28 February 2013
At least three (possibly more, one tries to forget) of my worst nights in the theatre have involved musicals. The absolute worst was Starlight Express followed, not far behind, by Phantom of the Opera and then there was a show of Sondheim songs, full of arch over-acting and glutinous attempts at ‘sophistication’, which I left at the interval. I did see half of Cats but the second half never happened because of a bomb scare – it wasn’t me, honest, guv.
As intellectually challenging as a Moonpig card and as aesthetically satisfying as cat litter, these shows left me baffled. Why would anybody want to see such nonsense? In the case of Sondheim – the easily shocked should look away now – I concluded he wasn’t very good.
In the end, I suppose, musicals are, to some, restful. They provide – sometimes – nice tunes and consoling sentiments as well as lots of expensive stage effects. Fair enough. I suppose.
None of which stopped me grabbing a seat at the first preview of The Book of Mormon, a musical. (There’s a convention of not reviewing previews. I shall adhere to this by discussing the show in general – its content is well known from the New York run – rather than this production.)
The Book of Mormon revels in its musicalness. The style of the songs, dancing and acting is bog standard Broadway/West End/coach party. This is necessary to draw attention to the oddity of the content. Any fool could make an experimental musical about Mormons, only Trey Parker and Matt Stone could make a mainstream musical about them – and, incidentally, about baby rape, Aids, book buggery etc.
The further point is that Mormons themselves are mainstream, in America at least. They make a fetish of respectability as well as of being the true native faith, yet they aim at universality as if American respectability was the proper condition of all mankind. This is funny in itself and it clears up a point about what is being satirised here. Neither Mormonism nor religion is the prime target, parochialism is the heart of the matter. Most of the show takes place in Uganda where Mormonism is as meaningless as Luganda or Swahili would be in Utah.
Stone and Parker have always been too smart – and have too much of a sense of humour – to come down on one side of an argument. In Team America, for example, they lampooned liberal doves and conservative hawks equally. They assume – rightly – that the world is underdetermined by any one opinion and that reality is adrift and unachorable. They do not, however, resort to the helpless, postmodern shrug; rather, they draw consolation from the fact that, adrift we may be, but at least we are all in the same boat. And what do we do to pass the time? We tell stories.
The Book of Mormon is, in fact, very close in conception to John Ford’s great movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. (I can’t be too specific here as it would be a spoiler.) The crucial line in that film is: ‘This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’. What matters is the sustaining story, the yarn that gets you through. What further matters, of course, is that the story is benign, but, since every aspect of this show exudes benignity, I think we can take that as read.
What, you might ask, of the truth? The answer is that the truth may be out there but our accounts of it are buried beneath our inevitable parochialism. Our best bet is to accept the most benign fictions, funny and absurd as they may be. This is always the West, sir.
Musicals have, at last, spawned a masterpiece.