There is a dirty secret hidden within The Book of Mormon, the high-profile new musical from the subversive and scatological South Park boys that was widely expected to upend Broadway this spring.
Indeed, the infamously irreverent Trey Parker and Matt Stone–whose long-running hit animated series has skewered nearly everyone, from Hillary Clinton to TV censors, Scientologists to Canadians–offer foul language, obscene jokes and plenty to offend, especially should you be a Latter-Day Saint. But their fantastic show (the two are credited for book, music and lyrics along with the similarly triple-threat Robert Lopez, a co-creator and songwriter of the dirty-puppet musical Avenue Q) isn’t just fun, funny and immensely enjoyable; it’s also surprisingly–and here’s the dirty word–wholesome.
Sure, The Book of Mormon, which opened last week at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, features as its villain a tribal warlord named General Butt-Fucking Naked; yes, it mocks Mormon scripture; true, it offers a recurring joke about forcible intercourse with infants. It sends up star-studded benefit concerts, American patronizing of other cultures and, of course, Broadway. It offers Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran in a vaudeville song and dance.
But it’s also an old-fashioned, toe-tapping, optimistic Big Broadway Musical, a buddy story about a mismatched pair of young Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to convert the benighted natives. It argues for the social value of religion–no matter how implausible and arguably invented the stories upon which a religion is based–while teaching (if winkingly) the old showbiz lesson that the golden boy can be flawed and the young misfit, if only he believes in himself, can come back a star.
And it’s not just that there’s a surprisingly traditional message under The Book of Mormon‘s veneer of poop jokes and blasphemy (and I mean none of that as a criticism, neither the traditionality nor the blasphemy); the whole enterprise is also a comfortably traditional show, in the best sense.
Under the pitch-perfect direction of Casey Nicholaw and Mr. Parker are big production numbers, detailed and funny sets (by Scott Pask) and elaborate choreography (by Mr. Nicholaw), and Messrs. Parker, Lopez and Stone’s tuneful score is memorable and hummable, show music that tells stories, deepens characters and gets laughs.
There’s also a stellar cast, led by two ideal stars. Andrew Rannells is just right for Elder Price, the overachiever convinced he’s destined for greatness: He’s a central-casting leading man, strong of jaw, strong of voice and blond of hair, and he makes a fine leading Mormon, aware of Price’s ridiculousness even as he plays up his arrogance. Josh Gad excels even more remarkably as Elder Cunningham, Price’s disheveled loser of a counterpart: That the actor can seem so manifestly uncomfortable in his own skin, which made him an awkward fit as a Daily Show correspondent, works perfectly when he’s playing a self-pitying failure, and who knew he could sing and dance?
So this is the lesson of The Book of Mormon, which will–and should–be a big, big hit: The elusive trick to succeeding on Broadway today is to write a smart, funny, sweet show, insert tuneful songs and a talented cast and give it a great staging. Subversive, ain’t it?
It’s also possible to achieve success without a lot of effort, as everyone knows–they’ve been singing about it on Broadway stages since How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, debuted in 1961. Now the converse has also been proven true: It is entirely possible, as the How to Succeed revival that opened Sunday shows us, to fail in show business even while trying really, really hard.
And, boy, does everyone at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre try.
Daniel Radcliffe is the star and attraction as J. Pierrepont Finch, the window washer-turned-scheming executive at the center of this silly and very dated 1960s corporate farce, and the actor better known as Harry Potter doesn’t try to coast on any movie-star wizardry. He is in nearly every scene of this two-and-three-quarter-hour musical; he mugs, he sings, he dances–not just the few simple steps that screen-to-stage actors sometimes pick up for their Broadway-musical debuts–and he does it all with a decent American accent.
John Larroquette, well cast in his own Broadway debut, gives it his smarmy all as J.B. Biggley, the World Wide Widgets president whom Finch successfully games. Derek McLane has designed a towering and very early-’60s modular set, all pastels and grays on a latticework of hexagons, like a singing three-martini lunch at whatever they’re now calling Lever House restaurant. Catherine Zuber’s costumes match: grays and pastels in mod slim suits and pillbox hats. And director and choreographer Rob Ashford has assembled a sprawling chorus and given them some gorgeous production numbers full of detailed, twitchy, athletic dances.