“I’ve got maggots in my scrotum!” -The Ugandan doctor from The Book of Mormon
Ever since we moved to New York, Anna has been constantly telling me, time and time again, that I would love The Book of Mormon. No, she isn’t trying to convert me and move to Utah, She has been referring to the broadway musical written by South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. South Park has always been funny as hell, plus I loved Parker and Stone’s movies, Orgazmo, which also mocks Mormons, and Team America: World Police, so it only seemed natural that I’d love The Book of Mormon. Anna had already seen it when she was lucky enough to get cancellation standing-room tickets a few years back with her friend, Pat Lee. There was just one little problem for us; It’s almost impossible to get tickets unless you stand around all day for standing-room tickets or pay hundreds of dollars and we weren’t prepared to do that.
So, What is all the hype about? Let Wikipedia fill you in:
The Book of Mormon is a religious satire musical with book, lyrics, and music by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone. Best known for creating the animated comedy South Park, Parker and Stone co-created the music with Lopez, a co-composer/co-lyricist of Avenue Q and Frozen. The Book of Mormon tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries sent to a remote village in northern Uganda, where a brutal warlord is threatening the local population. Naïve and optimistic, the two missionaries try to share the Book of Mormon, one of their scriptures—which only one of them has read—but have trouble connecting with the locals, who are more worried about war, famine, poverty and AIDS than about religion.
After nearly seven years of development, the show opened on Broadway in March 2011. The Book of Mormon garnered overwhelmingly positive critical response, and set records in ticket sales for the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. The show was awarded nine Tony Awards, one of which was for Best Musical, and a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. The original Broadway cast recording became the highest-charting Broadway cast album in over four decades, reaching number three on the Billboard charts. The musical premiered in the West End in 2013, and has staged two national tours.
Now, somehow we managed to get front row seats to a Friday night show, but there is a backstory to how we got them…
Thursday was Thanksgiving day and, being an Australian married to an Asian and having never been to the US before, it was the first ever time I have celebrated it. Anna has family in New York; A cousin, her husband and their son in the Wall St. area and her auntie and uncle in Scarsdale, a half-hour train ride from our place.
Thanksgiving this year was at the auntie and uncle’s place in Scarsdale, we got there about midday and ate pretty much all day, but, somehow, I still don’t think I got the truly traditional Thanksgiving experience. Why? Because Anna’s auntie is Malaysian-Chinese and her uncle is Swiss-German. Sure we had turkey and all the trimmings, but there was also stir-fried vegetables and then a huge pot of fondue. That’s not satire based on cultural stereotypes, by the way, that actually happened.
Anna has a real job and had Black Friday off, but I volunteer in a thrift store and still had to go in. Strange how that works. I was a little worried about working on Black Friday, because the customers at Housing Works are a little crazy at the best of times, but, fortunately, it would turn out we weren’t having any special deals. For my friends and family back home who are wondering why I was worried, Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year here, a lot of shops open early with special deals and it can get pretty violent:
In fact, since 2006 there have been seven deaths and 98 major injuries sustained while shopping on Black Friday! Anna wasn’t keen on shopping, leaving her not much else to do, but late on Thursday night she had a brilliant idea. “Maybe I should line up for Book of Mormon tickets, everybody else will be shopping!” Well played, Anna, Well played.
I have been having trouble sleeping since we moved to New York and Thursday night was no exception. Maybe I ate too much, maybe I drank too much, but I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep until I took some sleeping pills. I’m usually a late riser, too, but I woke up at about 9:00am, exceptionally early by my standards. I didn’t kick back and watch Maury on this occasion, however, because I had other fish to fry; There was a special Black Friday release of one of my favourite albums, The Pod by Ween. Only 1,250 copies were being pressed worldwide and I had to have one.
I set out at 9:30am to one of my favourite record stores, Academy Records, however when I checked out their business hours en route, they were listed as opening at 11:00am, *but business hours may be affected by Black Friday. In fact, this is what was listed for every record store in the city, but I thought I’d still try my luck. I arrived a little after 10:00am, but it was to no avail, they were keeping their normal operating hours. Instead of being one of those freaks that waits out the front of shops to open to be the first to buy something, I figured I might as well try a few other stores. These attempts were all in vain, too, however, by the time I got to Bleecker Street Records it was almost 11:00am and there were only two other people waiting. When the store opened there were two copies of The Pod waiting there for me. I snapped one up for US$31.99 and headed to work.
After my surprisingly easy shopping trip I went to Housing Works for a surprisingly easy day of volunteering and when I finished I received a phone call from Anna. She had read that, to be safe, you should line up at noon for tickets to an 8:00pm performance of The Book of Mormon. Hell, when I went to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver I started lining up at around 2:oopm. When Anna spoke on the phone she said she had arrived a little after 4:00pm and was the very first in line! This meant we pretty much had guaranteed standing-room tickets, but there was also a lottery for seated tickets. Entry for the lottery was at 5:30pm, tickets were drawn at 6:00pm and if I got there for the entry we would have twice as much chance of getting seats. Still a very slim chance, but it sounded like a good idea!
I walked home from work, dropped off my stuff and then met up with Anna at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. By that stage the line for standing-room tickets was quite long, but what struck me was that most of the people at the beginning of the line were Asian, another example of the Singlish word, ‘Kiasu‘:
- Afraid of “losing out” to other people.
- Competitive to the point of doing anything just to win
It was ironic that the people behind us in line were Singaporean too.
5:30pm came and we put our entries in the lottery, and then spent the next half-hour chatting with the couple behind us until it was time for the draw. Anna remained steadfast at the front of the line while I walked over to where the lottery was being called. It was then that they pointed out that the first 14 tickets would be in the front row, orchestra centre, the rest being located in various positions around the theatre. Tickets in the orchestra centre section range in price from US$299.00-US$477.00 each with front row obviously at the upper end of that range, but if you got them in the lottery they would be US$32.00. “Not bad”, we thought, “It would be cool if we won”, but we were just happy that Anna was at the front of the line and we were going, regardless.
The announcer began to call the names. “From South Korea…” while Anna and myself stood there in anticipation, watching people scream and go and accept their tickets. All of a sudden, “From New York, Anna Tan Cheng Sim or something like that.” Anna screamed, smiled and ran over to get her tickets like a giddy little school girl. She came out with the tickets, still struggling to wipe the smile off her face and then we decided that, because it has already been such an amazing day, why not go to one of our favourite restaurants, Iroha, which was just down the road?
We had an incredible dinner and a few drinks and soon it was time to head back to the theatre for the show. We took our seats and were instantly in shock at the seats we had scored! Obviously, I couldn’t take photos during the performance, but these should give you an idea:
It was an absolutely hilarious show, but I almost got as much amusement from the elderly Jewish woman sitting several seats down from me who was laughing so hard at extreme profanity she was crying. Her husband, on the other hand, was a little more stoic.
So, what is all of the hype about? Well, I’ll tell you! And by “tell you” I mean I copied and pasted the synopsis from wikipedia, because there is no way I could remember it all in this much detail:
Spoiler Alert: If you are planning on seeing the show and don’t want to know the plot or have any twists revealed, or if you are just easily offended, you should probably scroll past this next section!
Synopsis (musical numbers in parenthesis)
At LDS Church Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, a devout, handsome, supercilious missionary-to-be, Elder Kevin Price, leads his classmates in a demonstration of the door-to-door attempt to convert people to Mormonism (“Hello!”). One of the missionaries, Elder Arnold Cunningham, is an insecure, incorrigible nerd and a compulsive liar who is completely hopeless at sticking to the approved dialogue. Price believes if he prays enough, he will be sent to Orlando, Florida, for his two-year mission, but to his shock he and Cunningham are sent to Uganda as a pair (“Two By Two”). After saying goodbye to their families, the elders board a plane at the Salt Lake City airport. Price is sure he’s destined to do something incredible (on his own), while Cunningham is just happy to have a best friend – one he met just the previous day and who, due to mission rule #72, literally cannot leave him alone except to go to the bathroom (“You And Me (But Mostly Me)”).
Immediately upon arrival in northern Uganda, the two are robbed at gunpoint by soldiers of a local warlord, General Butt-Fucking Naked (an allusion to the real General Butt Naked). They are welcomed to the village by the chief, Mafala Hatimbi, and a group of villagers share their daily realities of living in appalling conditions of famine, poverty and AIDS, while being ruled by Butt-Fucking Naked, who is despotic, murderous, and obsessed with female circumcision. To make their lives seem better, the villagers constantly repeat the phrase “hasa diga eebowai” and sing to the tune of a song (“Hasa Diga Eebowai”) composed around that phrase. Price and Cunningham join them in the song but are horrified to find out “hasa diga eebowai” translates to “Fuck you, God” and the villagers constantly blaspheme to cheer themselves up.
Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, left defeated and mortified, are led to their living quarters by Nabulungi, Hatimbi’s daughter, where they meet the fellow missionaries stationed in the area, who have been unable to convert anyone to Mormonism. Elder McKinley, the district leader, teaches Price and Cunningham a widely accepted method of dealing with the negative and upsetting feelings brought on by the challenges of Mormon life (including McKinley’s own repressed homosexual thoughts), inviting them to “turn it off like a light switch” (“Turn It Off”). The others agree their feelings must be hidden at all costs. Though Price is riddled with anxiety, Cunningham reassures him he will succeed in bringing the native Ugandans to the church (“I Am Here for You”).
Price is certain he can succeed where the other Mormon elders have failed, teaching the villagers about Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Church through a song that begins as a tribute to Smith but eventually descends into a tribute by Price to himself (“All-American Prophet”). The villagers do not show any interest in the slightest as they find religion useless and Price arrogant and annoying. Shortly after Price’s attempt to dazzle the villagers, General Butt-Fucking-Naked arrives and announces his demand for the circumcision of all female villagers by week’s end (as his paranoia has led him to believe that all of the clitorises in the village will “power up” and destroy him). After a villager protests, the general executes him without warning, spattering Price with blood. Safely hiding back at home, Nabulungi, moved by Price’s promise of an earthly paradise, dreams of a better life in a new land (“Sal Tlay Ka Siti”).
At the mission headquarters, Elder McKinley flies into a panic after he receives a message saying the Mission President has requested a full progress report on their utterly unsuccessful mission, and his anxiety is only worsened after he learns of Price and Cunningham’s failure. Shocked by the execution and dark reality of Africa, Price decides to abandon his mission and requests for transfer to Orlando while Cunningham, ever loyal, assures Price he’ll follow him anywhere (“I Am Here For You [Reprise]”). However, Price unceremoniously dumps him as mission companion. Cunningham is crushed and alone, but when Nabulungi comes to him, wanting to learn more about the Book of Mormon and having convinced the villagers to listen to him, Cunningham finds the courage to take control of the situation for the first time in his life (“Man Up”).
Cunningham has never actually read the Book of Mormon, so when his audience begins to get frustrated and leave, he quickly makes up stories by combining what he knows of Mormon doctrines with bits and pieces of science fiction. Cunningham’s creative stories relate to the problems of living in a war-torn Uganda, which gets the people listening. Cunningham’s conscience (personified by his father, Joseph Smith, hobbits, Lt. Uhura, Darth Vader, and Yoda) admonishes him, but he rationalizes that if it is to help people, it surely can’t be wrong (“Making Things Up Again”).
Price joyfully arrives in Orlando but then realizes that he has no memory of getting there and that he is dreaming. He reflects on the misdemeanor he committed in his childhood – blaming the theft of a doughnut on his brother, Jack. He is reminded of the nightmares of hell he had as a child and flies into a panic when his nightmare begins once again (“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”). In his dream Price is plunged into hell, where he is tortured by demons; Lucifer; the spirits of Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, Genghis Khan and Johnnie Cochran; and dancing cups of coffee. Most upsettingly, Jesus appears and, noting both the doughnut incident and the abandonment of his companion, calls Price a dick.
Price awakens from his nightmare and, terror stricken, decides to re-commit to his mission (to the complete lack of surprise of the other elders, who have all had the hell dream before). Cunningham arrives and announces that ten eager Ugandans are interested in the church, but still stung by Price’s rejection, he is unwilling to let Price back into his life. McKinley points out that unless the general is dealt with, no one will convert. Price, seeing the chance to prove his worth, is inspired and sets off on the “mission he was born to do”. After re-affirming his faith, he confronts the general with the Book of Mormon in hand, determined to convert him (“I Believe”). The general is unimpressed and angrily drags Price away; he is next seen in a doctor’s office, having the Book of Mormon removed from his rectum.
Cunningham concludes his preaching and the villagers are enchanted; they are baptized and accept Mormonism, with Nabulungi and Cunningham sharing a tender moment as they do (“Baptize Me”). The Mormon missionaries feel oneness with the people of Uganda, and celebrate (“I Am Africa”). Meanwhile, the general hears of the villagers’ conversion and, fearing that the Mormons will “power up their clitorises” to destroy him, he resolves to kill them all.
Having lost his faith, Price drowns his sorrows in numerous cups of coffee at a café in Kigali, where Cunningham finds him. He tells the bitter Price they need to at least act like mission companions, as the Mission President and other senior Mormon leaders are coming to visit the Ugandan mission team to congratulate them on their progress. After Cunningham leaves, Price bitterly reflects on all the broken promises the Church, his parents, his friends and life in general made to him (“Orlando”).
At the celebration, Price and Cunningham are singled out as the most successful missionaries in all Africa. Shortly thereafter, Nabulungi and the villagers burst in, and ask to perform a pageant to “honor [them] with the story of Joseph Smith, the American Moses” (“Joseph Smith American Moses”), which reflects the distortions of standard Mormon doctrine and embellishments put forth by Cunningham: the pageant includes Joseph Smith having sex with frogs to cure his AIDS, ‘Great Wizard’ Moroni coming down from Starship Enterprise, Jesus admonishing Brigham Young against removing his daughter’s clitoris, and Smith dying of dysentery. The Mission President is appalled, ordering all the missionaries to go home and telling Nabulungi that she and her fellow villagers are not Mormons. Nabulungi, heartbroken at the thought that she will never reach paradise, curses God for forsaking her (“Hasa Diga Eebowai [Reprise]”). Cunningham is distraught at his failure, but Price has had an epiphany and realizes Cunningham was right all along: though scriptures are important, what’s more important is getting the message across, which Cunningham succeeded in doing. Reconciled, they race off to rescue Nabulungi and the villagers from the general.
Still angry at Cunningham, Nabulungi tells the villagers he was eaten by lions when they ask of his whereabouts. The general arrives, and Nabulungi is ready to submit to him, telling the villagers that the stories Cunningham told them aren’t true. To her shock, they respond that they have always known that the stories were metaphors rather than being literally true. Cunningham returns, making everyone believe that he had “risen” after being eaten by lions. Price and Cunningham then drive the general away, telling him he can’t hurt the “undead”; along with the threat that they would use the power of Christ to turn him into a lesbian. The missionaries are set to depart when Price suggests to them that since they came to the village to help people, they can still do so even with their mission officially terminated. Price rallies everyone – the Mormons and the Ugandans — to work together to make this their paradise planet because, after all, they are all Latter-Day Saints. Later, the newly minted Ugandan elders (including the newly converted general) go door to door (or rather mud hut to mud hut) to evangelize “The Book of Arnold.” (“Tomorrow Is a Latter Day”/”Hello! (Reprise)”/”Finale”).
It was a great night out, I was in fits of laughter the whole time and when it was over we decided to go to Reichenbach Hall, a huge, German beer hall near our house. I checked my phone and saw that I had a missed call from Orange County so I called it and got through to a Best Buy store. It turned out that, when we were in California I had dropped in and they had a competition to see who could name the most old album covers and they had called me to tell me that I had won. The prize was a US$5.00 voucher, but it’s the thought that counts.
So let’s recap:
- Bought a limited edition copy of my favourite Ween album
- Won front row seats to The Book of Mormon
- Won a Best Buy voucher.
Not a bad day if I do say so myself