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Associated Press/Photo by Victoria Will

Getting religion

Music | While The Book of Mormon seeks to mock, David Koresh Superstar seeks to understand

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

You don't have to be a non-Mormon or a fan of South Park to laugh in spite of yourself at the Original Broadway Cast recording of the soundtrack to the current Broadway smash The Book of Mormon (Ghostlight), but being at least one of those will probably help.

The musical, which traces the experiences of two Mormon missionaries as they wrestle with doubts about their religion's weirder teachings and deal with their assignment to the AIDS-ridden African country of Uganda, was conceived and executed by South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker. So, not surprisingly, being a fan of their television work is a prerequisite for tolerating the gratuitous profanity and crude sexual humor that proliferate in "Hasa Diga Eebowai" and "Joseph Smith American Moses," songs that, like South Park itself, blur then cross the line between Swiftian satire and gratuitous muck.

As for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, it's the musical's main target. So devout Mormons will surely wince at everything but the musical's universal elements.

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But Mormons aren't all that's in the musical's crosshairs. There's also, for instance, Uganda and whatever other countries practice "female circumcision." There are also side digs at pop culture (Steven Spielberg's Return of the Jedi gets compared to the "third testament" that the actual Book of Mormon claims to be) and religion in general. In this respect, at least, the Broadway Book of Mormon serves the edifying purpose of reminding those who adhere to any transcendental creed, no matter how empirically verifiable, that their beliefs sound cockamamie to anyone who doesn't share them.

For the most part, though, it's just plain funny. Its offensiveness, in other words, works as a kind of Trojan Horse. Our capacity to be offended is sometimes a form of pride, and so rolling with the punches of sarcastic outsiders can be a form of turning the other cheek-especially when those punches reveal a witty familiarity with the religion in question that could only arise from a close study of its primary sources. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, painstakingly accurate mockery must surely be next in line.

Thus Stone and Parker's referring to the musical as an "atheist's love letter to religion" rings truer than it might have had John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Graham Chapman made similar claims for Monty Python's Life of Brian 32 years ago. In light of recent events, one can't help wondering what fun Stone and Parker will have should they decide to set Harold Camping's recent eschatological follies to music. Or help wishing them Godspeed in the enterprise.

Not to be outdone in the religious-musical sweepstakes, the Indelicates, a British rock band led by Simon Clayton and Julia Clark-Lowes, offer up David Koresh Superstar (Corporate). Just why, 18 years after the expiration of David Koresh's 15 minutes of notoriety, they felt compelled to devote 65 minutes to the Wacko of Waco is anyone's guess; that they get to the core of cult and conspiracy-theory mentality (the song "McVeigh" refers not only to the Oklahoma bombing but also to Ruby Ridge and the New World Order) is undeniable.

But, unlike The Book of Mormon, David Koresh Superstar is not a comedy. Indeed, the Clark-Lowes-sung "A Single Thrown Grenade" followed by the Clayton-sung "I Don't Care If It's True" arrestingly articulate megalomania and its discontents at their most sadly poignant.

In short, the Indelicates don't so much seek to mock as to understand. The extent to which they succeed is chilling.

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