Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s first feature-length film, Cannibal! The Musical, was a musical. Their third, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, was a musical; it even won an Academy Award nomination for its song “Blame Canada.” For that year’s honors Parker and Stone memorably dressed in drag—specifically in Jennifer Lopez’s green plummeting-neckline number and a satiny pink dress à la Gwyneth Paltrow from the year of her Shakespeare in Love acceptance speech—but they lost to Phil Collins. Their puppet movie, Team America: World Police, featuring the catchy martial pep song “America, f*ck Yeah,” was a musical. And beginning with “Kyle’s Mom Is a Big Fat Bitch,” in episode nine of season one, even South Park, Parker and Stone’s animated serial masterpiece on Comedy Central, has been a musical, for fifteen years running, just about every chance it can get. Notably, a number of these productions had something to do with Mormons. Cannibal was in part about Mormons (and cannibalism). Orgazmo (their second feature) was all about Mormons (and porn). Episode twelve of season seven of South Park bears the title “All About the Mormons.” You needn’t have watched everything Parker and Stone have ever made (as some people have, I hear) to know that the boys (as we still tend to call them) love musicals, and are preoccupied with the Latter-day Saints.
Even so, the early media story about The Book of Mormon, which won nine Tonys including Best Musical early this summer, was about how surprising it was that those naughty boys, those silly brilliant foul-mouthed Colorado boys, wanted to make a musical, and that it was about Mormons. Even more surprising, we found out during previews, was that this show had a “heart that is as pure as that of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show.” That was Ben Brantley’s rave in the New York Times, in which he reported “that a newborn, old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical has arrived at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, the kind our grandparents told us left them walking on air if not on water. So hie thee hence, nonbelievers (and believers too), to ‘The Book of Mormon,’ and feast upon its sweetness.”
It was so surprising, this sweetness, that the very same story was told by reviewers from Reuters (“the defining quality . . . is its sweetness”), USA Today (“the most surprising thing . . . may be its inherent sweetness”), and more than a dozen other news outlets. The Mormon audience members quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune were using the same words (Graceann Bennett remarked on the show’s “sweetness”; Anne Christensen called it “incredibly sweet”). The groupthink that manufactures such a story, the repetitiveness of its language, and the thinly veiled commercial motivations behind it (to save Broadway, we can only assume, from Spider-Man): these are exactly the sorts of dynamics the South Park boys skewer so brilliantly every week on their show. As I walked toward the Eugene O’Neill Theater to take in this sensation, I tried to think critically about the way Parker and Stone seemed to be feeding this machine of ritual language in their interviews. And yet to be honest with you, I secretly did not give a sh*t.
In fact, I admitted to myself, I was kind of thrilled at the near-unison revoicing of Brantley’s review. Even though it was happening mainly on the internet, it made me feel like I was on my way to something really physical and live: a hit, and the making of a hit, in my own time. And I suspected that the musical would be serving some very important purpose in this moment in New York, maybe even in America or the world, which after all has its issues with religion, especially the proselytizing missionary kind. I turned from Broadway onto 49th Street, where steam poured romantically out of a manhole, and joined hundreds of amped-up fans all taking pictures of how many of us there were. As we funneled into a total clusterfuck inside the ornate Eugene O’Neill Theater, I couldn’t have been more excited. Excited to think that Parker and Stone had brought their brilliance to bear on the problem of religion and the problem of intolerance of religion, excited to see what all the fuss was about, and excited to examine this surprising sweetness.
Inside the theater it felt like a church service or a rock show. When the recorded voice told us to turn off our cell phones because The Book of Mormon would begin in one minute, the audience cheered wildly. This was my first musical on Broadway—a fact I’d concealed from the editors of n+1 when persuading them to assign me this review—but I sensed it wasn’t usually like this. The Arab Spring was bogging down in the bloody summer. We were bombing Tripoli. Radiation was leaking from Fukushima. The woman behind me sighed a long, settling-in sigh, and then said, “I just want to see something funny.” And that’s exactly what was about to happen to her.
The proscenium arch of the Eugene O’Neill Theater is currently lined with a golden frame set with church lights in the neo-Gothic, Magic Kingdom style of the Salt Lake Temple. At the apex is a golden statue of the angel Moroni, who, in the late 1820s, explained to a young Joseph Smith the secret ancient American roots of Christianity—it’s a replica of the statue that tops the Salt Lake Temple. In this way, the whole show happens within the frame of the temple: the story of two young Mormon missionaries sent to baptize new believers in AIDS-ridden Uganda, and the story of the birth of Mormonism itself. During production numbers, the temple lights up and seems to dazzle the room with disco lights. The opening tableaux vivants of Mormon history remind us that Mormons love a good pageant almost as much as evangelicals love a church service that rocks. While the publicity spinning the show’s surprisingness depended on our belief that there are tensions between religion and South Park and musicals, it seems perfectly normal for the tableau’s Jesus to have the voice of South Park’s Cartman, and it only takes a moment for it to register that religion was always a musical, anyway—that the performing and reperforming of religious stories as musical entertainment has been the heart of Christianity’s most lucrative American forms.
By casting a wry eye on the theatricality of religion, The Book of Mormon recalls the show that swept the Tonys in 1958, The Music Man. In that classic, a con man named Harold Hill arrives in River City, Iowa, to sell the townspeople a marching band. His patter is preacherly, his argument is moral, and his product is revivalist: a marching band will save the town from the ethical crisis posed by its brand-new pool table. Of course, we know from the start that the band will never materialize. Marian, the town’s librarian and music teacher, is on to Harold Hill, so to get the townspeople to believe in the nonexistent marching band, he has to get her to believe in him, which means getting her to fall in love with him. Like The Music Man, The Book of Mormon makes us laugh by reminding us how much religion and marketing and theater and love look like one another. Because this is a musical, love will save us.
There happens to be a Marian in the Ugandan village—Nabulungi (Nikki M. James), the chief’s daughter, who will fall for one of the missionaries. But the more important couple is Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), an uppity and ambitious model teen Mormon who hopes to be sent to Orlando for his upcoming mission trip, and Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), who fills the role of the mook. During doorbell-ringing practice at the missionary training center, his first try at an opening line reveals his Mormonism to be askew: “Hello, would you like to change religions? I have a free book written by Jesus.” He says the wrong thing, he doesn’t know what to do with his hands, he can’t sit still, he likes Elder Price too much, he’s a pathological liar, and he’s never read the Book of Mormon. To make matters worse, the odd couple is assigned, much to Elder Price’s disappointment, to Uganda.
As Elders Price and Cunningham talk with their parents in an airport, preparing to board an Airfrica plane, the lights go suddenly misty and down drops a scrim painted with rolling green Africa-esque mountains. A black woman in face paint and headdress scoots in from stage right, plants her staff, and sings a haunting multitonal call, to goosepimply effect. That’s all it takes to evoke an Africa of a particularly Disney-meets-Broadway vintage—specifically what it evokes is the first few seconds of the “Circle of Life” number in The Lion King (so I gather from YouTube), which is also the image and sound used in The Lion King’s promotional trailers and Academy Award and Tony Award montage performances. But then the song stops abruptly, the scrim rises, and we realize we’re still in the airport, and what we just interpreted as Africa was merely its signifier on the Great White Way. If religion is a performance, Parker and Stone want to point out, so is Africa. The woman takes off her headdress and wipes her brow. She is a friend of the family from the Temple who the parents have enlisted to help send off the boys. “Have a great time in Africa,” she says, in a very American accent; “I’ve never been.”
Unlike the utopic Africas that African American performers are regularly asked to bring to life on American stages and Disney World tours, this show’s Africa—the Ugandan village the missionaries walk into a few seconds later, dragging their suitcases behind them—purports to be “real,” which means it is in a state of emergency. When the boys attempt to proselytize, the villagers respond with a rousing chorus of “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” The Book of Mormon’s now famous tribute to The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata.” “Hakuna Matata” is evidently Swahili for “everything’s okay” or “no worries.” Gamely, the Mormon boys attempt awkward white boy imitations of African dance moves, “raising the roof” and so on, until one of the villagers reveals that what they’re singing is “f*ck you, God, in the ass, mouth, and pussycat.” They’re angry about famine, dysentery, AIDS, and the fact that a nearby warlord, General Butt f*cking Naked (a name borrowed from Liberia’s General Butt Naked, who killed thousands of Liberians in the ’90s before repenting and becoming a Christian evangelist), is determined to circumcise the village’s women.
Our 19-year-old missionaries have no idea how to preach to a population struggling with AIDS, dysentery, and female circumcision. What strength does their faith offer them for this? Herein lies the show’s dramatic tension, and the source of its real insight into the lives of believers. If religion is theater, the price believers have to pay in exchange for the fun of the lights and music is that they have to keep staging it, even when the script seems wrong. When Elders Price and Cunningham complain to the head missionary, Elder McKinley, that Africa is not what they expected, he advises them, “Don’t feel those feelings. Hold them in, instead.” This develops into a missionary chorus line number set to big band swing, and the lyrics go like this: When a blighted African village doesn’t want your religion, when your dad abuses your mom, when you have hot hard feelings for other boys, just turn it “off like a light switch.” It’s “a cool little Mormon trick.” “Imagine that your brain is made of tiny boxes,” recommends McKinley, “and find the box that’s gay and CRUSH IT!!!” It is the show’s gayest number,of course, and as the missionary boys don hot-pink sequined vests, they turn off their feelings so well that they end up tap dancing in the dark.
It’s not that I haven’t wanted to go to musicals on Broadway. I know about their old-fashioned pleasures. During my own conservative evangelical Christian childhood, my parents would sometimes take us to the Enchanted Hills Playhouse, whose summer stock season squeezed high-spirited classics like The Music Man, Oklahoma, and Fiddler on the Roof onto such a stage as you could fit into what was essentially the end of a large barn. For a $15 ticket in that sweltering, mosquito-filled barn, I was transported for the first time in my young, television-deprived life to places like Iowa, Oklahoma, and a shtetl in tsarist Russia. There I glimpsed the potential ecstasies of romantic love and small-town all-American (and Jewish) goodness, and thrilled to the peculiar alchemy of the musical comedy genre, in which any given person might at any moment break into song and then shuffle off to Buffalo. I took ballet, but this kind of moving was different, more about joy than beauty. Back at home after the show, I’d stay outside on the porch, spinning, tapping, kicking my legs, and striking poses, trying to hold onto the feeling of “Seventy-six Trombones” or “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” or “Sunrise, Sunset” as long as I could.
Musicals are the magical realism of the emotional life—and in a world tamped down by antidepressants, it’s still nice, all these years later, when happy signifies in high notes and kicks, when desire happens out loud, in long slow songs, when bodies move with feeling. The best musical comedy performers make breaking into song seem as inevitable as breathing, and the best musicals happen to you physically. This is not to say the musical’s strong feelings are not distanced, campy—even alienated, in the Brechtian sense. Musicals relish the ways in which everyday affect and emotion are staged. Nobody told the American musical that catharsis and ironic distance are incompatible. The Book of Mormon’s brilliance lies in the way in which it—supported by a strong score and an even stronger cast—earnestly inhabits this complexly ironic tradition in order to show how religion comes into being through ritual performances. But to call religion performance is not to say it is not real.
Though I’d never been to a show on Broadway before, I had been in a Broadway theater. For a few years, I would sneak into Tuesday night services at Times Square Church, which is housed in the old Mark Hellinger Theatre on 51st Street, where My Fair Lady premiered in 1956. It is one of the largest of the Broadway theaters, and elaborate in the ’20s rococo style. Times Square Church has a diverse congregation; the pastors like to brag that there, the homeless sit next to millionaires. It also has a 140-person gospel choir, made up of people from more than thirty nations, that shakes the room. I was there, ostensibly, to research American religion, but really I was there because I loved those services, and because they also broke my heart a bit, reliably, each week.
One week, a group of young pastors and worship-leaders-in-training came to visit from somewhere in the South, and some of the kids took turns sharing their stories with the congregation. A 10- or 11-year-old kid started to tell us what God had done for him. Since he was 10 or 11, there wasn’t much to say, and he was shy, in the beginning. But he began to find a preacherly rhythm, his voice got louder, and the congregation encouraged him. He started to pace the stage like Harold Hill, pattering faster into his microphone, raising his other hand to God and pointing it at us, asking us for amens. We gave him amens. And as he talked, so clearly imitating someone else’s language, so obviously borrowing from a very human form, members of the congregation raised their hands and shook their heads in wonder and started to murmur the Holy Spirit’s language. The woman next to me swayed and cried and praised God that He had filled this young boy with His spirit. The performance that’s made up right before your eyes can be the most moving one of all.
How do our Mormon heroes deal with their religion’s failure to function in Africa? Elder Price, the model Mormon, shouts “Africa is nothing like The Lion King!” then leaves the village and doubts his faith. (He’ll eventually come back, after a spectacular “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” number and having the Book of Mormon shoved up his ass, literally, by General Butt f*cking Naked—not the first protagonist in Parker and Stone’s oeuvre to have a reversal motivated by some sort of anal rape or forced blow job.) Elder Cunningham, the flake, decides to “Man Up,” like Jesus, and invent a new religion for the Africans, right before our eyes. Nabulungi has fallen in love with Cunningham, and convinces herself in a ballad that if she can get the villagers to “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (Salt Lake City) she might be able to save them from AIDS and female genital mutilation. So Cunningham starts making things up that they seem to want to hear and baptizing Ugandans left and right. His version of Mormonism works so well that LDS church authorities travel to Uganda to celebrate.
For the occasion, the villagers propose to perform a pageant of their own: the Book of Mormon as Cunningham has taught it to them. They dress up like Joseph Smith and the early Mormons, who happen to be struggling, in Elder Cunningham’s version of Mormonism, with AIDS and constant impending female circumcision.
Chorus: Joseph Smith, American Moses. Praise be to Joseph, American Prophet Man.
Mutumbo: My name is Joseph Smith. I’m going to f*ck this baby.
Chorus: No, no, Joseph. Don’t f*ck the baby.
Nabulungi, narrating: Suddenly the clouds parted and Joseph Smith was visited by God.
God: Joseph Smith, do not f*ck a baby. I’ll get rid of your AIDS if you f*ck this frog.
Nabulungi: Joseph Smith f*cked the frog God gave him, and his AIDS went away! Then a great angel named Moroni came down from the starship Enterprise . . .
Various Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Star Trek characters help Joseph Smith lead the people through many adventures, including a vivid bout of general dysentery, to the promised land, Salt Lake City, where they have an orgy because God “wants more Mormons.” It is a virtuosic ensemble performance at a breakneck pace, and at the show I saw, it had people in stitches. The church authorities are horrified, and Nabulungi is devastated to discover that Elder Cunningham made it all up. Then, the twist: the Ugandans decide to be Mormons anyway, even General Butt f*cking Naked, who has come to realize that “the clitoris is a holy, sacred thing.” But they’re going to be the Lord of the Rings, frog-fucking kind; their prophet is Arnold Cunningham, and their sacred text is the Book of Arnold. This is the “surprisingly sweet” message everyone’s talking about: it doesn’t matter whether or not the stories are true, if they bring people together and help them get through.
In this way, The Book of Mormon teaches us what secularists don’t get about what makes religion so awesome: it’s like a musical you live in, and it can actually be more fun if it seems a little fake, if you have to work a little to believe. There tend to be so many gaps that the thrill of it is filling them in, making them fit. While to outsiders, religious people seem to believe despite the obvious manufacturedness of their religion, The Book of Mormon suggests that believers believe (at least in part) because of the pleasure of revoicing, adapting, and even inventing stories and then treating them as sacred.
Then again, the humor only seems to work if you are prepared to accept, for a minute, that these Africans are benighted enough to buy the idea that f*cking a frog cures AIDS, and that Brigham Young had a clitoris on his face. But then the villagers explain to Nabulungi that none of it is true, they never believed it in the first place, that really religion is just made up of stories that help people band together—and the joke’s on us, for thinking Africans would buy a theology so obviously made-up! But then they explain further that “Salt Lake City’s not a real place”—and the joke’s on them again.
Were Parker and Stone being ironic when they picked Uganda? If so, in what way? While The Book of Mormon portrays Uganda as ravaged by AIDS, and Ugandans’ naïveté as being of the “primitive,” magical-thinking variety (if I have sex with a baby, I’ll get rid of my AIDS), Uganda has been more successful than any other African nation at curbing the epidemic. From the 1980s to 2008, Ugandans cut the prevalence of AIDS in their population from approximately 30 percent to 6.4 percent. In her 2007 book The Invisible Cure, Helen Epstein argued that in Uganda, local grassroots organizations banded together successfully to curtail the spread of AIDS without forbidding or demonizing sex. AIDS-related magical thinking in Uganda is more likely to come now not from tribal or sectarian beliefs, but from the American church, whose support of abstinence-based education, famously legislated by George W. Bush’s administration, is arguably undermining that success, according to some sociologists, historians, and health policy analysts. It’s not that AIDS isn’t a problem in Uganda. But why pick one of the nations where AIDS is the least widespread?
And why choose one of the most Christian of African nations? The latest census, in 2002, counted 84 percent of the population as Christian (nearly all the rest are Sunni Muslims). Only 1 percent of Ugandans claimed to follow traditional religions. Arguably, the biggest causes of the spread of AIDS in Africa are rape and the need of destitute women to trade sex for money. Ugandan Christians, who tend to be conservative evangelicals, don’t support rape and prostitution, of course—but the subordination of women is a family value. As is the criminalization of homosexuality, which currently earns a prison term of up to fourteen years. American evangelical pastors—Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, Lou Engle, and Don Schmierer, among others—have radicalized the antigay movement in Uganda, which launched the 2009 bill that would have legislated a death penalty for homosexuals, a bill that was considered again this May in the Ugandan parliament.
Back to Times Square Church, where the racial division of labor is similar to that in The Book of Mormon—the African Americans lead the music, and the white pastors preach, imitating traditionally black call-and-response oratory styles. By my estimate,about half of any Tuesday night’s congregation at Times Square Church is made up of members of the African diaspora, either immigrants to the United States or the African American descendants of slaves. After the ecstatic worship session, a white pastor—they were almost always white—would start preaching. Almost every Tuesday, this pastor would drop a comment, at some point in his sermon, about “witchcraft in Africa,” and tell us to pray for Africa, because it was ridden with sorcerers, and therefore plagued by AIDS. The first couple of times it happened, I was just confused. What did this have to do with the sermon? And then I realized it was a way of saying, “Some of you know about this epidemic, and it’s not our fault”—that Africa’s problems, specifically the AIDS epidemic, are the fault of traditional African religions, run by Satan, rather than the legacy of a colonialism carried out by means of Christianity.
So there’s something more than run-of-the-mill political correctness involved in asking what to make of the show’s slippery take on Africans. You have to believe that Parker and Stone don’t think of Christianity as a liberating force in Africa. But it’s worth noting that they have chosen to stage their musical, which is about how false but fun and even useful American religion is, in a country that is arguably least in need of outside help in fighting AIDS but most in danger of harm from American conservative evangelicalism and religious fantasies not unlike the ones they’re satirizing. Are they accidentally redeeming those fantasies with their “surprising sweetness”? The important thing to understand about religion, after all, isn’t that it’s false. Anyone outside a particular faith—any non-Mormon, in this case—thinks that already. The most important thing to understand about religion is that it relies precisely on its sweetness to mask its complicity in abuses of power that cause widespread suffering.
At the end of The Music Man, Marian reveals that she’s known all along that Harold’s a con man, that there never would be any marching band—and that she doesn’t care. They’re standing on a footbridge, and she turns from him and gazes at their reflection in the water.
Marian: I suppose I’m not the first person to discover that a girl doesn’t think too clearly when under the spell of your salesmanship.
Harold: Oh no, Miss Marian, you surely don’t think I’ve been trying to sell you something.
Marian [turning to him abruptly, with passion]: Oh no, you’ve given me something. That’s why I had to come.
Harold: I don’t recall giving—
Marian: Oh yes. Something beautiful.
Then she sings one of the show’s prettiest songs, a song my own grandmother used to hum to herself while vacuuming: “There were bells on the hill / But I never heard them ringing / No I never heard them at all / Till there was you . . . / There was love all around / But I never heard it singing / No I never heard it at all / Till there was you.” Harold Hill may have told nothing but lies, in other words, but he made things much more exciting in River City, Iowa. As Marian later argues at a town hall meeting, when Mayor Shinn calls for Hill to be tarred and feathered, “After he came, suddenly there were things to do, and things to be proud of, and people to go out of your way for.” Everyone agrees, and then somehow the children file in, with shabby uniforms and instruments, and start playing “Seventy-six Trombones,” as if Harold Hill’s “think method” (instead of practicing, just think you can play) really does work, when you’ve got a good woman to believe in you. In the film version, the shabby uniforms transform before our eyes into spiffy bright red numbers, and the children are joined by dozens more, and march down all the streets of River City in triumph.
When I went back to my Indiana town during college to sew costumes for the summer stock theater, The Music Man was the first show I worked on. This wasn’t at Enchanted Hills, but in a theater in the round, and a big part of my job was to change the performers’ clothes. I would stand in the dark hallway that circled the audience, my eyes on the bright circle of the stage, my arms full of a dress or a suit, breathing carefully, waiting for an actor to run up the aisle. I learned to change a woman out of one dress and zip her into another in about ten seconds, without making a sound; I learned to change a man’s suit in about fifteen. Then, I’d stand beside the actor as he or she waited in the dark watching, counting, in suspension between the worldly person I would shyly get to know later—the Northwestern grad, the New York chorus girl on leave from Broadway, the Chicago “star” slumming it in Indiana to make some summer cash—and the character: Marian the Librarian, Mayor George Shinn, Marcellus Washburn, and later Laurey and Curly, Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, Louise, Rose, and then Emily, the Stage Manager, and George Gibbs. I loved watching the actors like this, suspended between identities. The grad student from the Cleveland Institute of Music walked into the light and changed instantly into Harold Hill, the fast-rapping, soft-shoedancing salesman who had to charm the audience enough that we, like Marian, like Nabulungi, could love him not in spite of his lies, but because of them.
Seeing the actor rest a little from his character, and then put it on again, did not make me any less delighted when he ran onto the footbridge to wait for Marian. If anything, I believed in him more, because I wanted him to succeed. The Music Man doubles within itself the romance of the genre, which is about marketing, and commodity fetishism, but religion, too: the magic of forgetting the labor we’ve put into making something, and the pleasure of pretending the meaning wasn’t made by us all along.
At the end of The Book of Mormon, after it comes out that Elder Cunningham’s version of Mormonism is as made-up as, well, Mormonism is, Elders Price and Cunningham have their own footbridge moment. Price realizes that things have been more fun with Cunningham around, and that “we are still Latter-day Saints, all of us. Even if we change some things, or we break the rules, or we have complete doubt that God exists. We can still work together and make this our paradise planet.”
Elder Cunningham: You—you want to stay here with me?
Elder Price: I’d do anything for you. You’re my best friend.
He begins singing to Cunningham. “Don’t worry little buddy. Tomorrow is a latter day . . .” And Elder Cunningham sings back, “And I am here for you.” They’re singing in baby talk—they’re supposed to be 19, but they sound like the South Park kids. After they hug, they and the African villagers sing the rousing, theologically nonsensical finale “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day.” And what kind of spoilsport would be thinking, at this point, that there’s nothing inherently sweet about people getting together to invent new religions? Still, I can’t help it—I’m remembering the most famous syncretistic Christian theology to hit Uganda: that of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which abducts children to be soldiers and concubines. But the South Park boys are being so cute and playful, here at the end of this musical, that I just want to forgive them.
The show is at least thinking about race, about American fantasies of Africa, about the ways that religion helps and hurts us, even if it mystifies the role of Christianity in Africa—and in America—in the end. I suppose what it never thinks about, or jokes about, and what remains the only cultural form that Parker and Stone inhabit without critiquing, is the bromance. In Cunningham and Price, as always in the bromance formula, we have two kinds of men. There are men who are dishonest, socially awkward, drink too much or smoke too much pot, act stupid, make gross jokes, have a “man cave” in their garage, and treat women entirely like sex objects (like Vince Vaughn in Swingers, Jonah Hill in Superbad, and Jason Segel in I Love You, Man). And then there are the responsible, sweet, careful, neurotic, feminized men with girlfriends that become these guys’ best friends (Jon Favreau in Swingers, Michael Cera in Superbad, and Paul Rudd in I Love You, Man). Both kinds of men are victims of arrested development. The bromance’s innovation is taken to be its foregrounding of male friendship, its approbation of physical and conversational affection between bros, and its relatively tolerant exploration of the dramas of homosociality. Of course its complementary innovation is to replace the romantic comedy formula, in which the man has to grow up to be worthy of the woman, with something way worse: a romance in which women function merely as moral foils so that men can collaborate to find ways to never grow up at all, and still keep women around anyway, as if they have nowhere else to go—forever frozen in their role as morally superior, more responsible, more organized, more mature. When Jonah Hill shouts, “I want to shout it from the mountaintops: I love my best friend!” or when Jason Segel shows up for Paul Rudd’s wedding, the girls smile benevolently in the background. When the best friends unite again, after whatever conflict has separated them, the bromance celebrates the uniting of two poles of arrested development and male dependency, which gives us, if you think about it, a man whose crassness and dishonesty is forgiven because he’s just so sweet, never mind that twenty years from now you’ll still be doing his laundry, every time, because he’s just too stoned to do it himself.
Long before the recent bromance craze, in the film BASEketball, Parker and Stone played the two poles themselves—Parker the sweet one, Stone the jerk. In that film, when the boys reunited, they made out, hilariously. When Elders Price and Cunningham get each other at the end of The Book of Mormon, though, they play it straight—just two bros representing religion as silly but ultimately redemptive immaturity, leaving us in the position of either identifying with their state of arrested development, or playing the long-suffering girlfriend. I’ve come to expect more of Parker and Stone, whose satires tend to have real teeth. They’ve set their musical in the world of religion, where Florida pastors burn the Koran, where Islamic men riot in response, and where Mormons have made sure that no gay person in California can get married. The Mormon Church sent an official missive to be read in California temples asking Mormons to do “everything they can” to fight Proposition 8, and Mormons contributed 50 percent of the funding that squashed that bill. Yet in the end, the show seems to argue that the best position vis-à-vis religion’s antics is to shake our heads and smile with girlfriendly tolerance.
As I walked out of the theater into the throngs on 49th Street, so brightly lit it felt like a set, I considered this surprising sweetness—surprising, to me, because of its unusual (for Parker and Stone) sentimentality, and surprising because it was being interpreted, in the popular press, as empathetic toward religion. But the show left me puzzling over the difference between empathy and condescension. Isn’t empathy to imagine, for a moment at least, that the other’s world, no matter how strange, is real and huge, not silly and cute? The Book of Mormon does stage a provocative empathy for believers, when it shows us the everyday, meaning-making work that they do, as they try to preserve their own faith surrounded by their churches’ overbearing authority and the often hostile cultural contexts in which they live. The most generous reading of the show would be that it celebrates a grassroots, collaboratively narrated, and pragmatic gospel over and against institutional religion. But what The Book of Mormon ends with, as we witness that baby-talking white boy hug, is something quite different from empathy: a position from which to consider ourselves loving superiors to religionists who are childlike enough to believe in absurd things, who can’t be expected to act responsibly like we do—so patient with the laundry and the fart jokes, so grown-up about it all.
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