I know it’s been said many times before, but this really is a great musical. Irreverant, sweet, funny and imaginative, with great songs and great staging. I mean, you couldn’t really ask for much more.
I bought the tickets months ago and was super excited, having seen posters declaring rave reviews all over London. I was determined to read / watch / listen to as little of the show as possible before I saw it – in my experience, musicals are always better if you see them for the first time live and with no (or as few as possible) preconceptions about the show – this was certainly the case with Matilda, Wicked, and Avenue Q. But when the designated evening finally rolled around, I was exhausted and grumpy, in the middle of a stressful final week of my PGCE placement, and really didn’t feel in the mood to watch a show full of crude, insensitive jokes about religion and sexuality. I prepared myself to be underwhelmed.
From the very first moment, however, I was captivated. The opening number – “hello”, a song about evangelists going to door to door, something most of us have experienced from the other side of the door – was a catchy, well written tune, cleverly choreographed and with great charm. And there wasn’t a single curse word or crude joke! This was most definitely not what i was expecting of the creators of South Park – although they made up for it later with ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ [F*** You, God] which caused me a serious moral conundrum that went something like this: “Should i clap? Am i allowed to clap? What would my dad think?! Aargh. It was a really good song, I really want to clap, but if i clap this song will i go straight to hell? Darn that Christian upbringing! Darn those excellent songwriters!”
The laughs were frequent, and I can’t praise the writing enough – it was intelligent and witty, not just close to the bone. Although the Mormon religion is obviously the main focus, the derision was indiscriminate, with jokes about everything from AIDs to Disneyland, and that made the show a lot easier to enjoy – there was no uncomfortable “us and them” feeling to it. I was impressed at how well researched a lot of the writing was: from Mormon undergarments, to the history and geography of the Mormon church, it was all there. I actually learned a lot about Mormonism just from watching the show. For example, did you know that Mormons believe that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri? One to make a note of for any future pub quiz questions…
Alongside the comedy, though, there was a surprising depth to The Book of Mormon. There’re the obvious themes about religion and people blindly following faith, but I wasn’t prepared for how much focus there would be on the plight of the Ugandan villagers. There are a couple of genuinely shocking moments of violence, and the writers didn’t shy away (of course!) from more hard-hitting and controversial topics such as AIDs, female mutilation and civil war. In fact, as a tool against such violence and oppression, the over-arching moral of this musical is that religion can be a source of hope, and give people the strength to live their lives in difficult circumstances. Yes, it can seem to make no sense, cause conflict, be based on flimsy circumstantial evidence, and you might not want to take some of the stories too literally… But it does have it’s strengths. And if it’s giving people the strength to stand up to oppressors, it can’t be all bad.
…Although you should probably bear in mind that it’s a musical. It pretty much has to have a happy ending. It’s not Opera, y’know…
That poster I saw as I travelled down an escalator at Vauxhall tube station sums it up pretty nicely: “I loved this show. It’s completely bonkers. It has a beautiful heart.”
Actually, maybe i should have just posted that quote and saved you all the bother of reading this essay. Soz.