I think all musical fans have that one musical we can’t stand. For whatever reason, this one musical just doesn’t sit right with us and we hate it. I knew someone who hated Million Dollar Quartet, another who really didn’t like Waitress, and yet another who couldn’t stand Kinky Boots. There’s no shame in that; it’s normal and natural and as long as you aren’t a bully to those who do love it, you’re in good territory! Now, if you’ve been around here for a while, you might think that for me it’s Carousel or Dear Evan Hansen. You would be wrong. While I’m not a fan of them, the one that really grates on my nerves is one I haven’t even talked about on the Board before now: Book of Mormon.
Now, let me start with a disclosure. I’m no longer a practicing Mormon but I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and my entire family and many of my friends are still active. I do not purport to speak for all Mormons, as I know there are some who love the musical. I speak only for myself.
To start off, let’s go back. Way back, before this article was written, before the musical premiered, before anyone reading this was even conceived. We have to go all the way back to 1847, when my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Rodney Badger, a convert to Mormonism, arrived in the Salt Lake Valley (where I live now) with the first company of pioneers. That’s right, my family’s connection to Mormonism goes all the way back. In fact, six years later, Rodney would go on to become the first policeman to die in the line of duty in Utah and there’s even a statue of him at the state capital. My connection to the church and to Zion runs deep.
In the interest of transparency, while I’ve heard several songs from the show and know the basic plot and several people who have been cast in it, I’ve never actually seen Book of Mormon. And I have no desire to. This isn’t a hit piece on why the musical is bad and you should feel bad if you like it. It’s simply about what it’s like to be in a community where you know that something that your relatives felt so strongly about that they were willing to leave their home and travel halfway across the country to the middle of nowhere and spend forty years building a place of worship that still stands today is openly mocked.
It’s not a great feeling. I know Mormons are weird, I know they have strange beliefs and are easy to make fun of, because if you push them they don’t push back, they roll over. The Church themselves have handled the musical fantastically. They’ve placed ads in the playbill. I’ve even heard that in some places on tour, they send out missionaries who wait outside the theatre and give Book of Mormons to anyone coming out of the show who wants one. The number I heard was that one such event in Florida led to 40 baptisms.
But even if the Church won’t come out against it, I will. It’s important to remember that, for as easy as it is to get your hands on a Book of Mormon, it is sacred text. People have actually been killed for their beliefs in it—and that’s not hyperbole. Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith were assassinated at the ages of 38 and 44 respectively, and in Missouri in 1838, executive order 44 was issued, which stated that the Mormons “must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State.” It was not overturned until 1976. Not to mention the countless who died of starvation, exposure, or other causes while crossing the plains.
Cultural appropriation is defined as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Mormons, being a minority, are the victims of this when it comes to the musical. The musical takes the customs, practices, and ideas of Mormonism—I have heard, though I do not know for sure, that the Book of Mormon props they use in the musical are actual Books of Mormon—and uses them for a laugh.
If you’ve never had something that you grew up learning, something that your mother who you love so dearly believes with all of her heart, something that your family line has suffered and been pushed out of their homes and forced to leave bloody footprints across the great expanse over held up and had thousands of people laugh at, it’s a horrible feeling. Especially when it’s coming from a community that you love dearly and consider home. It’s extremely hurtful, and I’m crying while I write this because of how badly it hurts.
Now, I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind. If you like Book of Mormon, that’s okay. We can still be friends. But please respect my decision not to see it, and try to understand why even if the overall message is that belief is good, and that love and service are powerful, positive forces in this world, that it takes a very painful route to get there.
(Photo by Sara Krulwich)