Updated: May 9, 2013 6:33AM
Sure, musicals are fun, for a night on the town. But do they mean anything? Are they important? Usually they’re just entertainment — think “Wicked.” But sometimes they matter. It’s hard to imagine we’d be having this debate now about gay marriage, for instance, if in 1975 “A Chorus Line” hadn’t put the lives of gay characters up on the Broadway stage — shockingly, at the time — as if they were real people, too.
“The Book of Mormon” was an unexpected smash hit when it opened in New York in 2011, coming to Chicago last December, where it has settled in at the Bank of America Theatre for a long run.
The musical was hailed for its rampant impiety and gleeful filthiness, which should have shocked people — once it would have shocked people — but somehow it didn’t, itself almost shocking. Critics found it sweet.
Chalk it up to genius. I listened to “Book of Mormon” for a year before seeing the show when it opened here, adding it to that limited group of musicals — “My Fair Lady,” “Hair,” “A Chorus Line” — that can be listened to for pleasure, again and again.
To me, it’s brilliant, from how the opening sound — the ding-dong of a doorbell — is echoed in the first words, “Hel-lo,” to the way the musical ends full-circle, back to doorbells and a new generation of Mormon faithful.
Like so much great art, the whole thing was an accident — “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone went to see Robert Lopez’s puppet-filled “Avenue Q” on Broadway and afterward stopped backstage.
“We went out for a drink and started talking,” said Lopez, over the phone. “I said I wanted my next project to be a Mormon musical, and they said, ‘Oh my God — that’s what we want our next project to be.’ ”
The musical follows a pair of missionaries — self-absorbed Kevin Price and sidekick Arnold Cunningham — to Uganda (“Cool!” says Cunningham. “Where is that?”). They sing what has to be the most vulgar song ever heard in a major musical, “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a wicked send-up of all the simpering “Lion King” odes, a heretofore unimagined blend of obscenity, blasphemy and crude anatomy, all sung with hand-fluttering joy.
The song was Lopez’s idea, though it took some courage to actually have his singers belt out lines like, “F - - - you, God.”
“Not only that,” he said. “Whenever we send out script pages, the lyrics are always capitalized. All those f-words and four-letter words in bold face capitals all over the page. It looked so screaming and angry.”
And yet it works. The audience loves it.
“I was expecting protesters and people walking out the theater,” he said. “Instead sometimes people clap in the middle of it.”
Indeed, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints confounded expectations by limiting its official response to a 31-word statement that should be taught in communications classes: “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.” They also bought full page ads in the show’s Playbill.
That song’s a trifle compared to the two best numbers. “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” sung by a young African longing for a mythical place (say the title out loud) where “human life has worth” and “I Believe,” an anthem where Elder Price steels his faith to confront the local warlord. His beliefs shift from accepted Christian values to unfamiliar Mormon ones: “I believe . . . that the Lord God created the universe. I believe, he sent his only son to die for my sins. And I believe, that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America!”
On opening night, Andrew Sullivan wrote that the message of the show is that religion is both “insane and necessary.”
That is what might make “Book of Mormon” beyond just a successful musical like “Les Miz” but something socially significant. It offers a path for an increasingly secular society to find a place for religion — like musicals, as a useful superfluity. Mormonism is helpful because it is so alien to most Americans, they more easily see the preposterousness that familiarity obscures in other faiths.
“It was the idea of religion, how clearly phony some of the Mormon history and scriptures seem to be from the perspective of the outsider,” said Lopez. “What kind of light that then sheds on religion in general. The idea scriptures are both false and true.”
And yet they never ridicule it. How did the trio have the Mormon church in their jaws and not clamp down and draw blood?
“I assumed we’d be going for it a little bit harder,” said Lopez. “Trey was trying to keep us all off of that. He said, ‘Musicals are not about bumming you out. I think people would be bummed out if we ask them to spend two hours watching a show written with the express purpose of tearing someone’s religion down.’ After that it was, ‘Why would we do it any other way?’ ’’