So, over the bank holiday weekend, something strange happened to me. Something that does not normally happen to me, truth be told. I went to see a show, and I came away with an overwhelming and profound sense of indifference. That never happens to me. Normally, there’s at least something that has grabbed my attention and inspired me. The show in question was Book of Mormon – but it’s not necessarily important which show that it was. Everybody beforehand had told me how brilliant and hilarious it was, and I barely mustered a laugh throughout. So while I was digesting and analysing how this could possibly be, and whether or not it was simply a sense of humour malfunction, I spoke to my boyfriend afterwards and he said that it definitely didn’t seem as funny as it had been when he had seen it earlier in its run. So then I sat and thought about what it had been about the show that wasn’t translating as well.
Firstly, I suppose, in a lot of ways there’s nothing that’s quite so dated as comedic trends. The things that we used to laugh at years ago are not the same things that we laugh at now. Book of Mormon is clearly a commentary about some of the aspects of Mormonism, and was branded when it was first released as “the filthiest, most offensive and – surprise – sweetest thing you’ll see on Broadway this year, and quite possibly the funniest musical ever”. And yet, I can’t help but feel it’s a product of its time. The setting of slightly tragic concepts to a sunny melody, such as “Turn It Off” is amusing, though I can’t help but feel a musical written now would go even further to deconstruct elements of Mormonism. Furthermore, I feel like the performances I saw could have gone further in making this more heightened and more obvious to the audience. There were many times where I sat questioning to myself, “is that meant to be funny? Is that the joke? It doesn’t seem very large”. And it wasn’t just me. The biggest laugh of the evening came from Elder Cunningham calling Nabalungi “No Deal Brexit”. I mean, if the biggest joke in the musical relies upon a contemporary adlib, then that surely says something about how this musical has dated.
Furthermore, I felt like the depiction of African culture is entirely backwards. I feel like perhaps this is the point, but the way that some of the jokes were landing makes me worry that the depiction was in fact just misinformed and ruinous. The near-constant references to AIDs and female genital mutilation are more uncomfortable than they are funny, and the African storyline pretty much just exists as a backdrop for the development of the Mormon people: they are the typical foreign savages who need the help of white men for salvation.
Upon reflection, I do appreciate that in a way this could be a commentary upon missionary work and how, in places like Africa where they have these very present and real problems, how religion is of very little help; though I feel like that point isn’t made explicit enough within the actual text. Something that is made explicit, however, is the failing of organised religion to take religious scripture as metaphor instead of interpreting the events literally. The embracing of the African characters of the metaphors contained within Elder Cunningham’s made-up religion brings a sense of community and positivity despite trying circumstances, and does some way to explaining the function and need of religion when it is interpreted in this sense.
However, this does not excuse the fact that the show was fundamentally not amusing. While the commentaries are appreciated and internalised, lots of that is due to me going away and thinking about it very intensely as opposed to it being made explicit within the actual show. Another failing is that each of the songs are amusing, for the first five seconds, but each song is literally the same joke for the entire sequence. For example, it is amusing the first time that Elder Price makes the point in “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”, but by the end this is slightly tired and no longer funny. “Baptize Me” in Act 2 is a similar situation, and the first time that there is a parallel between baptism and sex it is mildly amusing. Two minutes later, and the joke has worn somewhat thin. Some of the songs do succeed in pulling new punchlines out of the bag, such as outrageous “Hasa Diga Eebowai” as well as “I Believe”, that actually deconstructs real Mormon beliefs. Songs like, “I am Africa”, however, have become somewhat toned down in the production and it almost seems to have lost the sense of this song being a joke at these missionaries feeling like they are African culture despite only being there for a short time. I was sat there in the theatre thinking “this should be a joke, right?”, but the way it was performed made it almost earnest. There wasn’t quite enough over-the-topness to make it seem like a parody of what it should have been.
This is what brings me onto the subject I wish to discuss. Book of Mormon has been running now for 6 years. It is now what I would class as “long running” within the West End. With that comes somewhat of a reduction in message from the original production. New cast members have been brought in, rehearsed with the resident directors and then placed upon stage. This results in a caricature being created of the original version. Some of the original spark and creativity is gone and instead the focus is upon recreating the previous performances, losing sight of what the originality of the piece was in the first place. This is something that I have also seen on the West End in Wicked. Wicked has been running for almost 13 years at this point. And I love Wicked. Truly, I do. I know the entire soundtrack off by heart, and I’ve seen it around nine times. I hadn’t seen it for about three years and I went back. Every other time that I had seen it, I had found something new to be inspired by; something new that reinterpreted a character that I thought I knew. A new line that I would spot that would suddenly make me see a new depth and a new layer to a musical I knew so intimately. It took me five views, for example, to notice Glinda in the opening number lamenting, “She died alone”. Literally, never noticed before. And it took one actress to reveal that to me through her delivery. What I discovered was disappointing, however. It had lost its spark. No longer were actors able to give their characters some depth and spirit, but instead were painting by numbers. They moved from blocking to blocking spot, said the lines the way that they had been told to say the lines – accent and all, and sung the notes that they had been told to sing. It had lost its soul. All of the components were there, but it was devoid of its originality and spirit that I had fallen in love with all of those years ago.
I entirely get that once you get into a run of a show, you are tasked with “maintaining”. The original creatives leave and the resident roles are required to fill the spots in the cast with people who fit the original brief: actors with a certain range, a certain look, a certain age. The problem is that when you pigeon hole your material in such a way it limits the amount of heart and soul you inject into the piece. Meanwhile, there are shows that will take risks. Shows like Frozen, who cast a woman to play Olaf, for example. It becomes a saturated form of what it once was, like a game of Chinese whispers. Each new person imitates what came before, gradually stripping the content of the nuance and depth that it once has. I was there, desperately searching for something behind the eyes, but they all have the certain notes that they’ve got to hit. A certain tempo of each song, a certain amount of time between each note. It becomes formulaic, and that stops it from being an engrossing story.
So, that’s my take on things. I’ve never seen a show for the first time so far into its run, and if it wasn’t for my experience with Wicked, then I’d be inclined to think that it was merely my own sense of humour that stopped me from finding Mormon funny. However, having heard that it is undeniably hilarious, I have to attribute this decline to the loss of translation between successive casts and the way that they have been rehearsed to deliver the original text. The product that we see is recognisable, for sure, but soulless.
Next time on #MusicalTheatreMonday (I am making it a thing), I am going to be arguing for the case of reimagining established musicals (looking at you, Les Mis).