Saturday, May 11, 2013

Theatre For Thought, May 11, 2013

joel fishbane

The touring production of The Book of Mormon has opened in Toronto and, like the version in New York, tickets are as scarce as the Canadian penny. Yet whether thanks to the Heavenly Father or my own dumb luck, I secured a ticket and caught the show earlier this week. Having both read the script and listened to the score, I had suspicions of how I’d react to the production and I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed. The show’s runaway success (nine Tony awards, a slew of other honours) isn’t hype but unadulterated fact. The sky is blue, the world is round and The Book of Mormon is one of the best musicals to come out of Broadway in years.

This isn’t going to be a review – check out Glenn Sumi’s comments in Toronto’s NOW and you pretty much have a summary of my view on the production itself. What delights me is the material itself. The show’s crude tone isn’t for everyone but that’s not the point. Structurally and stylistically, The Book of Mormon represents a significant shift in the direction of the modern musical.

The Book of Mormon fits into none of these categories.

Musicals have undergone a shift in the last fifteen years and most new shows are rock operas (Rent), adaptations of famed movies (Shrek, Legally Blonde) or jukebox musicals which steal their material from the songbooks of famed artists (Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia). The Book of Mormon fits into none of these categories. It is an original show that marries a classic musical structure with a modern aesthetic. Created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the satirists behind South Park, and Robert Lopez, the co-creator of Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon is a surprisingly sweet story of two Mormon missionaries whose faith is tested when they’re sent to AIDS-ravaged Africa. 

The show moves at lightning speed and like South Park, it’s crude, scatological and slaughters a few sacred cows – and yet it does so within a framework that served the best musicals so well. Once upon a time, musicals made no excuse for what they were, but in recent years there has been a trend towards becoming apologetic in tone. The genre demands audiences to accept the notion that character will break into well-choreographed dance numbers and expressing their hopes in cleverly written songs. Musicals are, in essence, theatre of the absurd.

In contrast, The Book of Mormon employs a narrative that calls no attention to itself.

To get around this, movies like Chicago and Nine turned musical numbers into fantasy sequences while shows like Shrek, Spamalot and Urinetown perform every song with a post-modern wink to the audience. Meanwhile Once, the musical which swept the 2012 Tony Awards, professes to be a musical even though not a single song actually advances the plot. Switch any song in Once with a song by your favorite recording artist and you’ll find the story is almost exactly the same. I adore Once but the fact remains it ignores the usual convention of musicals, providing songs that are sung simply because the characters are musicians and singing songs is what musicians do. 

In contrast, The Book of Mormon employs a narrative that calls no attention to itself. It hearkens back to the shows seen in the Golden Age of Musicals, the era that produced Fiddler on the Roof, Brigadoon and West Side Story. At the same time, it features the modern attitudes of the digital age. 

As far back as the Gershwin’s Girl Crazy (1930) musicals have thrived on stories of big city heroes thrust into some small, distant town. In most musicals, the heroes find their paradise through physical love – but The Book of Mormon  eschews the traditional love story for a bro-mance between the two lead missionaries. Both men struggle with each other as much as they do their faith. This is where the show is at its most daring. As much as the play skewers organized religion, it defies convention by putting at its heart a heterosexual male friendship that is tested by differing opinions about faith and social obligation. 

It remains to be seen whether The Book of Mormon will be an echo or a watershed; whether other artists and producers choose to view the show as a pleasant aberration or an indication of a new direction for theatre, one whose form borrows from the best of the past even as it appeals to a modern world. Parker, Stone, and Lopez believe that faith is an ever evolving thing. So is theatre. Those interested in the history of musicals would do well to study The Book of Mormon. Get the score and read the libretto. If you’re in Toronto, Mirvish is holding a daily lottery for the last seats; throw in your name and make a quick prayer to whatever you believe in.

The Book of Mormon runs in Toronto until June 9 at the Princess of Wales Theatre. For information on the lottery, visit

Stuart Munro has also reviewed Book of Mormon for CharPo

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. Please read our guidelines for posting comments.