SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The biting satirical musical that mocks Mormons has finally come to the heart of Mormonlandia, starting a sold-out, two-week run Tuesday at a Salt Lake City theater two blocks from the church’s flagship temple and headquarters.
The Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” has earned rave reviews while appalling some with its crudeness. But this will mark the first time the show’s gleefully naive missionaries come to Utah, where about two-thirds of residents are estimated to be Mormon.
The show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park” fame, told The Associated Press that bringing the show to Salt Lake City feels like validation, and also brings the creative process full circle.
Parker and Stone used to “trip out” on Mormon stuff while taking Temple Square tours in the 1990s. They made their first research trip for the show to Salt Lake City with fellow creator Bobby Lopez in the mid-2000s. They waited to bring the show to Salt Lake City until they were invited by a theater.
“It feels like a really cool thing that it finally gets to play Salt Lake City,” Stone said. “It just feels very much like it’s coming home.”
Though they won’t be able to make it to any of the showings, they’re hopeful the show’s jokes will get even bigger laughs in a crowd likely to be more familiar with Mormon culture than most audiences. “It’s like playing ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ to a bunch Jews,” Parker said.
Despite a series of jokes and jabs that create a caricature of Mormon beliefs, it’s not expected to cause much of a stir or any protests.
Some curious Latter-day Saints may go to see what all the fuss is about, but most will probably turn the other cheek and let the state’s non-Mormons revel in the fun, said Scott Gordon, president of a volunteer organization that supports the church called FairMormon.
“It’s like going to your own roast . . . that goes too far,” Gordon said. “Nobody likes to be made fun of, especially with crude humor.”
Yet the show has actually contributed to a shift in how Americans think of a religion once seen as threatening and looking to undermine the established social order, said Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of history at Henderson State University.
“Instead of the presentation of Mormons being very sinister and conniving and corrupt, Mormons are kind of naive, very nice and very dumb,” said Bowman, author of the 2012 book, “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.” Membership stands at 15 million currently from just 5 million members in 1982.
Leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have remained pretty quiet about the show over the years, just repeating a one-line statement that has now become synonymous with the show. “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,” it reads.
Attendees at the Capitol Theater in Salt Lake City will see church ads in the playbill that show a smiling woman with the words, “The book is always better” and another with a smiling man, “You’ve seen the play, now read the book.”
The church has also referred back to a lengthy article it wrote in 2009 when HBO’s “Big Love” was touching on sensitive Mormon beliefs. Church leaders said then they choose not to call on boycotts or give much attention to inaccurate portrayals in popular culture to avoid giving the shows the controversy and attention they crave.
Parker and Stone aren’t surprised by the church’s tempered response to their show. They grew up around Mormons and knew it wasn’t their style to yell and shout.
Parker’s fascination with the religion began when he was dating a Mormon girl while growing up in Colorado. He recalls her family inviting him over for a family evening, where they turned off the TV and sang.
The musical isn’t their first time poking fun at Mormons. They made a South Park episode and a 1997 movie called “Orgazmo,” staring Parker as young Mormon recruited into porn. He’s still recognized for that role more in Utah than anywhere else.
Gordon said he has mixed feelings about a musical. It has brought extra attention to Mormonism, and most Latter-day Saints can take same ribbing. But he said, “I just wish it didn’t go so too far.”
Bowman said many Mormons, who generally shy away from R-rated movies, are horrified by the vulgarity of the musical. Others are just disappointed that it’s the latest in a long line of depictions of them by outsiders that is offensive, Bowman said.
But that doesn’t mean Mormons don’t go see it. Parker and Stone started noticing Mormons, or at least people who knew the religion well, in the crowds on Broadway because they could hear snickers at certain jokes only they would get.
“I think it legitimizes them,” Stone said. “You’re not really real until somebody makes fun of you and makes a big Broadway show about you. Then you’re really, really part of the American fabric.”
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