Nothing's sacred for the super-satirists

The creators of South Park have written a Broadway musical about Mormons. Sarah Hughes attends the opening night
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The Independent Culture

Female circumcision jokes, near-to-the-bone cracks about Aids and sideswipes at all manner of religious groups: it can only be the new musical by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the determinedly scatological brains behind South Park and Team America: World Police.

Since the news broke last year that Parker and Stone were writing a musical about Mormons, Broadway has been bracing itself for the possible backlash. This is the duo after all who have received death threats because of their satirical treatment of religions, the writers who put the Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit, showed Buddha snorting lines of cocaine and depicted Jesus as a rather fey chap more interested in his flowing robes than his role as the son of God.

Yet The Book of Mormon, which has attracted full houses and a stream of celebrity fans, turns out to be an altogether different beast, one with a suspiciously tender core underneath all those jokes about repressed missionaries and villagers with scrotum infections.

That's not to say that the duo's trademark scattergun attacks aren't there. Indeed, there are enough jokes about infant sex, bestiality and repressed homosexuality to ensure that this is very far from a family musical yet nor is it the kind of candle-lit vigil-attracting piece of blasphemy that members of the Mormon Church might have feared. "We didn't sit down and say, "All right, let's bash Mormons, how should we do it?" Parker remarked on the show's opening night. "We really wanted to just make a very traditional, classic musical."

That they succeeded can be seen in the near-rapturous response from New York's notoriously hard-to-please theatre critics with the New York Times's acerbic Ben Brantley comparing Parker and Stone to Rodgers and Hammerstein and the New York Observer calling it "a comfortably traditional show, in the best sense".

And it's not difficult to see why the new musical has been so readily embraced: in a time when Broadway is clogged up with bland remakes of films, uninspiring revivals and soulless high-tech extravaganzas like the misfiring Spider- Man: Turn off the Dark, Parker and Stone's show comes across as a genuine breath of fresh air.

Yes there are some obviously South Park-style moments: Jesus sounds suspiciously like the animation's best known character Eric Cartman and there are repeated references to the (possibly unnatural) power of the clitoris in addition to a (literally) long-running joke about dysentery but the story of two newly graduated missionaries and their eye-opening posting to Uganda pulls off the rare trick of supporting its characters even as it gently mocks them.

Thus even as the audience is reminded of some of the Mormon religion's more outré beliefs (Jesus appeared in America to a tribe of Israelites, coffee is bad), they are asked not merely to sympathise with the two young and out-of-their-depth missionaries but also to celebrate their faith, if not the theology behind it.

Similarly underneath the "Africa is hell" cracks there is a real seam of anger about poverty tourism and some great sideswipes at the Western tendency to romance Africa as the exotic "other" best realised in the hysterical "I Am Africa", which sees a bunch of whiter-than-white missionaries reel off a list of clichés about the continent from birds flapping over the Serengeti to "Nelson Mandela's tears" culminating in the grandiose proclamation: "Just like Bono, I am Africa."

Not everyone has been so convinced, however, with posts on the New York Times' website querying the treatment of the African characters and suggesting that audiences were asked to laugh at rather than with them. It is hard too to see how the show will fare once the initial rush to watch wears off. Broadway earns its bread and butter from tourist coaches and it's not easy to imagine the religious mockery playing quite as well with the man from Middle America searching for a fun musical to see on his weekend trip.