At the risk of damaging my reputation for being hard to please, I must add my voice to the chorus of approval for this year’s best Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon. If Rodgers and Hammerstein were alive today, and teamed with some hysterically wacky librettist (I don’t know – Larry Gelbart?), they’d have written The Book of Mormon. And then they’d have another huge hit, the one show every visitor to New York is dying to see.
Prodigious jokesters Matt Stone, Trey Parker and Bobby Lopez clearly know and love the great musicals – especially Rodgers and Hammerstein – and their show is liberally peppered with references that work on various levels. Some are obvious; some are so hidden they go unnoticed by 99% of the audience. The most noticeable parody is that of The Lion King. The famous opening wail is used, in costume, for a short joke. Better is the spoof of Hakuna Matata, The Lion King‘s annoyingly repetitious phrase that, in the grand Disney tradition of nonsense words, gets defined and celebrated. Then, on a larger structural level, The Book of Mormon models itself on the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition of cultural clash. Like the Welsh schoolmarm confronting a third world potentate in The King and I, we follow well-meaning Utahans to Uganda, and the two sides learn from each other. Key in the plot of both is a public amateur performance by the non-Westerners, a fun-house mirror of a familiar Western style of show. This strikes me as neither a steal from The King and I nor a lampoon of The King and I. It’s funny, and furthers the narrative: Evidence, then, of a lesson learned from The King and I.
It seems we stood and talked like this before. Have I repeated myself too much? Know your Rodgers and Hammerstein. Would an aspiring playwright not have studied Shakespeare?
Yikes! Got on my high horse there for a moment. Whoa. Dismount.
There’s another kind of reference that most of The Book of Mormon‘s audience won’t get – an Easter egg, if you will. These are the subtle nods to songs from musicals such as the opening number’s use of a lyrical device found in Bock and Harnick’s Sounds While Selling from She Loves Me. In effect, these are sly winks to the insider, but I take it as another indication that Lopez, Parker and Stone know their stuff. My guess is that the long recitative-like verse of I Believe began as a parody of the long recitative-like beginning of Richard Rodgers’ I Have Confidence. Book-wise, the characters are in similar situations, steeling their nerves, reconfirming their faith-based assurance that they can succeed. Musically, the songs both utilize the high-low tinkly octaves on eighth notes I used to begin Such Good Friends. Lyrically, there’s a direct quote, “What’s so fearsome about that?” The result is a song that’s hysterical on its own terms. Andrew Rannells gets gales of laughter, and hardly anyone recognizes they’ve heard much of the song before.
Now you know.
Subtle are the differences between an homage and a steal. I Believe succeeds, but not due to its antecedent. The song, and the whole show, work so well because the authors understand the genre, and, when needed, they model moments on effective bits of other musicals.