Book of Mormon: toasted on Broadway, roasted in London

Mar 22, 2013

US critics worshipped it, so why don't West End critics think satirical musical comedy is divine?

THE BOOK OF MORMON, the hit Broadway musical written by the creators of South Park, arrives in London armed with nine Tony Awards and riding on "a tidal wave of acclaim". But early reviews suggest British audiences may not be as outraged - or entertained - by the tale of two mismatched missionaries spreading the word in Uganda.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s musical was hailed a game-changer when it opened on Broadway in March, 2011. Critics relished the fact that it was foul-mouthed and sacrilegious, yet, paradoxically, returned musical theatre to its joyously innocent roots. Writing in the New York Times, Ben Brantley compared it favourably to Mel Brooks's The Producers and said its successful blend of sunny melodies and dark elements was "something like a miracle".

Parker told Sky News that he and Stone had "a British sense of humour" which meant the show ought to "translate here pretty well". Well, perhaps not. British critics seem considerably less enthusiastic than their US colleagues.

The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer admits The Book of Mormon is "often damnably clever and sharp". But he failed to warm to a show he calls "a decadent and self-indulgent musical which ultimately proves repellent". For the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts, it was a "cowardly, cynical satire" that he tired of in ten minutes.

Libby Purves in The Times was also offended by the show – and not in a good way. Beneath its jollity, says Purves, the musical is "morally null and — without seeming to notice it — pretty racist".

She went on: "While ostensibly giggling at Mormons, we are invited to join Broadway in its breezy global-dominating acceptance that Africans are either childishly gullible or mindlessly brutal."

There are some bouquets among the brickbats, of course. The Independent’s Paul Taylor "absolutely loved it – albeit slightly guiltily", and says the "bite, bounce and colour" of the songs is particularly enjoyable.

But is it a landmark American musical, as some have suggested? Absolutely not, says The Guardian's Michael Billington. Strip away the hype that has followed the show from New York and you're left with "a mildly amusing musical, with some knowingly parodic songs, that takes a few pot shots at religious credulity without ever questioning the need for belief".
Billington concedes that he had a "perfectly pleasant time" at the Prince of Wales Theatre, but says the idea that the show is either "daringly offensive or a Broadway breakthrough" is "pure codswallop."

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...yet if originated on the West End, it would be BRILLIANT! Who needs critics when we have facebook?

Mormons are a peculiarly American phenomenon which I'd imagine doesn't translate as well to a UK audience.