Oh, theatre critics and wider internet. How disappointing you can be! Last night, I finally witness with my own eyes the phenomenal musical that will clearly be remembered as the best funny musical of this decade, The Book of Mormon, winner of nine well-deserved Tonys. I go home. I google “Book of Mormon” with “Diff’rent Strokes.” I google “Book of Mormon” with “Happy Days.” I google “Book of Mormon” with “Back to the Future.”
Nothing. Sighhhhhhhhhhhh. All right, then, I’ll just do this myself. SPOILERS.
First, what is The Book of Mormon about? If it were simply a bromance about two wayward missionaries in Uganda, it seems unlikely that the nation’s critics, audiences, and award-giving bodies would have embraced it with an almost, ahem, religious fervor. No, The Book of Mormon is about a man and a woman feeling lost and finding their purposes, as well as one man losing his faith and finding it again…all through the most unexpected of providences. Basically, the show cleverly, almost subtextually suggests that Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter-Day Saints, may have been onto something all along when he made up a religion out of whole cloth, because we, here in the 21st century, make up our own structures of faith based on pop culture. A few reviewers seem to have caught onto this. Yet they give very little indication that they understand the roots of what they saw. Hey! Paid reviewers! It’s fine to say “IT WAS GREAT!” but if I’m taking two minutes of my day to read your longer explanation of WHY it was great, might you go beyond “oh the songs and the actors were just…great”?
For example, the play’s second half is basically an extended riff on a single scene from Back to the Future (1985), where Marty McFly puts on his radiation suit and says, “Silence, Earthling! My name is Darth Vader. I am an extra-terrestrial from the planet Vulcan!” thus convincing his father to ask out his mother. In The Book of Mormon, Elders Price and Cunningham bring their pop culture (including Darth Vader and the Starship Enterprise) to a similarly unsuspecting culture, one that is charged with validating (or re-creating, somewhat like George and Lorraine McFly) their very existence. The scene from Back to the Future crystallizes that film’s clever circular logic, and this logic is somewhat replicated by The Book of Mormon: we give you what you gave us so that we can give you back you – is that good enough? Audience members who were not missionaries in Africa can nonetheless strongly relate to trying to define themselves this way. As with many other parts of The Book of Mormon, particularly regarding Disney (especially The Lion King in the song “Hasa Diga Eebowai” and the 1930s Silly Symphonies in the song “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”), the message is: we’re Americans and all we know or can offer is our own recycled culture – what do you think?
Speaking of the 1980s, has a single reviewer noted the reason that the two leads are named “Kevin” and “Arnold”? Who is Kevin Arnold? Well, if you grew up in America around the same time as me, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and Bobby Lopez (the three men who wrote all of The Book of Mormon) you’d probably know that’s the name of the character Gary Coleman played on a TV show called “Diff’rent Strokes.” (If you’re the sort of person that thinks the names “Kevin” and “Arnold” in The Book of Mormon could be a coincidence, well then you must think the same thing about “Cameron” and “Mitchell” on the show “Modern Family.” That’s sad.) “Diff’rent Strokes” was about affluent white people adopting poor black people only to find out that the education and cultural influence very much works both ways. Perhaps the show’s chief lesson was that telling your stories of whiteness and affluence can sometimes make you look ridiculous, and that those stories are repurposed and made more useful when seen through blacker lenses. This reference is not exactly a coincidence.
The Book of Mormon’s lead character Arnold Cunningham also traces his namesake to “Happy Days,” a TV show not unrelated to Back to the Future which may be seen as America’s first systematic, thoroughgoing exercise in nostalgia. Obviously, nostalgia had existed prior to the 1974 premiere of “Happy Days,” but never so repeatedly while being so successful – “Happy Days” was the #1 show for much of the 1970s, for years competing mainly with its own spinoffs, regularly reaching audiences that were about 25% of America’s population. As Fredric Jameson and his many discontents have argued, nostalgia is one of the key features of post-modernism, a condition where the simulation means as much as the original ever did. (The Matrix (1999) is partly about this; The Book of Mormon also references this film, though not as much as it did in rehearsals, when the song “All-American Prophet” was more about the third part of trilogies, with The Matrix as leading example.) When Jameson writes, “no doubt the logic of the simulacrum, with its transformation of older realities into television images, does more than merely replicate the logic of late capitalism; it reinforces and intensifies it,” he suggests that a show like Book of Mormon, with its many TV and movie references alchemized into a new faith – best symbolized by the finale’s “Book of Arnold” – is really about accommodating oneself to capitalism, finding faith within it and without challenging it.
There’s a good reason that Elder Price’s dream city is Orlando, Florida and not Anaheim, California: Orlando is what Jacques Derrida would have called a simulacra of a simulacra, the comfort of a copy of a copy. In some ways, Salt Lake City suffers from Orlando’s existential dilemma: it was created out of whole cloth (instead of growing more organically, like many other American cities), and…do we really know what we’re doing with such a top-down approach? In the end, following the cultural logic of musicals, The Book of Mormon suggests that we are capable of rearranging cultural detritus into something that can give life meaning, just as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young did two centuries ago. Yet what’s most heartening about the show is not its tie-up-with-a-ribbon conclusion, but the fact that it dared to ask the right questions about Americans, the world, and who we possibly can be after defining ourselves through TV, movies, and shows like The Book of Mormon.