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The Book Of Mormon
April | 2013


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Courageous Leadership

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Courageous Leadership

The Book Of Mormon

Perhaps Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone knew what they were doing when they set out to develop a Broadway musical theater show based on Mormonism. All three men had remarkable success in breaking molds in their chosen fields. Parker and Stone co-created the TV cartoon series, South Park, with its irreverent humor while Lopez was the composer and lyricist for the Broadway production Avenue Q that changed the way puppets were used on stage.

The story of their collaboration seems like it was preordained by an unnamed Higher Power. In 2003, Parker and Stone were working on a film and travelled to New York to visit a friend. Their movie intended to use marionettes and their friend advised them to go see Avenue Q. While in the audience, Robert Lopez recognized the pair and went over and introduced himself. Going out for drinks afterwards, they discovered a common interest—The Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith. Five years of work followed, leading to a series of Broadway workshops where real people refined the script and music. By 2010, the show was ready. Hundreds of actors tried out and 28 were cast. Production costs ran upwards of $9 million (which was below budget). The Book of Mormon premiered at the Eugene O'Neill Theater in March 2011.

The show tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries who are assigned to travel to Uganda to proselytize and convert people to Mormonism. Elder (even though he is in his 20s) Price is handsome and confident. Elder Cunningham, (also in his 20s) has never actually read the Mormon Bible and preferred weaving complex tales and myths from Star Wars and the Hobbit into his version of Mormonism. As the Ugandans have a difficult time believing in any God, the pair's efforts at conversion fall short. Having seen missionaries before, the locals are unimpressed with Western deities and express their disapproval in a smutty, vulgar and uproariously funny manner.

Elder Cunningham succeeds however, despite his cultural ignorance, by using his power of story to weave an irreverent tale of Joseph Smith, one definitely not embraced by Church leaders who come to visit. The Ugandans adapt Elder Cunningham's tale of the Church and the show concludes with the recognition that religion which serves the needs of the people work while religion that serves the needs of the religion often doesn't succeed.

The Book of Mormons is the first great Broadway show of the 21st century. Its composers bring together the values of their generation and tip the scale towards religious truth telling as only theater can do. "Irreverent," "crass," "daring" and "courageous" are some of the words critics used to describe the show. Like the 1958 novel The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, Americans who travel around the world wanting to help others, better stop first to make sure that their help is wanted and that they meet the needs of their potential "customers" before they go about selling their wares.

Perhaps the most courageous part of The Book of Mormon, is the reaction of the Mormon Church. While they certainly did not embrace the show at first, neither did they reject it. Instead they took the attitude of asking how it could benefit the church and came up with a most cleaver solution. In the center of every Playbill handed out to theatergoers, are a series of ads about the Mormonism. "You've seen the Play, Now Read the Book", or "The Book is Always Better."

There are at least 3 lessons about courage we can take from the Book of Mormon, the musical. First, chance and good luck can play an important role in success. The artists took full advantage of the serendipity in their first meeting to forge a productive professional connection. Two, finding your voice may take some time. It was close to 8 years before the trio was able to build a bridge to their generational view of religion. Third, it's almost always better to join the party rather than objecting to it by moping on the sidelines. The Church's decision to embrace the musical was smart. And who knows, maybe sparked by the spoof of their belief system, and their good humor about it, they picked up some converts.

 

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TED Talks

Now just in case you want to see more about the Musical, here is the opening number from last year's Tony Awards presentation. If you saw the show before, it will bring a smile to your face and if you've not gotten there yet, it may help you invest money for a ticket when the road show comes to your town. Click here and get ready for a little song and dance.

 

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