If and when The Book of Mormon resumes performances on Broadway, the take-no-prisoners musical will reconsider its mission.
In a video call last summer organized by lead producer Anne Garefino, co-writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone assured Black cast members that they were eager to take a fresh look at the 10-year-old blockbuster and were open to making changes, a person familiar with the conversation said. The call came in response to a letter from the actors — both original and current cast members — outlining their concerns regarding the musical, which is about inept Mormon missionaries in a Ugandan village ravaged by AIDS and civil war. Among other issues, the letter addresses the challenges of differentiating between racial stereotyping and satirical storytelling, especially in moments of the show when African characters are treated as “props and punchlines.”
The musical had been called out by some critics for its depiction of Africans when it opened, in March 2011. But this recent scrutiny coincided with a new focus on racism in theater, following Black Lives Matter protests and the killing of George Floyd. During the Broadway shutdown, there’s been pressure for change in every aspect of the industry and questions about whether there’s even a place for Mormon.
“We all agreed that when the show returns, all of our work will be viewed through a new lens,” the Broadway cast members wrote to Garefino in the letter, which was reviewed by Broadway Journal. “As Black Artists we feel it is imperative that the work stay elevated in order to sustain its relevance during this moment in history.”
A spokesman for the production confirmed the letter and video call in a statement from the writers. “Last summer, the authors of The Book of Mormon received a letter sent by some of the Black members of both the original company and the current Broadway company asking for the opportunity to examine afresh the racial content in the show.” The writers, who include Robert Lopez, welcomed the conversation and will “address everyone’s concerns when it’s safe to get back into the rehearsal room again,” the statement said.
Acclaimed as deliriously funny and meticulously constructed, Mormon won nine Tony Awards, including for best musical. It’s Broadway’s fifth-highest-grossing show of all time, with ticket sales of $660 million in New York. In early 2020, grosses averaged $1.1 million a week — meaning the show was probably still profitable but operating well below its peak. (Weekly expenses excluding royalties averaged $760,000 in the 12 months ending in February 2015, the last year for which I have records.) Beyond Broadway and a U.S. tour, Mormon performances were also cancelled in the U.K. and New Zealand because of the pandemic.
The writers had insisted that their show’s humor is grounded in truth. Lopez told author Steven Suskin in The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical that he was influenced by geographer Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel in writing the Ugandan villagers’ song “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (“Fuck You, God”). Diamond’s bestselling book argues that advancement of societies tracks with ease of food production — natural resources and climate — not differences in the peoples themselves.
“If Africans had had pigs and sheep and cows and grains and stuff like that, then they would have gone out and colonized us,” Lopez is quoted in the Mormon coffee-table book. Some of the actors told Suskin that talking to the Mormon writers during its pre-opening workshops made them more comfortable about the material.
After the departure of original cast members, many of whom had helped develop the show, replacement actors weren’t given the same opportunity for give and take. The letter to Garefino notes that they felt “a lack of dialogue” with the creators and production staff about the Ugandan characters.
There’s concern about the caricaturing of Africans, instead of making fun of Americans’ perceptions of them. “The relationship of the Mormon characters to the Ugandan characters, particularly in how they communicate, has had an effect on the actors and presumably the audience when the Ugandan characters are handled as props and punchlines rather than as a part of the storytelling,” the Black cast members wrote. “Often the actors portraying Mormons are not on the same page as their Ugandan cast mates, leading to even more confusion.”
The letter goes on: “Many incoming cast members have not had discussions about the style of the show, the satire, or how they should approach the characters and comedy. The result is actors who feel rushed to learn their music and steps, but have not been equipped with the information to know the difference between broad racial stereotypes and satirical storytelling leaving them unsure of their feelings on what they are asked to perform.”
The cast members also fretted that evolving “racial sensitivities” may make it more difficult for audiences to stay engaged until the “moral” at the end, when the Ugandans exhibit a more nuanced understanding of religion than the white missionaries.
Individual performers have been blunter. On June 1, Griffin Matthews, who took part in a Mormon developmental workshop, posted a video on Facebook about his bitter experience with white theater makers when Second Stage produced his musical Invisible Thread, which he co-wrote and starred in. “And one more thing,” he said. “Book of Mormon is racist. There, I said it.”
Eight days later, current Broadway cast member Kimberly Exum wrote online that the musical “shares relatively obtuse versions of African people” and “generalizes what it means to be African and it generalizes what it means to be black.” In her piece for BroadwayBlack.com, she also called Mormon “hilariously smart and funny” and said it’s the best job she’s had and management was extremely supportive when she became pregnant during a tour of the show, as were fellow actors. Exum plays the ingenue Nabulungi, the role for which Nikki M. James won a Tony.
Nabulungi has two of the score’s most affecting songs: “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” a wry ballad about the Mormon capital, and “Baptize Me,” a gently suggestive duet with Elder Cunningham. But the character is also the butt of a gag that some critics found problematic, in which she finds a typewriter in a shop and thinks she’s texting. The production spokesman declined to discuss specific elements of the show.
The franchise has been financially rewarding for many associated with it, from the producers and creatives and investors to actors who participated in the workshops.
The $9.4 million production distributed $81 million of profits from its first four years on Broadway, according to financial statements filed with the state. Its advertising budget, once as large as $10 million a year, has paid for countless full-page ads in the New York Times and spots on late-night television. And as Chris Peterson noted in the OnStage Blog, Mormon “is one of the biggest employers of black talent in a theatre district that doesn’t have a great track record of long-running shows that employ black performers.”
While grateful for the career-making role of Elder Cunningham, Josh Gad told PeopleTV: “I don’t know that that show could open today and have the same sort of open-armed response that it did then.” Asked whether a potential movie version would differ in tone from the stage musical, he said: “I would certainly hope that with a future adaptation there would be that growth. Because I think it’s a cool opportunity for growth.”