In February, Salt Lake City Tribune columnist Sean P. Means wrote that members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, as Mormons like to be called in print, would have their "tolerance for mockery" tested by the musical The Book of Mormon. Now, a week after the show opened, it would appear the LDS is up to the challenge, even if its jaw is clenched.
"Mormons want people to know that they can take it," declares Laurie Goodstein in today's New York Times. "[T]here have been no pickets or boycotts, no outraged news releases by Mormon defenders and no lawsuits." But plenty of the church faithful who have traveled to New York to see the show have watched with somewhat wooden smiles. "'It's right on," Paul Jones, a dentist from Gilbert, Arizona, told Goodstein, “but I cringed a little bit, a couple of times.”
Back in Salt Lake City, Means bordered on smug:
If a radio host makes a disparaging comment about Jews or an offhand remark about the Holocaust, that host can expect a strongly worded letter from the Anti-Defamation League in his or her e-mail. If a cartoonist draws a caricature of Islam, pickets (and sometimes threats) from incensed Muslims are sure to follow. Make a movie about a priest that’s anything less reverential than “Going My Way,” and Catholic groups will howl in protest.
So far, the official response to the musical “Book of Mormon” from the LDS Church has been measured.
The church's one-sentence response to the show: “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.”
Meanwhile, the LDS blogosphere has been fairly positive, or at least ambivalent, about the production. A review in Feminist Mormon Housewives states: "The Mormon characters are (for the most part) shown very sympathetically, and (here’s where non-Mormons generally fail) seem like real Mormons." Moreover, the comedy works for the faithful, provided they have a sense of humor: "The Mormons are played straight. What they say gets laughs (because Mormonism is strange), but there’s never a wink-wink-nudge-nudge tipping off for the laugh lines, and Mormonism’s strangeness isn’t exaggerated (much)."
By Common Consent editor Kevin Barney is more guarded in his optimism about the production. "I have heard from one correspondent who was very concerned about the show, calling it “vile and offensive” based on reviews he had read," Barney writes. "But of my few Mormon friends who have actually had the opportunity to see the production, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. One friend said her ribs still hurt from laughing so hard. They have described the production as being simultaneously both a critique and a celebration of religion."
The team behind musical, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and Avenue Q creator Matt Lopez, has taken pains to show good faith in the Mormon people, if not their theology. "People believe in [Mormon theology] so strongly, and their lives are demonstrably changed for the good by it," Lopez says. The show follows Mormon missionaries through their misadventures in Uganda. Stone told the Times, "These kids are sent to the other side of the world to spread stories and scripture that they love, and when they get there, none of what they’ve learned in Utah makes any sense in this new land. But the love and the spirit do."
The Book of Mormon might also be a pretty large departure from what many learned its audience learned in Utah, but they're clapping all the same.