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Arts feature

Book of Mormon – religion hits the West End

Robert Gore-Langton on putting God into musicals

16 March 2013

9:00 AM

16 March 2013

9:00 AM

Hitchhiking through Salt Lake City as a student in 1976, I asked a local man, who was out shopping, directions to the nearest Salvation Army hostel. Rightly assuming I was down on my uppers, the man gave me his huge bag of groceries and walked off with a ‘bless you’. Say what you like about them, Mormons in my book are lovely. In several days spent in the most boring city on earth, I never met a nasty one.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now the subject of the much-hyped The Book of Mormon, which is finally about to open in the West End after a year of total triumph on Broadway. Its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are the men behind South Park, the scatological, cynical, badly drawn but addictively funny TV cartoon series that has been polluting young viewers’ minds since the Nineties.

Their musical is about missionaries — Elders — in Uganda. New York critics have been dribbling with pleasure at a show that rips the Michael out of both Mormons and Disney’s blithely happy The Lion King. In this new show the cast of missionised Africans sing ‘We haven’t had rain for several days/80 per cent of us have Aids’ and their big number is ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ which — to the Elders’ horror — translates as ‘Fuck you, God’.

There is apparently nothing modern about the score. The writers have stated that they wanted to deliver a good old-fashioned musical in the Broadway tradition and fully acknowledge their debt to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the duo that paved the way for the Bible (if not Mormonism) in their 1945 musical Carousel, which is partly set in heaven’s waiting-room, run by bossy angelic officials.

Whatever you think of the twinkly heavenly bits, the music in Carousel is legendary. Irving Berlin said that ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ (Liverpool FC’s anthem) had the same spiritual effect on him as the 23rd Psalm. A specifically Christian faith — albeit coated in marzipan — looms much larger in The Sound of Music with its crooning nuns, cream-coloured ponies and crisp apple strudels.

But as I far as I know nobody thought of putting Jesus himself into a musical until the Sixties. It had to happen. Jesus was everywhere back then, a hippie guru for the age. Every other band covered the song ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ and Simon and Garfunkel’s number ‘Mrs Robinson’ — ‘Jesus loves you more than you will know wo wo wo’ — was the late Sixties distilled.

The summer of love in 1967 bequeathed us the musical Hair, the show that ushered in the ‘Age of Aquarius’ and called itself ‘a tribal love rock be-in’. It featured a famous nude scene and surely the best original rock score ever produced for the theatre. Its combination of pacifism and pubes caused outrage at the time. But a London revival three years ago seemed to me discernibly religious — in a Native American sky spirit sort of way. Its cast were bickering disciples who rejoiced in a mood that was as pro-peace and love as it was anti-shampoo: ‘My hair like Jesus wore it, hallelujah I adore it’ as the title song goes.

But in Britain, the Bible as a source of musical hits has prep-school origins. Forty-five years ago this month, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was staged to parents and boys at Colet Court, Hammersmith. That 15-minute gig by the young Rice and Lloyd Webber (the latter’s brother Julian was still at the school) went down so well that it was repeated at Westminster Central Hall where Bill Lloyd Webber, the composer’s dad, was organist. It became an album and then a show.

When the pair devised a different New Testament musical, no one would stage it. So they released the record of Jesus Christ Superstar. Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan sang the part of Jesus in an orgy of screeching vocal fabulousness. The double LP was massive in the States and the biggest selling album of 1971, beating Led Zeppelin IV, Sticky Fingers and Imagine. Bible rock was well and truly born. But its cast of long-haired scruffs was too much for the Beeb, which declared it ‘sacrilegious’ (a word it would now use only in defence of Islam), seemingly unaware of the show’s sincere, unmocking tone in depicting the last week of Christ’s life. The story goes that Dmitri Shostakovich went to see the show while in London for the première of his 15th symphony. He was so excited he went back the next night and confessed that if it hadn’t been for Stalin he’d have had a crack at something similar. Jesus Christ Commissar?

Godspell, an American phenomenon, was another huge musical hit, played in London by David Essex in big braces and a Superman logo on his shirt. It was advertised as being based on the Gospel According to St Matthew, which was true. ‘Day by Day’ was the show’s home-grown hymn (the songs were by Stephen Schwartz, who later went on to write the flop Bible show Children of Eden) and it overlapped in the West End with Jesus Christ Superstar.

As a schoolboy I was taken by a dutiful godfather and can remember David Essex (Jesus) but not Jeremy Irons, also in the cast. Looking back, the show was a gift to godparents and trendy vicars alike. It had a touch of the Cliff Richards and I now wish my godfather had taken me to JC Superstar instead. It was by far the cooler event. By the time Godspell was an established West End hit, the rock bus had left it way behind. In 1972 at least two dozen of the best albums in the history of music came out. The Godspell cast album wasn’t one of them.

As a satirical show, The Book of Mormon has supplied itself with a barn door of a target, although its creators claim it is a love letter as much as anything else. They certainly hate the neo-atheist Richard Dawkins, who was once derided in South Park as a snooty intellectual whinger. As Matt Stone puts it in a book published to go with his show: ‘I’m not convinced that truth is the most important thing in the world. Humans tell stories — that’s what happens. I don’t get Dawkins’s trip.’

The Mormon Church seems to have taken the mockery of its most sacred text on the chin, typically regarding it as an evangelising opportunity, taking ads out in theatre programmes: ‘You’ve seen The Book of Mormon, now read the real thing!’ As I said, Mormons are nothing if not a positive and smiley lot.

The Book of Mormon is currently previewing at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London.

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