By Jeff Levene
This summer, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone moved their talents to Broadway with their Tony Award-winning musical The Book of Mormon. The musical tells the story of Elder Price, a self-assured nineteen-year old Mormon prodigy who is determined to be the next great prophet of Mormonism. He quickly discovers that fate has different plans when he is paired with the bumbling fan-boy Elder Cunningham and shipped off to Uganda to minister to a cynical tribe more concerned about the trials of poverty and AIDS than eternal life.
When I first purchased the musical’s soundtrack and scoured YouTube for clips from the show, I expected a cache of great humorous shots at Mormonism and evangelical religion, and had only heard that Parker and Stone’s play was a bit more serious than their famous cartoon series. I was pleasantly horrified, however, when I discovered that the musical’s jokes were laced with philosophical questions about morality and faith, and even moreso that it attacks my own and many of my fellow students’ life perceptions and quirks. But while the play hit very close to home, it was filled with a refreshing outlook on the perceptions of young America.
While Elder Price is friendly and eager in his ministry, he is also sadly narcissistic. In the song “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” Price sings, “Cause I can do most anything… cause Heavenly Father has chosen you and me, but mostly me”. While the song is obviously over the top, college students have a similar overexertion of their confidence. Whether it’s fraternities and sororities attaching their names to charity events, student organizations bringing in public speakers to show off their power, or me writing this article thinking I have the power (or even right) to redirect our confident pride, we like to label charitable actions. Like Price, too often we seek to label our acts of kindness for fame or self-gratification instead of concentrating on bettering the world for the sake of others.
This theme comes up again in “All-American Prophet,” which continues the assessment of a prideful American youth, as Price attempts to convince the Ugandans to do things the American way. While Price’s excited “Donny Osmond” style delivery of the story is flashy and exciting, the Ugandans see his efforts as self-righteous and ignorant. Meanwhile, in “Making Things Up Again,” Elder Cunningham cleverly shifts Mormon scripture to include real world problems like AIDS. Like Price, we often pity what we may deem less fortunate nations and insist that the American lifestyle is best for all, when instead, learning about foreign cultures and helping them with problems in new ways may be more effective and genuine.
In “I Am Africa,” the missionaries tell about their two-week mission in Africa. They brashly claim, “Africans are African, but we are Africa.” Cunningham adds the line “I am Africa, just like Bono!” Oftentimes we college students are moved by a missionary trip, a traveling experience where we feel we share the same pains and struggles of those we are learning about. And while our compassion and desire to connect with those in trouble are honorable emotions, some would suggest we have become enamored more with what some would call “disaster tourism.” Anderson Cooper, for example, has developed a saint-like appearance by being on the ground and saving lives in theatrical fashion with his in-the-storm reporting style. It almost amounts to a sick thrill in which we connect ourselves to tragedy and hard times. It makes us feel important, simply because we know about the tragedy. Whenever I watch a documentary or attend a moving CLP, I find myself adapting this elitist awareness, even though I have done nothing to help the problem.
Of course, Trey Parker isn’t telling us to negate our acts of benevolence and kindness because of our poor motives, or to stop trying to make the globe a better place. As Price and Cunningham overcome their self-serving natures and become global citizens, Parker insists we too evaluate our motives so we can make a more meaningful difference. I encourage you not to let my pious opinion affect your perception of The Book of Mormon and suggest you check it out for yourself. Whether you fly up to New York to see the stage show, or just listen to some of the songs on YouTube, you’ll be guaranteed some great laughs. But along with those laughs, you may just find a hilariously disturbing look at some of our quirks and faults, as well as motivation to push for a better tomorrow.