Plenty of new-to-LA musical satires are popping up. Later in this column, I’ll glance at the set-in-LA Xanadu and Silence! The Musical. I’ll also look at The World Goes ‘Round, a non-satirical revue that has been convincingly re-born as a quasi-book musical at Actors Co-op.
But first, of course, The Book of Mormon. It’s rare for musical satires to reach the box-office bonanza status that The Book of Mormon has. Yet don’t most satires have sell-by dates? Is the show still as tuned in to the current mood as it was when it opened on Broadway in March 2011?
Yes, and then some. This comedy about Mormon missionaries in Africa has reached LA at a moment when its topicality is sharper than ever.
The first big reason for the show’s of-the-moment feeling is that we’re now in the final stretches of a presidential campaign in which the challenger is a former Mormon missionary (Young Mitt Romney was dispatched to France), and the incumbent is not only the son of an African father but is still suspected by an amazingly large number of Republicans (64% in a recent poll) of having been born in a foreign country — with his father’s birth country of Kenya considered the leading candidate.
But this unspoken connection between a musical and elements of the current presidential contest isn’t based only on the candidates’ pasts. In The Book of Mormon, the pudgy little missionary named Arnold is known as a kid who can’t help “making things up” — fudging the facts. He starts converting Ugandans only when he strays from the approved Mormon account of the religion’s origins and starts injecting elements from such fictions as Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, which his audiences somehow find more relevant to their problems. Of course when Mormon authorities find out what’s going on, they’re upset. By the end of the show, however, Arnold has gone completely rogue and is the leader of a new religion based on the “Book of Arnold.”
Watching this sequence of events, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the last few weeks of the presidential campaign. Romney pollster Neil Newhouse responded to fact-checkers who pointed out distortions of the truth in speeches at the GOP convention by saying “We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” It’s a message Arnold would have approved.
The other major reason why The Book of Mormon raises conversations that go far beyond its own merits as a musical is that the riots in the Middle East last week — which coincided more or less with the musical’s opening at the Pantages — reminded us that derisive depictions of someone else’s religion don’t always reap the same monetary or other rewards that The Book of Mormon has received.
Indeed, The Book of Mormon’s brazen satirical thrusts have yielded mostly benign reactions from the Mormon Church. Some Mormons have noted that at least the show doesn’t indulge in the outdated polygamy jokes that are too often the fallback position of unimaginative stand-up comics. True, the script mostly mocks the original The Book of Mormon, but instead of demonstrating or ranting or rioting, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a brief, mild statement that attempted to divert attention to the original book. The church also bought ads in the musical’s program, hoping to capitalize on any curiosity about that original Book of Mormon.
At first I thought that perhaps The Book of Mormon (the musical) had escaped greater Mormon criticism because the audience for the musical has so far been limited primarily to the relatively affluent and curious people who are willing to buy tickets to see the show. By contrast, I was thinking, YouTube delivered the 14-minute anti-Muslim clip that ignited much of the turmoil last week to millions, free of charge. Then, however, I realized that The Book of Mormon’s satire is also available on YouTube, primarily in audio versions of the show’s songs.
Of course The Book of Mormon is at least a thousand times more artful, entertaining, amusing and good-hearted than the 14 minutes of incoherent anti-Muslim propaganda that triggered disproportionate anger last week. Also, no Mormon rule forbids visual depictions of Joseph Smith or other leaders in a way that’s comparable to Islamic prohibitions against visual images of Mohammed. When two of The Book of Mormon writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, attempted a depiction of Muhammad in their South Park series in 2010, they received a warning that was interpreted as a death threat, and Comedy Central censored the episode.
In the case of The Book of Mormon, it helps that the American creators of the show are primarily satirizing other Americans — and that both parties apparently understand and appreciate that free speech is one of the most basic of all-American values. Indeed, Mormonism is one of the most American of religions, based on a distinctive theology that is rooted in the New World, as the musical The Book of Mormon points out and sums up in the song “All-American Prophet.” Because free speech is such a fundamental right for Americans, the church surely realized that its best defense against the musical was to advertise in the show’s program, not to call for censorship.
Of course not all of the satirical targets in The Book of Mormon are Americans. The Ugandans are treated in fairly stereotypical ways as old-fashioned rural “natives” completely out of touch with 21st century technology — one of them thinks an old typewriter is a “texting” device, despite the avid use of wireless technology in sub-Saharan Africa. They fall for the dumbed-down gospel of Arnold awfully quickly. However, this stereotyping is partially interrupted by a line from one of the Ugandan women near the end. She explains that the stories told by the Mormons and by Arnold are “metaphors,” not to be taken literally. Thanks, the show needed that.
A few critics have complained that the happily-ever-after-implied ending is too soft. The Book of Mormon’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q fame, surely don’t believe Arnold’s fantasies any more than they believe the original The Book of Mormon, which they debunk with glee. So why the happy-faced ending?
Here are two different but not necessarily incompatible explanations. One is that the show’s writers genuinely believe that religious faith, especially when interpreted metaphorically instead of literally, can be a force for good even when it’s based on nonsense. The “All About Mormons” episode of South Park, which preceded The Book of Mormon, certainly re-inforces that conclusion.
At the same time, it’s important to understand that The Book of Mormon is also an affectionate send-up of musical theater itself. The score is full of big fat musical numbers that hook the audience melodically and rhythmically, using techniques learned from decades of musicals, while simultaneously subtly undermining the message with incongruously outrageous lyrics. One of the spoofed musical theater conventions is the unlikely happy ending. And then the last line of the entire show actually continues the undermining.
In short, despite the brash four-letter words and images that are flung around in The Book of Mormon, the meaning of the show isn’t entirely on the surface. It’s a creation with layers inside layers.
The Book of Mormon can also be seen as a comment on Americans in general, not just Mormon Americans, and our sometimes naive relationship to the rest of the world. If you see it this way, you can understand why this is one stage satire that will probably have a much longer shelf life than most of its competitors.
The Book of Mormon, Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm. Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Dark Thanksgiving. Added matinees Wed and Fri Nov 21 and 23, 2 pm. Closes at the matinee on Nov. 25. www.broadwayla.org. 800-982-2787.
***All The Book of Mormon production photos by Joan Marcus
About those competitors –
Doma Theatre is presenting the LA premiere of Xanadu, a little musical take-off on the 1980s Venice/roller/disco movie, using selections from the original score and other songs by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar and a somewhat original book by Douglas Carter Beane.
When I saw the Broadway production in 2007, it struck me as too much ado about virtually nothing. Even though I was comped, the regular top ticket price of $111 — for what seemed to be little more than a 90-minute comedy sketch — struck me as a rip-off.
Here at Doma’s home at the Met Theatre, Xanadu seems better proportioned — including the ticket prices, which range from $30 to $35, with senior and student discounts for $20. The smaller theater offers more intimate views, an intermission adds a little more shape to the structure, and audiences are encouraged to help illuminate the finale with glow sticks.
Also, Xanadu feels more at home here — quite literally. The show is set not only in Venice near the beach, but the roller disco that would-be artist Sonny Malone and his Greek goddess muse want to renovate is, in this production, placed in an old theater on Oxford — which, not coincidentally, is where the Met Theatre itself is. Also, whoever supervised the script for this production (director Hallie Baran?) knew enough not to use a reference to “Santa Monica County” that jumped out of the Broadway script. And a reference to the necessity for air conditioning in the San Fernando Valley seemed especially appropriate on the hot Sunday afternoon when I saw Doma’s Xanadu.
The jokes hit most of their marks. There’s something endearingly off-center about the two leads (Lovlee Carroll, Matt O’Neill). And the vintage late-disco-era music, led by the visible band above the set, rolls out and envelops the audience as if it were on, well, roller skates. The highlight of the show is when the Olympian gods sing “Have You Never Been Mellow?” That was pretty funny, even on Broadway.
Xanadu, Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., (near Santa Monica Blvd. and Western Ave.), LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Oct 7. www.DOMATheatre.com. 323-802-4990.
***All Xanadu production photos by Michael Lamont
For me, the most interesting thing about my night at the opening of Silence! The Musical — by Jon and Al Kaplan and Hunter Bell — wasn’t the show itself.
It was learning that the Hayworth has officially been a mid-size commercial space now for a couple years. With 192 seats, it has become one of those rare birds in LA theater — a space that’s bigger, but doesn’t seem that much bigger, than the 99-seat norm. It’s open for for-profit rentals on union contracts. That’s such good news for LA theater that I can’t imagine why it wasn’t announced with much greater fanfare.
The show? Not so much. Really, a musical parody of Silence of the Lambs that lasts longer than, say, 15 minutes? That’s the point at which I began to lose interest. But there was no intermission, so relief or escape was impossible.
Christine Lakin is very good in the faux-Jodie Foster role, but I couldn’t help but think about the last half-dozen Troubie shows I’ve seen her in and how much funnier and more dimensional each one of them was, compared to this turkey. Likewise with Davis Gaines, who plays Hannibal Lecter — I thought of his two decades of sterling appearances, and now he’s doing Silence! The Musical?
A moment of silence, please.
Silence! The Musical, Hayworth Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Blvd. LA. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 and 7 pm. Closes Dec. 4. www.silencethemusical-la.com. 866-811-4111.
And now for something much more exciting in the small musical arena — Robert Marra’s revival of The World Goes ‘Round for Actors Co-op.
The material is hardly new to LA. In fact, I’ve seen a couple productions of it, in its original form as a standard Kander and Ebb revue, just a couple blocks away, at what is now called the Music Box on Hollywood Boulevard.
But Marra turns it into something approaching a book musical. It’s set in one of those indie coffee hangouts usually populated by a lot of solitary individuals checking their email as well as drinking their java. Four of them linger there on this particular day, served by a solitary barista. Her off-again, on-again boyfriend makes occasional appearances. Usually hovering near the shop, but seldom entering, is a homeless woman — but she does make a rather sensational appearance near the end of the first act.
Marra has found a narrative through-line that connects the songs and the characters without any obvious strain but also without any extraneous dialogue. Of course most of these songs represent unspoken thoughts or fantasies that the others can’t hear, but occasionally these people do actually communicate with each other in song, especially when a sudden rainstorm more or less throws them all together.
Watching this gifted cast perform such apparently quotidian movement with such precision, while singing, is genuinely thrilling at times. As you think about the communion of so many private people in a public space — and you might even want to substitute “theater” here for “coffee hangout” — the emotional catharsis is much more intense than you get in a typical assembly-line revue.
The World Goes ‘Round, Actors Co-op Crossley Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St., (parking off Carlos, east of Gower), Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2:30 pm. Sat mat Oct 13, 2:30. Closes Oct. 14. www.ActorsCo-op.org. 323-462-8460 ext. 300.Print