Friday, July 7, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Look to the Rainbow" (on Trey Parker's, Robert Lopez's, and Matt Stone's The Book of Mormon)

look to the rainbow
by Douglas Messerli

Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone (book, music, and lyrics) The Book of Mormon / 2011, the performance I saw with Howard Fox was in Los Angeles, The Pantages Theatre, at the matinee on Thursday, July 6th.

     Well, now I’ve gone and done it! For years since its 2011 Broadway opening, I’ve studiously averted my gaze to save me from angrily pounding out my keystrokes on the hide of a musical I knew I would not probably like, The Book of Mormon.

     It’s not that I had any aversion to musical parodies of beliefs—I’m openly a non-believer of all religions—and certainly, given what I’d previously read about Mormonism, it appears to deserve some of the mockery of Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone’s sweet assault. Their music and lyrics I’d heard from the South Park musicals and Q Street (I did not see these works, nor the Disney film Finding Nemo; but through Tony broadcasts and other sources, I’d heard several numbers) seemed, if not exactly glorious, nonetheless, full of puckish wit and pleasing to the ear—certainly a step-above the three-note choruses of some far more grandiose Broadway musicals which had become run-away hits. I knew the young cast, filled with young and handsome Mormon missionaries and American black actors pretending to be illiterate Africans, at the very least, would sing pleasingly and dance up a storm. And even though, I feared that the collusion of Mormonism and Ugandan natives would inevitably lead to racist situations, who was I, who as a child had even imagined and attempted to compose a musical about missionaries in the Congo set in the year of that country’s independence (see My Year 2011), to dismiss such an encounter.
      As a long-time lover and observer of the Broadway musical theater, perhaps I owed it to myself, I inwardly argued, to take in a musical that had received almost universal acclaim by critics and was beloved by its audiences. Even if I’d hated the entire idea of Cats (while enjoying a couple of its musical numbers), couldn’t bear to hear another bellowing chorus of Les MisĂ©rables (I eventually saw the movie), and had detested the righteous screaming British girls of Matilda, why was I behaving like such a curmudgeon over this seemingly infectious, irreverent confection. After all, if even the Church of the Latter Day Saints could embrace the work—wittily advertising their Book of Mormon in a Playbill ad by saying: “Our version is sliiiightly different. The musical is entertaining. The book? It’s life changing”—what right did I have to be so utterly standoffish? What was I so afraid of in encountering in this belovèd American satire that I couldn’t even spend a few hours in its company? Some people have always described me as a slightly different kind of moral prig (this despite my constant embracement of what many in this culture might describe as utterly immoral artistic artifacts and behavior). Maybe I was. If most all of the critics and audiences had had a great time at The Book of Mormon—all around us in the Pantages production I finally saw, other attendees were telling others that they’d seen the musical several times—what was my problem?
      The problem, I now realize, concerned my fears of writing the very review you’re about to read. And for that very reason, put it aside if you don’t care about the critical commentary I’m about to unleash. Please, I am not trying to convince anyone about anything. I finally broke down and asked Howard to attend the musical with me, when orchestra tickets were offered for a couple of days at only $49—this was, after all, the production’s 2nd or 3rd trip to Los Angeles—and the sold-out audience was entirely entranced, clapping enthusiastically after each number, laughing out-loud, and, of course, giving the entire production a standing ovation. They all seemed to have so much fun, I feel kind of embarrassed by some of my contradictory comments. If I seem informed or intelligent, please forgive me; I’d rather enjoyed this well-meaning satire the way everyone else around me did.
       So, big deal that this isn’t truly a musical, the way, say, all the Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Lerner and Lowe, Bock and Harnick, or even the looser constructed works of Kander and Ebb were. Nor, is this a purposely genre-bending work in the tradition of Stephen Sondheim.  The Book of the Mormon harks back to an earlier time when, even as in some Cole Porter works, musicals were perceived as extended reviews, one song loosely connected to another with very brief verbal skits connecting them. The songs, unlike in Oklahoma! or the even more fine-tuned My Fair Lady, are not emotional expressions of plot, but are themselves presented as plot, despite the difficulty of summarizing events in stanzas of basically rhymed couplets; the lyricists use internal rhyme as well.
     In her wonderful one-person review, At Liberty, Elaine Stritch recalls just such a production, Angels in the Wings, just 70 years ago, where, after having only a speaking role, she was “awarded” a song, “Civilization,” which is not so very different from this musical’s  "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," sung by the character Nabulungi (Myha’la Herrold)—except for the important difference that Stritch’s native figure fears civilization and “wants to stay,” while Nabulungi most definitely wants to go:

                              I can imagine what it must be like
                              This perfect, happy place
                              I’ll bet the goat-meat there is plentiful
                              And they have vitamin injections by the case
                              The war-lords there are friendly
                              They help you cross the street
                              And there’s a Red Cross on every corner
                              With all the flour you can eat

     Part of the difference between the two is simply the changes in native societies over those 70 years. The Uganda in which Nabulungi lives is filled with violence, AIDS, female genital mutilation,  famine and other detriments to survival, to which the white intruders here appear to offer alternatives. But to the Congo native who Stritch played, even with its obvious racist attitudes—yet far less so that Nabulungi’s delusions—things were better in her world than civilization had to offer:

So bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't want to leave the
    congo, oh no no no no no
Bingo, bangle, bungle, I'm so happy in the jungle,
     I refuse to go
Don't want no bright lights, false teeth, doorbells,
     landlords, I make it clear
 (That no matter how they coax him) I'll stay
     right here

      However, I’m not yet talking about The Book of Mormon’s racist attitudes (I’ll come to that later), but about its structure. Like the review in which Stritch played in 1947, The Book of Mormon is a piecemeal affair. The story about the conflicts between Mormon missionaries and the small village members in Uganda is stitched together in songs that often times have utterly no relationship to the overall story or to one another. What does “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” sung by the self-centric Elder Price (Gabe Gibbs) and his wonderful tribute to his childhood memories of “Orlando” in the second act, have to do with the actual story except to point to his personal fantasies and a world outside of which the musical setting exists? Even his “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”—one of the best numbers of the work, if only because of its costumes by Ann Roth—is a psychological portrait of one of the central characters that has little to do with the overall plot structure, and offers very little connection to the works other characters, accept for a delightful quip by another missionary, Elder McKinley (PJ Adzima) who, after discerning that Price has had a “hell dream,” probingly asks” “Was I in it?” That’s about as deep as plot gets in this musical.
       However, I don’t really mind the review structure. Even though as early as 1927 Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern had shown theater audiences in Show Boat that music and plot could be deeply connected, numerous major practitioners of musical theater, from George M. Cohan to George Gershwin (in Of Thee I Sing and several earlier and later musicals), Cole Porter, and numerous others still preferred the revue structure, the songs dominating any plot connections that the librettist or book writer had woven into their works. I love Porter’s Anything Goes despite the fact that its overall story whips up a very daffy story. With the witty songs by Porter, does it really matter? Irving Berlin’s music was interwoven into all sorts of silly Broadway and film illusions where plot was certainly secondary to the music.
      The problem, ultimately, is not that this work is not simply its revue structure, but that it is almost a kind of “Forbidden Broadway” production, those off-Broadway shows that beautifully mock Broadway tropes. The latest in this tradition is the hit, Spamilton, making loving fun of the new hit Hamilton. In The Book of Mormon we see these satiric forces at work it its references to the musical Annie, replacing the notion of “Tomorrow” with “Latter;” and the musical The Sound of Music, particularly with the issue of “what to do we do with a problem” like Andy (Connor Pierson). Most importantly, obviously, is the complete pastiche of the famed “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” performance in Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s The King and I, mocked in the long Ugandan’s villagers production of their own version of Mormon history of “Joseph Smith American Moses.” And there are other inside jokes, in the dancing as well as the songs (the missionaries often appear to be mocking Bob Fosse numbers). There is something absolutely lovely about this musical’s parodies of these other American classics; but, one has to wonder, is this simply another version of “Forbidden Broadway” or a really new significant American musical work?
       I might equally have loved The Book of Mormon, of course, if its songs to which the almost non-existent story was attached, were actually memorable. But most of these numbers, I am afraid, are simply ditties, even if some of them are quite clever; none of them are truly memorable offerings to the history of Broadway music. A couple of them get quite close to actual musical significance, particularly in the second act’s “I Believe,” sung by Gibbs where in the musical actually awakens, for a few moments, from its over-amplified loud declarations into an actual proclamation of identity:

I believe that the Lord God created the universe
I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sins
And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America
I am a Mormon
And a Mormon just believes
You cannot just believe part-way, you have to believe in it all
My problem was doubting the Lord's will, instead of standing tall
I can't allow myself to have any doubt, it's time to set my worries free
Time to show the world what Elder Price is about, and share the power inside of me

I believe that God has a plan for all of us
I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet
And I believe that the current President of the Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God
I am a Mormon
And, dang it, a Mormon just believes (a Mormon just believes)

     But even here, of course, the satiric intent of the song drips so strongly upon the excited proclamations of the singer, that it diminishes the performance of the singer himself. It is a kind of mockery without true feeling.
      Compare this, for example, with the similarly ridiculous song of belief of Finian’s Rainbow sung by Finian’s daughter, in the equally ludicrous musical by E. Y. Harburg, Fred Saidy, and Burton Lane (the composer):

Look, look, look to the rainbow
Follow it over the hill and the stream
Look, look, look to the rainbow
Follow the fellow who follows a dream

So I bundled me heart and I roamed the world free
To the east with the lark, to the west with the sea
And I've searched all the earth and I've scanned all the skies
But I found it at last in me own true love's eyes

Look, look, look to the rainbow
Follow it over the hill and stream
Look, look, look to the rainbow
Follow the fellow who follows a dream

Follow, the fellow, follow, the fellow
Follow, the fellow who follows a dream

 The sentiment, sung by an identifiable Irish outsider, is similar to the Mormon musical, but the lyrics point outward to something else—another possibility, a new world. And, admittedly, Burton Lane’s music (the composer of “Over the Rainbow”) cannot be compared with the often tune-dead songs of Parker, Lopez, and Stone.
    Finian’s Rainbow is also a political and social satire, making fun of both racial attitudes and religious sensibilities, including a figure as improbable (Og, the leprechaun) as The Book of Mormon’s hobbits, Darth Vader, and Yoda, which the impulsive liar Edler Arnold Cunnigham incorporates into his Mormon teachings. Finian, also, is an absolute liar. If the Mormon missionaries of The Book of Mormon suddenly seem to discover—in an obvious satirical spoof of their intentions—that “I Am Africa,” in the 1947 musical (the same year as the Stritch review), a bigoted Senator of the older musical is actually turned black and must live with the consequences on his own terms. The natives in that musical—in this case poor Southern farm workers—also dream of better times in “That Great Come-and-Get-It Day,” and awaken to the fact that their dreams, just as the Ugandan villagers perceive, have all been a metaphor for what might really have happened. Perhaps, without even admitting it, The Book of Mormon has already accomplished what the older musical demanded.
     The Book of Mormon, in short, has Broadway roots, which might have allowed it to truly become a kind of classic. The problem is that its writers don’t truly know how to control their satire to focus on what they might truly want to say.
     These Mormon missionaries seem, in large part, to be participating in a gay satire of the figures that exist—I’m sorry to report to the mostly heterosexual, family audience I encountered—on a lot of gay porno sites. There are number of such sites that present just such missionaries ringing the bells (celebrated in the musical’s first song, “Hello”) who encounter a seemingly willing believer who quickly seduces the innocent Mormon boys into his bed.
     The musical actually makes a great deal of this metaphor, reinforcing the idea that the missionaries are sent out with “companions” with whom they are “attached” for at least two years. In this kind of strange “marriage,” the men often share a bed, and, at least in the case of the awkward and much unloved Elder Cunningham (Pierson), results in a relationship consummated through a great deal of hand-on-hand touching (the original Broadway Cunningham, Josh Gad, played just such a role in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast). Most of the original missionaries, who have lived long in Uganda without finding a single person to be converted, seem to have formed a kind of “underground” league with their leader, an obvious gay man, Elder McKinley, that clearly reminds us of the gay community of the earlier decades wherein, with their continually high-pitched, often shrieking voices they live in an almost  kind of gay hysteria, particularly given their song (one of the best in the musical), “Turn It Off,” which might almost be a theme song for gay men still trapped for life in the closet.
      As a gay man, I’m fascinated by this thematic, which, since it’s not very hidden, must be quite apparent to the lovingly diverse audiences who embrace this musical every afternoon and night. I should delight in this fact, and the openness that the musical’s audiences seem to gladly accept. I wonder, since the writers had interviewed several young returned missionaries as they developed the musical, just how much truth this structural element projects. I’m not sure I really want to know. As my friend Charles Bernstein suggested, when he first saw this work on Broadway, it all seems a bit surrealistic.
      It’s really not the issue, of course; the writers chose to make these overlaying gay insinuations, and even when their musical, for brief periods of times, imagines heterosexual interrelationships, as in Cunningham’s contemplation of baptizing his new convert, Nabulungi (who throughout the work he describes in various racially-motivated names: “Oreo,” Nutrena, etc. etc.) is wrapped up in sexual language and imagination.
      These Mormons, gay innocents or, possibly, male sexual aggressors, are still the controllers of the situation, despite their personal sense of inadequacy. Given my own white male/gay social prerogatives, I will not attempt to judge this musical on racial grounds. Others, such as Cheryl Thompson and Kate Wilson have done so. Yet it does appear to me, just as a first-time observer, that any musical that presents its black figures to be completely entranced by the Mormon philosophy, and willing, as in the musical’s last number suggests, to not only embrace a new book “of Arnold,” but to go door to door (in a reprise of “Welcome”) to promote their new religion, are not basically free-thinking beings. And, apparently, they have now been complexly “saved” and mentally controlled by their white (now “African-thinking”) visitor/intruders. Are Ugandans really so simple minded? I cannot imagine that reality.
      Finally, however, I think the musical’s largest failure lies in its complete acceptance of religion as a kind of cynical thinking: whatever works to help individuals is more important than any true spiritual experience. The “Book of Arnold”—not only with its lies, but its free-spirited sci-fi incorporations—is just as good as The Book of Mormon, or, at least, it truly doesn’t matter, as long as it makes for better human communication.
     I might second that, but the new religion’s seemingly easy links with something like the basic concerns of wild fictional theories, remind me more of Scientology than any logical religious perspective. And the idea that anything is good if it can bring people together is as cynical, in the end, as Trump’s philosophy of giving believers what they want: himself, a liar who can easily convince anyone of what he and others temporarily believe. Is the confused and unintelligent Arnold really any different, in the end, from Trump?
     Since I don’t believe, I suppose I shouldn’t care about these issues. But, strangely enough, particularly since I don’t believe, I very much do care. Any perceived savior of the people, I am afraid, is a very dangerous obstruction to individual thinking. I suppose those ringing doorbells at the end might symbolize an entire community of individuals trying to reach out to one another, but I fear what may be at the other end. Hello, Darth Vader is calling you! Sorry, I’m not at home!
      In closing, I am somewhat embarrassed at having attempted to kill a sparrow with an anvil or, at least, a cleaver. There were moments when this sparrow of a musical actually moved me, and, admittedly, I was moved to tears. Let the sparrow fly away! Let the audiences enjoy their entertainments.
     But I do pray that we think about what these entertainments are truly trying to say. Not any belief, surely, is a good as any other. And for all the laughs in Broadway, Hollywood Boulevard, or other great international performance spaces, there may be whimpers of the true believer’s sacrifice—whatever that belief may be. I’ll take the rainbow any day over the doorbell’s ring to convince me of something I can’t quite believe in. And I can only answer, if it rings, “Please, leave me alone, you might not want to hear what I need to say.” I was silent about this work for so many years with very good reason.”
Los Angeles, July 7, 2017

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