If you have lived in an isolated rainforest for the past two years, you are forgiven for knowing nothing about the Broadway phenomenon that is “The Book of Mormon.”
The blockbuster satirical musical won nine Tony Awards in 2011, with critics going gaga over the show, calling it “a marvel” (Washington Post) and “one of the most joyously acidic bundles that Broadway has unwrapped in years” (New York Times). Scalpers, and producers, have called it a mint. The production draws Hollywood A-listers and wannabes to its audience.
A touring version of the show, which has been on the road since September, is set to open this week in Minneapolis. Though the show is almost entirely sold out, the tour is offering nightly lotteries to sell select seats for $25, based on the luck of the draw. Here are a few things you need to know about the show:
“Mormon” has made lotsa money
“Mormon” is the handiwork of “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” composer Robert Lopez. The three of them share credit for composing the music and writing the book and lyrics. They spent seven years developing the show. The idea for the musical arose, in part, from a 2003 episode of “South Park” that deals with Mormonism. But it’s not the first stab at the subject by Parker and Stone. In 1997, the Colorado natives released a film, “Orgazmo,” about a young Mormon missionary in the porn industry.
After 28 preview performances, “Mormon” opened on March 24, 2011, at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Times Square, where it is closing in on 800 performances. The show grosses $1.6 million a week in New York, another $1.6 million a week on tour and $1.5 milion a week from a sit-down Chicago production. The reported $19 million a month in grosses has made its producers enough money to launch a movie production studio reportedly valued at $300 million. And it’s a growing franchise, with a London “Mormon” production and a major motion picture in the works.
The original Broadway production was headlined by Andrew Rannells as Elder Price and Josh Gad as Elder Cunningham. Both have gone on to become TV stars. Rannells and Gad appear, respectively, on NBC’s “The New Normal” and “1600 Penn.” Rannells also is a repeating character on HBO’s Emmy-winning series “Girls.”
“Mormon” is highly irreverent, sort of
The musical narrative is a pretty straightforward story of attempted conversion, as Mormon missionaries Elder Price and Elder Cunningham go to Uganda to save souls. The Africans are not so compliant, however, seeing that they have such pressing concerns as war and AIDS.
The show, which is rife with pop-culture references, spoofs simplistic understanding of Africa — and takes a particular stab at “The Lion King,” whose happy, no-worries anthem, “Hakuna Matata,” gets a heretical and obscene riposte, “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” in the creative team’s made-up African-sounding language, all sung in an upbeat, full-chorus Broadway style.
The profane musical is profusely funny, unless you are yourself a Mormon, in which case you may want to picket outside the theater. Strikingly, the Church of the Latter-day Saints has not been active in opposition. To the contrary, the Mormon doctrine is well-represented, even with more levity than one might expect. Mormon officials have seen the show as a potential recruitment tool. “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,” the Mormon Church said in a statement just as the show went into previews in February 2011.
Some complaints have come from Africans, however, who have been taken aback by the depiction of Africa and Africans as so war-torn and AIDS-riven.
“Mormon” cast includes a formerly local guy
In the touring cast, Michael McGowan plays a variety of roles, including the father of lead character Elder Price. When he was in his 20s, the South Dakota native spent six years as a singing actor in Minneapolis and St. Paul. “The Twin Cities are a very special place,” he said. “I loved working with Jeune Lune, 10,000 Things, the Ordway, Chanhassen — Jesus, I have so many great memories.”
McGowan, who grew up with a newscaster mom and retired Navy musician dad, graduated from Drake University with an English degree.
“I always knew I wanted to be in theater, but I also knew that the best preparation for theater was through other things,” he said. “If you’re a theater or music major in college, all your free time is spent in theater or music practice. But if you’re in English, you can do a whole bunch of things, all of which deepen you without closing you off.”
McGowan left the Twin Cities for New York, where his biggest show before “Mormon” was Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.”
“We got to laugh about Hitler in that show,” he said. “Now [with ‘Mormon’], we get to laugh about God.”
“Mormon” is not the first word in religious musicals
“Mormon” travels down a religion-themed musical path forged by other well-known titles. “Fiddler on the Roof” is set in a Russian shtetl in 1905 and orbits Tevye, a symbolic keeper of Jewish culture. “Godspell” resets the story of Jesus and his apostles to 1960s and ’70s New York. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” a community-theater staple, tells the biblical story of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers. Then there’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the rock musical about Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.
But there have been many more failed efforts of musicals with religious stories. One of the biggest was “Ben-Hur: The Musical,” which cost $8 million and played around Florida in 1999 but never made it to Broadway.
Perhaps that show was too earnest. In addition to making a boatload of money for its creative team and producers, “Mormon” proves that a bracing religious satire can be a spectacular success.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 •On Twitter: @RohanPreston