How does The Book of Mormon play in the age of Trump?

The Trump Era Has Taken Some of the Fun Out of The Book of Mormon

The Trump Era Has Taken Some of the Fun Out of The Book of Mormon

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Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 14 2017 8:55 AM

The Trump Era Has Taken Some of the Fun Out of The Book of Mormon

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The Book of Mormon’s touring company.

Joan Marcus

The most satisfying moment in The Book of Mormon might be when a disillusioned and rumpled Elder Price, a formerly straight-laced and pompous Mormon missionary, says the word fuck. The savage catharsis of that line is what the political hell (H-E-double-hockey-sticks, if you ask the musical’s proselyting characters) of 2017 demands. But all the profanity in the world—and Book of Mormon, the brainchild of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, delights in being foulmouthed—can’t make the critically acclaimed musical as riotous a piece of satire as it was before last year’s election. After all, when Book of Mormon made its Tony-winning Broadway debut in 2011, Donald Trump was firing celebrities from The Apprentice, not threatening North Korea with “fire and fury.” But as it’s performed in today’s political context, Book of Mormon has become a tangle of Trumpian echoes, offering incomplete escapism and blunted commentary.

This fault line was evident at the touring production of the musical I attended at the Kennedy Center last month. (The tour is currently making its way through Florida, then heads west in the new year, and the New York production is still one of the highest-grossing shows on Broadway.) The audience still guffawed, the tunes were as catchy as ever, but I couldn’t sink into the sheer escapist absurdity of the satire the way I had when I first watched Book of Mormon in San Francisco two and a half years earlier; I was constantly reminded of the political reality of the Trump White House just one mile away.

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From the curtain lift, Book of Mormon emphasizes the religious fervor of its missionaries; the first big musical number sees a host of ever-friendly Elders persistently ringing doorbells. But these days, religious fervor appears not just on our doorsteps but in policymaking, and when birth control coverage is being stripped away, the missionaries’ zealotry feels a lot less laughable. In this setting, the chorus of self-serious, squeaky-clean missionaries brings to mind the image of a dozen Mike Pences, pre-Mother. “Turn It Off,” a number about the repression of same-sex desire, has gained a sinister veneer in a world where the president jokes that his hyperdevout second in command “wants to hang” gay people. Lyrics like “When you start to feel confused/ about thoughts inside your head/ don’t feel those feelings!/ Hold them in instead,” could also make a very good anthem for the GOP congress people singing about squashing their consciences. (Just imagine Paul Ryan leading McConnell and the other rank-and-file conservatives in the tap routine.) It’s harder to giggle at religion when it’s become a political force to be reckoned with.

To be fair, a musical about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not exactly interchangeable with a song-and-dance story the evangelical right and the uneasy bedfellow it’s found in Trumpism. Mitt Romney won 28 percent more votes in the deep-red and majority-Mormon state of Utah than Trump, whose Islamophobia, lack of decorum, and anti-immigration sentiment many Mormons find off-putting. Mormon politicians have proven to be some of the president’s more outspoken conservative critics (see: Jeff Flake, third-party candidate Evan McMullin, Romney). But data from a 2014 Pew study showed that Mormons are the most consistently Republican-leaning religious group in America, and slightly more of them disapprove of abortion and homosexuality than even evangelical Protestants. These are the same faith-based, socially conservative views influencing this administration’s policy.

Beyond nagging reminders of the religious right, Book of Mormon is laden with unintentional Trumpian overtures. Of course, that’s partially because everything nowadays is Trump-saturated. (When was the last time you saw a tomato-red baseball cap or heard the word tremendous without cringing a little?) But you can also credit it to Stone and Parker’s brand of comedy, which lambasts political correctness. “The things that we do—being outrageous and taking things to the extreme to get a reaction—[Trump]’s using those tools,” Trey Parker told the Los Angeles Times. The braggadocio of “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” could easily have been a Saturday Night Live riff on Trump’s “I alone can fix it” bluster, staged as a buddy song between him and Pence. But like Alec Baldwin’s caricature of Trump on SNL, an onslaught of one-note Trump imitation grows exhausting.

That’s not to say Parker and Stone’s satire has wholly lost its edge; indeed, jabs at the LDS Church’s racist past got some of the loudest laughs, perhaps due to how glaringly applicable Charlottesville and a race-baiting president have shown them to be today (or more cynically, maybe because for an audience of white liberals, calling out racism through humor relieves the conscience and avoids some of the harder, privilege-dismantling work). But in other moments, jokes that apply Trump-adopted techniques—like the lark that “God’s favorite prophet was all-American” (referencing New Yorker Joseph Smith)—feel inadequate given how charged the notion of “all-American” has become in the midst of open xenophobia and endless respect-the-flag debates.

Besides, we go to musicals for an escape from reality, not a million stinging paper-cut reminders of it. That’s why the more outlandish numbers, like “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” where Elder Price gets taunted by Genghis Khan and also dancing Starbucks cups, are still fun. Even dressed up in sparkles and sharp choreography, the other numbers felt like garish versions of what we see with every push alert. So much for escapism; the marble halls of Washington are now a real-life spooky hell dream of your own.

But it’s Book of Mormon’s grand conclusion that shows how much the political ground has shifted. The overarching message—that for all its flaws, faith in something that can’t be proven is good—is better suited to the hopey-changey Obama presidency, not this post-truth Trump world where facts have become a more precious commodity. Like our president, the musical’s protagonist, Elder Cunningham, is prone to fibbing and underprepared for his job; when his limited knowledge of the Book of Mormon fails him, he tells outlandish half-truths that blend doctrine with Star Wars: “In ancient New York, three men were about to cut off a Mormon woman’s … clitoris. But … right before they did, Jesus had … BOBA FETT turn ’em into FROGS!” Yes, Stone and Parker wink at the idea that these lies aren’t too much more ludicrous than some of the Mormon beliefs they ridicule, like the prospect of the Nephite people leaving ancient Jerusalem to live in North America two-plus millennia ago. But by the final song, the cast holds out a new holy book: the Book of Arnold. To me, it was an uncomfortable remembrance of how Trump’s base supports him with borderline religious fervor, of how the evangelical right has found its morals flexible when it comes to politically expedient partnerships, of just how eagerly people can embrace untruths.

Reviewing the musical in 2014, the New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote, “The Book of Mormon is about the triumph of faith in fantasy.” Faith in fantasy—be it the liberal fantasy of the first woman president or the Trump-peddled notion that his “great” response to Hurricane Maria was twisted by the media—does not feel like something to sing about; it’s been weaponized. “I Believe,” a soaring ode proclaiming faith in the stranger points of LDS doctrine, is a song for 2008 Obama, for Bill Clinton gleefully batting balloons at the Democratic National Convention and feeling confident Hillary would win. But now, cynicism feels more apt than sincerity. Perhaps that’s why I found the smaller, interpersonal numbers that pay more attention to the characters than their stereotypes or the songs that voice frustration (like when the Ugandans cuss out God) the most enjoyable this time around. Faith feels foolish, but protest is in style.