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‘Book of Mormon’ on a path from hot ticket to cultural phenomenon

The New York production of "The Book of Mormon."
(Joan Marcus, Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK — In “The Book of Mormon,” a group of teenage American missionaries sent to evangelize Ugandans beset by war, poverty, AIDS and drought is getting nowhere until one of its number — the hapless Elder Cunningham — begins to mix the writings of the prophet Joseph Smith with whoppers of pop culture phenomena, including Disney, “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

The cooked-up messianic message is like the musical itself: a sweet-profane amalgam of scatological mockery and affectionate satire which, since it opened last year, has been drawing converts of its own along with rave reviews, record-breaking box office, and a slew of top awards, including a best musical Tony Award.


FOR THE RECORD:
“The Book of Mormon”: An Aug. 26 article about the musical “The Book of Mormon” said that the show’s producers declined to comment for the story. In fact, they were never informed of the article nor asked to comment for it. —


But now as “The Book of Mormon” begins its first national tour, the question is whether it can sustain on the road the impossible-ticket status it enjoys at the 1,065-seat Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway. What is about to be tested is not only whether it can fill larger houses — such as Los Angeles’ 2,703-seat Pantages Theatre, where it will have a limited engagement Sept. 5 through Nov. 25 — but also if it can be elevated from mere hot ticket to actual cultural phenomenon, joining such rare musicals as “Oklahoma!,” “South Pacific,” “A Chorus Line” and “The Lion King.”

PHOTOS: “Book of Mormon” premiere

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“I think there are certain criteria to be a full-fledged phenomenon,” says Laurence Maslon, the historian and documentarian who co-wrote with Michael Kantor the six-part PBS miniseries “Broadway: The American Musical,” set to re-air on PBS this fall.

On his checklist: “Critics love it, it has box-office success, it achieves unprecedented penetration through sales of its original cast album and successful national tours. It also has to catch some kind of zeitgeist of the age, something that makes it exist beyond its 21/2 hours onstage.”

“Mormon” ticks off quite a few boxes on Maslon’s scratch sheet. Such has been the result of the inspired teaming of Matt Stone and Trey Parker of “South Park” fame with the show-business savvy of its co-composer and co-book writer Robert Lopez (“Avenue Q”) and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (“The Drowsy Chaperone”).

In the weeks after it was released, the original cast album placed third on the Billboard pop charts, right behind Adele and Lady Gaga, the best showing of a musical since “Hair” in 1969. Tickets for the two-week launch of the national tour in Denver — Stone and Parker’s hometown — were snapped up within hours. Its advance sale at the Pantages is the highest in the theater’s history, according to an email last month from its lead producer, Scott Rudin. And as for catching a “zeitgeist,” has anybody noticed that there is a Mormon running for president of the United States?

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But there are those who offer cautionary notes, observing that any number of shows were runaway hits on Broadway — “Dreamgirls,” “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and “The Producers,” to name a few — but did poorly on the road. And there’s no guarantee that a show, which by its nature pushes that many boundaries of taste, is going to be universally loved whether in New York or the rest of the country.

“There’s no question that ‘Book of Mormon’ is a New York City phenomenon, that it’s the biggest Broadway hit in years, but whether it goes beyond that is an open question. I don’t think it’s really visible in the rest of the country yet,” says Frank Rich, the former chief drama critic and op-ed columnist of the New York Times who now writes on culture and politics for New York magazine.

PHOTOS: “Book of Mormon” premiere

“The fact that it opened during the Obama presidency and that Mitt Romney is running is less relevant than the fact that it opened in a recession and that the comic relief it provides, for those who can afford it, is a big element of its success. “

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Rich adds that for the show to fully take root in the national consciousness, it must attract the younger demographic that has made shows like “South Park” a true part of the nation’s cultural discourse. He dismisses that the show’s cast album reached No. 3 on the charts, noting that “nobody buys records anymore.” The more telling indication of the reach of “The Book of Mormon,” he suggests, would be to detect the show’s presence on such youth culture avatars as Pitchfork, Grantland and the A.V. Club.

“I think there is quite a bit of buzz about ‘Book of Mormon’ on Twitter and on Facebook,” says Todd VanDerWerff, the 31-year-old TV editor of the A.V. Club, the arts website of the Onion, the premier lampooner of American culture.

“Everybody wants to see it, at least in the circles I run in, though a lot of the people are concerned about the price of the tickets.”

And though there is no traditional radio play of songs from the show (a happy tune about giving the finger to God is something some savor more privately), VanDerWerff says there are plenty of downloads as well as a presence on Spotify and Rdio. “I think it’s crossed over to people who don’t normally listen to show tunes,” he says. The writer acknowledges that “South Park” gives the show a big leg up, as do the fans of Lopez’s cheeky “Avenue Q.” But he says, “I sense that it goes beyond that base of fans and has penetrated much of the country.”

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VanDerWerff attributes the wide youthful appeal to the show’s scatological and politically incorrect humor, which nonetheless carries within its sharp-edged jaws a meaningful message about faith and the need to believe. It is a perspective shared by more seasoned critics who speculate that the show’s success stems in part from its ability to intuitively tap into the country’s cultural DNA.

PHOTOS: “Book of Mormon” premiere

Although Rudin and the creative team declined to comment for this story, the consensus is that they have struck a chord with audiences beyond the New York crowd.

“There’s a certain genius that [Parker and Stone] have, the note of piety beneath the mockery, the sense that there’s something at work that is more than just scathing, snooty dismissal, " says Todd Gitlin, the Columbia University sociologist and cultural critic.

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“The show honors the missionary impulse which most Americans actually feel, not in regards to Mormonism, but to the country, this message of ‘bully for America,’ which politicians have celebrated, exploited and abused for centuries.”

Mormonism, he adds, literally exults in America as the purveyor of the proverbial “shining city on the hill,” propagating the belief that the country is the actual site of the Garden of Eden. That over-the-top theatricality makes it ripe for parody, and “The Book of Mormon” wastes no time taking its shots.

“It’s the joy of transgression,” says Gitlin. “The audience enjoys being aghast at the scurrilousness at the same time that they’re tickled and amazed by it.”

Gitlin finds it not at all coincidental that “The Book of Mormon” has landed on Broadway at a time when an unusually large number of shows — mostly failures — have centered on the religious experience, including “Sister Act,” “Leap of Faith” and the revivals of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell.” Coming this season are “Scandalous,” a musical about faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson, and the Paul Rudd drama “Grace,” about a Christian couple establishing a franchise of full-service gospel hotels.

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“The evangelical burst of the last 30 years has installed itself so intently that it now has a lock on the collective imagination as either something of an achievement or a poison or both,” says Gitlin. “In any case, it’s a big fat fact that can’t be circumnavigated; it rings loudly to people, secular or not.”

Margaret Lyons, an associate editor for Vulture.com, the entertainment news site of New York magazine, concurs. “I’m sure there are people writing dissertations about American exceptionalism or the role religiosity serves in the national discourse as seen through the lens of the ‘Book of Mormon,’” says Lyons, who holds a degree in religion from the University of Chicago.

She’s half-kidding, of course. But Lyons sees in Elder Cunningham’s “creative” proselytizing — mixing in the “world-building” myths of George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, J.R.R. Tolkien and Walt Disney — a palliative to our age of anxiety.

“We crave those stories. We seek out those stories,” she says. “And there’s nothing more compelling or more a driving force than what we try to believe in. For some people, it’s a religion, for others, it’s something we admire. ‘Book of Mormon’ skewers and ridicules that, but it also understands what an enormous amount of comfort it can provide, situating a person, like Elder Cunningham, in a world that gives him confidence and joy.”

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Maslon, for his part, sees the show in more contemporary political terms, recognizing in the young missionaries not Mitt Romney but Barack Obama.

“I mean, one of the leads is a skinny guy who wears a white button-down shirt, who’s trying to save the world and it has this America-meets-Africa thing going on,” he says, adding that the disillusionment from the gridlock between President Obama and the recalcitrant Republicans in Congress also finds expression in the musical.

“It’s a variation of when an irresistible force, like these missionaries, meets an unmovable object, like Africa,” he says. “Look at how the country feels right now. Nothing is moving forward. And consciously or not, ‘Book of Mormon’ has created this scenario which reflects that intractable situation. What these poor kids have to do is a lot harder than Laurey trying to convince Curly to take her to the picnic in ‘Oklahoma!’ or Henry Higgins changing Eliza’s dialect to pass her off as a lady in ‘My Fair Lady.’ Those are walks in the park by comparison.”

calendar@latimes.com

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