SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The biting satirical musical that mocks Mormons has finally come to the heart of Mormonlandia, starting a sold-out, two-week run Tuesday at a Salt Lake City theater two blocks from the church’s flagship temple and headquarters.
The Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” has earned rave reviews while appalling some with its crudeness. But this marks the first time the show’s gleefully naive missionaries have come to Utah, where about two-thirds of residents are estimated to be Mormon.
The show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park” fame, told The Associated Press that bringing the show to Salt Lake City feels like validation and also brings the creative process full circle.
“It feels like a really cool thing that it finally gets to play Salt Lake City,” Stone said. “It just feels very much like it’s coming home.”
Though they won’t be able to make it to any of the showings, they’re hopeful the show’s jokes will get even bigger laughs in a crowd likely to be more familiar with Mormon culture than most audiences. “It’s like playing ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ to a bunch of Jews,” Parker said.
Tuesday night’s sell-out crowd cheered wildly when the show began with fictional Mormon missionaries singing in front of a backdrop of the Salt Lake City skyline and Mormon temple. They laughed loudly as the jokes played out, many touching on Mormon lingo and culture that is intimately familiar in Utah.
Despite the jokes and jabs that create a caricature of Mormon beliefs, the show wasn’t expected to cause much of a stir or any protests. (Prices range from $26-$160, not including fees).
Leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been quiet about the musical over the years, repeating a one-line statement that has now become synonymous with the show. “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,” it reads.
Expanding on that response, attendees at the 1,876-seat Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City saw church ads in the playbill that show a smiling woman with the words, “The book is always better” and another with a smiling man, “You’ve seen the play, now read the book.”
The church has also referred back to a lengthy article it wrote in 2009 when HBO’s “Big Love” was touching on sensitive Mormon beliefs. Church leaders said then they choose not to call on boycotts or give much attention to inaccurate portrayals in popular culture to avoid giving the shows the controversy and attention they crave.
Some curious Latter-day Saints may go to see what all the fuss is about, but most will probably turn the other cheek and let the state’s non-Mormons revel in the fun, said Scott Gordon, president of a volunteer organization that supports the church called FairMormon.
“It’s like going to your own roast … that goes too far,” Gordon said. “Nobody likes to be made fun of, especially with crude humor.”
Yet the show has actually contributed to a shift in how Americans think of a religion once seen as threatening and looking to undermine the established social order, said Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of history at Henderson State University.
“Instead of the presentation of Mormons being very sinister and conniving and corrupt, Mormons are kind of naive, very nice and very dumb,” said Bowman, author of the 2012 book, “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.” Membership stands at 15 million currently from just 5 million members in 1982.
Gordon said he has mixed feelings about a musical. It has brought extra attention to Mormonism, and most Latter-day Saints can take some ribbing. But he said, “I just wish it didn’t go so far.”
Bowman said many Mormons, who generally shy away from R-rated movies, are horrified by the vulgarity. Others are just disappointed it’s the latest in a long line of offensive depictions by outsiders, Bowman said.
But that doesn’t mean Mormons don’t go see it. Parker and Stone started noticing Mormons, or at least people who knew the religion well, in the crowds on Broadway because they could hear snickers at certain jokes only they would get.
“I think it legitimizes them,” Stone said. “You’re not really real until somebody makes fun of you and makes a big Broadway show about you. Then you’re really, really part of the American fabric.”
Two hours before the opening, about 100 people lined up in a ticket lottery, a group that included several ex-Mormons.
Brandon Haden, a 26-year-old theater teacher, hoped to see the show again after attending a production in Los Angeles, but he said his parents have no plans to attend.
“My parents said they wouldn’t come see something that makes fun of their religion, which I totally get,” Haden said, adding, “I don’t think they make any like sacred, doctrinal jokes, they just poke fun at the stereotypes.”
He didn’t win tickets, but 24-year-old Kate Hickam did.
Hickam, who isn’t Mormon, cheered the news. She’s seen the show in Denver but was anxious to watch the hometown crowd’s reaction. She thinks the foul language and sexual jokes may lead some people to walk out, but she said others who live within the state’s predominant religious culture will surely enjoy it.
“They have so many inside jokes that Utahans will appreciate,” Hickam said.