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'Book of Mormon' on a path from hot ticket to cultural phenomenon

The Tony-winning musical struck a chord in New York, but all eyes are on whether it will have the same effect nationally to become a true cultural wonder.

August 24, 2012|By Patrick Pacheco
  • The New York production of "The Book of Mormon."
The New York production of "The Book of Mormon." (Joan Marcus, Joan Marcus )

NEW YORK — In "The Book of Mormon," a group of teenage American missionaries sent to evangelize Ugandans beset by war, poverty, AIDS and drought is getting nowhere until one of its number — the hapless Elder Cunningham — begins to mix the writings of the prophet Joseph Smith with whoppers of pop culture phenomena, including Disney, "Star Wars" and "The Lord of the Rings."

The cooked-up messianic message is like the musical itself: a sweet-profane amalgam of scatological mockery and affectionate satire which, since it opened last year, has been drawing converts of its own along with rave reviews, record-breaking box office, and a slew of top awards, including a best musical Tony Award.


FOR THE RECORD:
"The Book of Mormon": An Aug. 26 article about the musical "The Book of Mormon" said that the show's producers declined to comment for the story. In fact, they were never informed of the article nor asked to comment for it. —

But now as "The Book of Mormon" begins its first national tour, the question is whether it can sustain on the road the impossible-ticket status it enjoys at the 1,065-seat Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway. What is about to be tested is not only whether it can fill larger houses — such as Los Angeles' 2,703-seat Pantages Theatre, where it will have a limited engagement Sept. 5 through Nov. 25 — but also if it can be elevated from mere hot ticket to actual cultural phenomenon, joining such rare musicals as "Oklahoma!," "South Pacific," "A Chorus Line" and "The Lion King."

PHOTOS: "Book of Mormon" premiere

"I think there are certain criteria to be a full-fledged phenomenon," says Laurence Maslon, the historian and documentarian who co-wrote with Michael Kantor the six-part PBS miniseries "Broadway: The American Musical," set to re-air on PBS this fall.

On his checklist: "Critics love it, it has box-office success, it achieves unprecedented penetration through sales of its original cast album and successful national tours. It also has to catch some kind of zeitgeist of the age, something that makes it exist beyond its 21/2 hours onstage."

"Mormon" ticks off quite a few boxes on Maslon's scratch sheet. Such has been the result of the inspired teaming of Matt Stone and Trey Parker of "South Park" fame with the show-business savvy of its co-composer and co-book writer Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q") and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw ("The Drowsy Chaperone").

In the weeks after it was released, the original cast album placed third on the Billboard pop charts, right behind Adele and Lady Gaga, the best showing of a musical since "Hair" in 1969. Tickets for the two-week launch of the national tour in Denver — Stone and Parker's hometown — were snapped up within hours. Its advance sale at the Pantages is the highest in the theater's history, according to an email last month from its lead producer, Scott Rudin. And as for catching a "zeitgeist," has anybody noticed that there is a Mormon running for president of the United States?

But there are those who offer cautionary notes, observing that any number of shows were runaway hits on Broadway — "Dreamgirls," "Rent," "Avenue Q" and "The Producers," to name a few — but did poorly on the road. And there's no guarantee that a show, which by its nature pushes that many boundaries of taste, is going to be universally loved whether in New York or the rest of the country.

"There's no question that 'Book of Mormon' is a New York City phenomenon, that it's the biggest Broadway hit in years, but whether it goes beyond that is an open question. I don't think it's really visible in the rest of the country yet," says Frank Rich, the former chief drama critic and op-ed columnist of the New York Times who now writes on culture and politics for New York magazine.

PHOTOS: "Book of Mormon" premiere

"The fact that it opened during the Obama presidency and that Mitt Romney is running is less relevant than the fact that it opened in a recession and that the comic relief it provides, for those who can afford it, is a big element of its success. "

Rich adds that for the show to fully take root in the national consciousness, it must attract the younger demographic that has made shows like "South Park" a true part of the nation's cultural discourse. He dismisses that the show's cast album reached No. 3 on the charts, noting that "nobody buys records anymore." The more telling indication of the reach of "The Book of Mormon," he suggests, would be to detect the show's presence on such youth culture avatars as Pitchfork, Grantland and the A.V. Club.

"I think there is quite a bit of buzz about 'Book of Mormon' on Twitter and on Facebook," says Todd VanDerWerff, the 31-year-old TV editor of the A.V. Club, the arts website of the Onion, the premier lampooner of American culture.

"Everybody wants to see it, at least in the circles I run in, though a lot of the people are concerned about the price of the tickets."

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