Before the church responded, a lot of people would ask us, 'Are you afraid of what the church would say?' And Trey and I were like, 'They're going to be cool.' And they were like, 'No, they're not. There are going to be protests.' And we were like, 'Nope, they're going to be cool.,' " the duo shared in their May 2011 commentary with NPR. “We weren't that surprised by the church's response. We had faith in them.”
The basic premise of “The Book of Mormon” revolves around two young missionaries as they prepare to embark on two years of service.
The devout, albeit pious, Elder Kevin Price quickly takes the lead among his fellow missionaries, trusting that his faith will lead to a call to Orlando, Florida. Things rapidly take a turn, however, when he is instead paired with awkward, insecure Elder Arnold Cunningham, who also happens to be a compulsive liar. To add insult to injury, the pair are then called, not to Orlando, but Uganda.
Though things start off optimistic, it doesn’t take long for the realities of a war-torn country and a life of poverty to settle in, along with a plenitude of inappropriate references, including one, used by natives in the area as a way to cope with negativity, that upon translation, generally wouldn’t be shared in mainstream news media.
As the village where the missionaries are serving is faced with a serious crisis, Elder Price departs, leaving Elder Cunningham to embellish his way to the role of star missionary, offering the locals hope and direct guidance that mixes basic doctrine with pop culture references including “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars.”
Though things wrap up pretty nicely for everyone in the end, the path there is rocky, and punctuated with catchy songs, outlandish happenings and, of course, a heaping helping of profanity, with loose references to some pretty serious subject matter, including AIDS, warlords, female genital mutilation and famine.
Though such harsh topics combined into a show that in many ways mangles the doctrine and mocks the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might not seem like the most popular pick for a tour of the faith’s home base of Salt Lake City, this is actually the third time “The Book of Mormon” has made its way through the area, with its return dominated by a pretty high demand.
Acclaimed American screenwriter Charlie Kaufman once said, “There’s theater in life, obviously, and there’s life in theater,” which may help explain the choruses of raucous laughter that punctuated Wednesday’s performance of the show at the Eccles Theater. Though a wide margin of the content is pretty graphic and profane, there’s also a heaping helping of Broadway magic that comes in the way of scene changes, story flow and, of course, the music.
As audiences in Salt Lake City sat back for their night of escapism, Alyah Chanelle Scott as the character of soon-to-be convert Nabulungi let out an incredibly beautiful orchestration of her vision of the city in the song “Sal Tlay Ka Siti.”
“The most perfect place on Earth, where flies don’t bite your eyeballs, and human life has worth. It isn’t a place of fairytales, it’s as real as it can be. A land where evil doesn’t exist, Sal Tlay Ka Siti.”
In a show that doesn’t lend itself to quite as much depth as other Broadway hits, it was refreshing to see such sincerity coming from Scott, regardless of the knowing snickers emerging from an audience which clearly knew how far from that description the real Salt Lake can get.
Other major highlights came through songs such as “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” as Elders Cunningham and Price, played by Jordan Matthew Brown and Liam Tobin, make their way to Uganda, “Turn It Off” as the duo learns from other missionaries how to cope with the difficult situations they’re facing, and “I Believe,” as Price (Tobin), works to stand up to and convert the evil War Lord and protect the village.
The show goes through a series of highs and lows for the characters, from the villagers to the missionaries, and though a lot of it isn’t necessarily the most wholesome of content, rather working from stereotypes, tropes and an ample portion of vulgarity, it does, in its own way, raise unique questions regarding faith and belief. The ultimate result is not only some dabbling in sincerity, but also a slight nod to those who are willing to leave their lives and families behind for two years to share about their beliefs in the sincere hope of helping people.
It’s interesting that in the age of the #MeToo movement, when racism is a frequent subject for conversation and an emphasis has been placed on more truthful and accurate depictions of other cultures, such a piece of theater can not only survive, but thrive.
Is “The Book of Mormon” for everyone? When it comes to the book itself, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will offer up a resounding yes. When it comes to the Broadway musical taking up residency at the Eccles in “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” through Aug. 25, most definitely not. It all depends on your perspective, your tolerance for profanity and some pretty clear sexual innuendo.
Regardless, there’s one sentiment from the close of the show it’s hard to not agree with.
“The skies are clearing and the sun’s coming out, it’s a latter day tomorrow. Put your worries and your sorrows and your cares away and focus on a latter day.”