Sunday, September 9, 2012

Something incredible

Lately I've become a pretty firm believer in the concept of going in oblivious. Unlike those who go to a movie only after having read a full plot synopsis or those who read a book only if it is a New York Times Bestseller, I usually prefer to try things out with only a passing knowledge and a gut feeling.

This is the method through which I pick out most of the movies I watch in theaters and on Netflix. I watch a trailer, which gives such minimal information that I don't feel that I've been too well-informed, and if it pleases me I go forth and find the full-length material.

That's not so easy with theater, unfortunately, since much of a stage performance is kept under wraps. Even the previews aren't enough to captivate or provide reason to pay $100 a ticket.

My initiation into the world of The Book of Mormon was through the soundtrack. I'd found it at the library several months ago. Though I'd already known the song "I Believe" from watching the Tony's not long before, I went in with a practically blank slate. Call up John Locke to make me a name tag that says "tabula rasa," because that's essentially what I was with this show.

All I knew is that it contained irreverent humor regarding the Mormon faith. It was also well-received by Broadway theater-goers. And based off the Tony performance, the music wasn't bad.

So I went in with high hopes. And for months I listened to the CD, only cementing my high hopes.

Today I finally got to the theater to see The Book of Mormon live. Still, I refused to read up on it. I guess for me this is a mechanism for testing my own artistic retention. If I read a Wikipedia entry that tells me the plot and the morals of a story then I'm cheating myself of the opportunity to experience the story as it is happening. Listening to the soundtrack multiple times had already done me the injustice of knowing perhaps too much, so I wasn't going to bring it to the next level of learning the entire story ahead of time.

As I was watching the show, I learned that the principles I'd set forth in my own theater-going were applicable to the story. As The Book of Mormon progresses, we see the two main characters become disenfranchised in different ways. For one, Elder Cunningham, this means trying to initiate new Mormons by telling them half-way lies about the history of the Latter-day Saints. For the other, Elder Price, this means confronting his entire belief of whether God exists.

What they learn is that if you can invent a story worth being told - Elder Cunningham, for example, mixes Mormon theology with Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc. mythology. - then you can create something to have faith in. This character (Elder Cunningham) who had gone in without pre-existing knowledge (that is expected of Mormon missionaries) and pride ended up helping the people he tried to convert by making a story that was accessible to them.

This show was about so much more than irreverent humor regarding religion. Despite its poking at Mormonism, African stereotypes and even Broadway clich├ęs, it also made reasonable arguments about whether mockery is in opposition to a positive agenda. We could spend days going over all the inaccuracies and ridiculousness in this script and in this show, but we could spend just as much time talking about the lessons behind it.

Though Mormons are caricatured, they are painted as a very good-hearted people with righteous intentions. The Ugandans in the story are humanized in a way that reduces their stereotypes to comical rather than blasphemous. The jokes poking at Broadway are met with incredibly wonderful homages to some of the greatest songs from the stage (i.e. "You and Me (But Mostly Me)" is like "The Wizard and I" from Wicked; "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" is like "Somewhere That's Green" from Little Shop of Horrors).

If you read about The Book of Mormon first (which I guess is the irony of reading this blog right now), you might go in with the preconception that this show is laughs for the sake of laughs or insults purely catering to a progressive and impious agenda (okay, hopefully that's not what you're getting from my blog, because that would be entirely incorrect). The truth is, it is so much more than that. The show turns into a commentary about how religions come to be in the first place. It brings up legitimate concerns about Biblical texts and makes reasonable claims about authenticity and metaphors that make you think while you laugh.

I guess, in the end, I learned I'd done this the right way. The woman sitting next to me in the theater complained about not hearing the lyrics to the songs properly because the speaker system at the Pantages was strangely static-y, so I was glad I'd come in with a pretty thorough knowledge of the soundtrack. But I was also glad that I hadn't come in with anything more than that.

Art is meant to be consumed and appreciated as it is being experienced. In this case, it's okay to come in ignorant. We learn things along the journey and then make assessments about the text. I came to know that my love for The Book of Mormon was not just for the silliness, the humor, the music and the irreverence. It was also for the humanity of the story, and for the morals and the meaning behind it. It only reconfirmed for me that this show deserves the recognition it gets. It really is something special. Or, rather, something incredible (if you understand the reference).

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