“I’m about to do it for the first time,” chirps goofy Mormon missionary Elder Cunningham. “And I’m gonna do it with a girl!”
The young man in a white shirt and tie isn’t singing about a lusty encounter, but a holy rite of passage in “Baptize Me,” a bubbly show tune in the Broadway phenomenon “The Book of Mormon.”
“I just died during that part,” said Joanna Brooks, author of “The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith,” recalling the first time she heard the cast album. “It’s hard to see baptism, something so sacred to me, sexualized like that.
“It’s never easy being the minority in a room when everyone else is laughing at your culture.”
“The Book of Mormon” is the product of the sometimes rude — and sometimes sweet — humor of Matt Stone, Trey Parker (“South Park”) and Robert Lopez (“Avenue Q”), with a story and 23 songs that touch on religion, a mission trip to Uganda, genital mutilation, “Star Wars,” existentialism — well, the list is long and unforgiving.
When Brooks, a devout Mormon, saw the musical last year, she said she found it mostly funny (forgiving the innuendo-drenched baptism) — and, in a strange way, important.
“One thing that’s really clear to me is that Americans are so curious about and so hungry to connect with Mormons and we’ve been so inaccessible,” she said. “It took [the creators of] ‘South Park’ to push Mormons out into telling our stories.”
After “Mormon” opened last spring, the show earned nine Tony awards (including best musical) and widespread praise from top critics. The New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley led the charge, calling it an “old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical.” It has been a smash at the box office, grossing $105,833,849 as of Aug. 26.
Interest goes beyond Manhattan. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, recently told the New York Times that he hasn’t seen the show but would like to go. “It’s a Tony-award winner, big phenomenon — yeah, I want to see it someday,” the Republican presidential candidate said. “But I don’t have a lot of time for Broadway shows.”
Following a sold-out first stop in Denver, the national tour comes to Los Angeles for a 12-week run at the Pantages Theatre that began previews on Wednesday and opens Sept. 12. Advance sales have been the highest in the theater’s history,
The buzz comes with controversy. While it’s impossible to generalize the reaction of a large, diverse religious group — the U.S. is home to more than 6 million Mormons — it’s easy to wonder: Now that “Mormon” is a part of the country’s cultural conversation, how do followers feel about a Broadway hit satirizing aspects of their faith?
The church apparently approves of the show enough to buy three full page ads in the Playbill program each theatergoer gets: Each page is a close-up photo of an attractive young person with a quote such as “The book is always better” and a refer to thebookofmormon.org.
“I can appreciate that it got people talking,” Brooks said. “I think it makes people even more curious to learn about what Mormons believe.”
After the show rose to pop culture prominence, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement: “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.”
Lopez, who co-wrote the book, music and lyrics with Stone and Parker, said he was initially concerned about the response to “Mormon.”
“I thought it would be more controversial because the religious aspects, if taken out of context, might cause riots or whatever,” Lopez said. “We were aware religion is a subject with a lot of heat behind it.”
When brainstorming songs and scenes, Stone, Parker and Lopez aimed to create provocative material that propelled the storyline forward, he said.
“We didn’t write that baptism song because we were rubbing our hands together and going, ‘Oh my God, yeah, let’s get baptism,” Lopez said. “We were filling the story out in the second act, finding the positive culmination of work Elder Cunningham does with the Ugandans.”
The musical’s wide appeal has been a pleasant surprise, he said. Ed Catmull, the president of Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios (who grew up Mormon), recently told Lopez that he enjoyed the show.
“He said we got a few things right,” Lopez said, laughing. “It was a positive reaction.”
At Los Angeles’ Mormon Temple on Santa Monica Boulevard, L.A. resident Jay Hardy, known to church members as Elder Hardy, said the “The Book of Mormon” has inspired people to read the actual Book of Mormon — the navy blue paperbacks labeled “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” he often hands to prospective followers.
“They’re poking fun of us because we’re going somewhere,” said Hardy, who volunteers as a guide at the visitors center. “You don’t poke fun of someone who’s stuck in the mud.”
On the church’s 13 hilltop acres in West Los Angeles, Hardy gives mini-lessons about Mormon core beliefs.
“People have been coming in and telling me, ‘I saw “The Book of Mormon” or ‘I’ve heard about “The Book of Mormon” and I’ve driven by the building hundreds of times, so I thought I’d come in and learn more,’” Hardy said. “In some cases, they join the church.”
Some churchgoers, strolling across the well-manicured property on a recent Saturday, said they’re opposed to seeing “The Book of Mormon.”
Jasmine Gonzalez, visiting from Westchester, N.Y., said she loves musicals but won’t attend what she deems a negative show. She said she’s heard “Mormon” contains racism and foul language.
“I wouldn’t take my daughter to that,” Gonzalez said, noting the pair has seen “Mamma Mia!” together four times. “We like to do uplifting things, invest our time in uplifting thoughts. I wouldn’t spend money on something unless I know we’d walk out of there happy.”
Gonzalez’s daughter, Gabby, said she has heard students discussing the show at her high school.
“Things like that give people the wrong impression of us,” she said. “I hear them talking about it and I’m like, “No, you’re wrong.”
Dr. Kerry Soper, Brigham Young University humanities professor and author of “We Go Pogo: Walt Kelly, Politics and American Satire,” said the awkward melding of vulgarity with spiritual issues may turn some Mormons off.
“I’m sure the play will reinforce in many peoples’ minds some of the caricatures they have about Mormons — that they’re naive, provincial and subject to a sort of lock-step, blind faith,” he said. “Of course the core beliefs of the religion sound fairly ridiculous in the context of satirical Broadway songs.”
At the same time, the musical is a knowledgeable satire, he said. A Mormon who completed a mission trip in France, Soper said he appreciates the specificity of the religious roasts in a media-world of hackneyed stereotypes.
“It’s clear that Stone and Parker are basing their jokes on some up-close experience with Mormon people and culture,” he said. “I’ll take the biting specificity of these songs over the tired polygamy stereotypes in Leno monologues any day.”
And “Mormon” isn’t scathingly mean, he said. Rather than outright attacks, jokes are interpreted as playful nudges.
“There’s also an almost affectionate sweetness to the treatment of the core characters,” Soper said. “The musical doesn’t feel that malicious in the end.”