This year marks the tenth anniversary of The Book of Mormon the musical on Broadway. If this show were an actual Mormon, a tenth is what would be given away as a tithe to God. Thanks to the pandemic, that’s more or less what’s happened. The Book of Mormon cast and crew closed its doors in March 2020 and will open them again this November—one year for an act of God plus eight months given to the devil in the details.
The details, in this case, have to do with race. During the course of the Broadway shutdown, Black actors from The Book of Mormon petitioned the show’s creative team to rewrite parts of the hit musical they felt furthered harmful racial stereotypes of Africa and Africans. This is no small ask. Anyone familiar with The Book of Mormon is likely familiar with its capacity for rudeness. The cartoonish world of the show’s creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone paints white Mormonism and Black Africa with brushes so broad they blend both the ludicrous and the actual. Broadway audiences have sometimes had a hard time telling these apart.
Some sincere tenets of the show’s Mormon missionaries often sound hilariously inflated to an outsider, while the war-torn and corrupt Uganda where they’re proselytizing remains flat, one-note, and unimaginative. To write out the show’s insensitive portrayals of, well, everyone is in some ways to ask for a different show entirely. So be it, many say. The world has changed its tune about this one-time monster hit. We’ve developed new languages to name indecencies and grown spines to say them out loud. A tithe seems appropriate. Ten years is a long time to be on top without giving something back.
The trajectory of The Book of Mormon from America’s Broadway darling to America’s latest problem traces an inverted path Mormonism itself took in this country. Born in 1830 in upstate New York, Mormonism spent much of the nineteenth century retreating further and further into America’s middle spaces in the face of rejection and violence. Mormons practiced polygamy and built communities of shared resources—qualities that historian Paul Reeve has shown disqualified this almost totally white religion from the protections of whiteness.
Looking but not acting white in nineteenth-century America meant not being white. And, in twentieth-century America, the musical stage became one of the more important spaces where Mormonism’s racialized identity was litigated in the court of public opinion. Operettas and vaudevilles marked Mormons the villains, often linked socially and racially with Muslims and other social pariahs at the time associated with China and Africa.
It wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century that Mormonism put forward a narrative of itself that flipped the script on its racial identity. The Church dropped polygamy and opened its arms wide to America. Mormons became linked with the highest favors of middle-class whiteness—industrious, capitalist, monogamous. Their social retribution even took shape through the very mechanism that had once set them apart: musical theater. Mormons developed a dynamic culture and practice of musical theater that persists today, which importantly set the stage for Broadway’s satirical, full-circle swing back to Mormons in 2011—over 180 years and several iterations later, Mormonism was back in New York where it had started.
Mormons were something of an easy target in 2011, what with the Mormon Church’s opposition to marriage equality and Mitt Romney’s seemingly picture perfect life running perpendicular to a nation paying increased attention to America’s imperfections. Contrary to the source of their ridicule in the nineteenth century, twenty-first-century Mormons were now too white, too American, too representational of values receding into a problematic past.
Mormons found few defenders when The Book of Mormon came out of Broadway’s gates swinging; left to its own devices, the Church made lemonade by taking out ads in the Playbill. “You’ve seen the play,” boasted one, “now read the book.” Clever. But it might as well have been a postcard from the nineteenth century. Here we were again, Mormons back on stage, losing a battle of wills with a country unsure of the terms of its belonging.
America has found other villains in the intervening years. The #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements trended in 2013 and 2017, bringing a new urgency to conversations about racial violence and sexual assault. How those topics are depicted on stage matters to a heightened degree. What no one could have predicted is just how much the musical’s imagined Africa would in ten years look like today’s very real America. Ugandans in The Book of Mormon are facing an epidemic (in the case of the show it’s AIDS). They bend to superstition and choose sexual assault as a remedy. In the real world, Americans suffering our own pandemic reject scientific reason and resort to eating horse de-wormer. This is the world The Book of Mormon’s curtains open out to in a few weeks. It’s difficult to imagine a more glaring and deeply unfunny satire than the one we’re living through.
Which is to say that The Book of Mormon puts identity at the center of its humor in ways that are much riskier in 2021 than they were even ten years ago, its jokes presuming too much idealization for whiteness and what it represents. Like actual Mormons, then, the satirical musical’s carefully constructed trajectory into America’s heart now seems miscalculated. In positioning Mormonism’s exaggerated whiteness and bright-eyed Disney demeanor against an invented Africa, equally buffoonish and gullible, the musical took too much pleasure in punching down and now looks too much like the thing it tried to laugh off. Whiteness, once the musical’s cause célèbre, is now its liability. It took Mormons most of the twentieth century to chart an exponential path from problematically not white enough to problematically too white. The musical spoofing them took only ten years to do the exact opposite.
As for Mormons, they actually don’t exist anymore—not in name anyway. In 2018 the Church’s leadership dropped the once derogatory moniker its nineteenth-century enemies gave them, emphasizing instead the mouthful of a name given them by God: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or Latter-day Saints for short). In November when The Book of Mormon’s protagonist Elder Price belts the phrase “I am a Mormon”—the five note leitmotif itself taken from the now defunct Mormon musical drama The Hill Cumorah Pageant—he will be singing of ghosts. The Mormons are gone. They took account of the last ten years and tithed something of themselves away. A tithe is a sacrifice, after all—an opportunity to move through the world with a little less baggage and a measure of greater intention.
Now we watch to see if the musical will follow suit. Its actors petitioned for a show that takes seriously “the systemic and racial inequality” in theatre. “No one is going back on stage until they feel great about it,” promised Matt Stone. It’s been ten years a Mormon and now a tithe is on the table, a down payment on a more just and equitable world. What the musical chooses to give away will say a lot about the world it wants to hold onto.