While visiting New York City last week my husband and I had the immense pleasure of seeing two absolutely hilarious musicals, “The Book of Mormon” and “Avenue Q”, the former premiering on Broadway last March, the latter still enjoying a seven-year run.
“The Book of Mormon” is the hottest play on Broadway right now. Nominated for 14 Tony awards–one short of the record, it is irreverent, over-the-top, and politically incorrect as only the creators of “South Park”, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, can be. Yet “The Book of Mormon” is absolutely astonishing for its satire, music, and singing. Described as “God’s favorite musical,” this show from the co-composer/lyricist of “Avenue Q” features a pair of incompatible Mormon missionary recruits who are sent to Uganda, with a track record of no converts. In the course of the show, the two young Mormons gain more insight into themselves as they realize the good nature of the AIDS-plagued, poverty-stricken Ugandan villagers and the deception they are propagating. Complex moral lessons are sandwiched between outrageously scatological dialogue and raunchy costumes. If you can laugh at religion’s dark side without feeling wounded, at stereotypes that could be construed as offensive (but no one is exempted), and memorable lyrics in the songs “Turn It Off”, “Man Up”, and “I Believe”, you will find this subversive Broadway show to be amazing. Its primary comic plot device is the absurdity of religion when it divides and alienates, instead of uniting. Through humor, incredible lyrics, and voices powerful beyond belief, this controversial, heart-stopping musical is a wonder. Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, the two brilliant young performers playing zealous missionaries, and Nikki James as the young Ugandan woman fervently trying to be open to their missionary message, have mesmerizing, crystal clear voices that are a delight to the ear. To say more would be to spoil this winner from the “South Park” creators!
Two days after seeing “The Book of Mormon”, we saw “Avenue Q”, the long-running 2004 Tony award winner, at a small Off-Broadway theater, the New World Stage, for a more intimate performance. Laugh-out-loud funny, this seven year-old musical is far from dated, except perhaps for the Gary Coleman character. “Avenue Q” tells the story of a recent college grad named Princeton who moves into a rundown New York apartment on Avenue Q. Without the prospects of a job in the near future, (how timely is that?) Princeton meets Kate (the girl next door), Rod (the Republican), Trekkie (the internet porn surfer), Lucy the Slut , and other furry characters, all modeled after Sesame Street puppets.
The set design is also straight out of Sesame Street, with the characters sitting on the front stoop singing their tales of woe. Uniquely designed rooms resembling a large doll house add to the reality/fantasy divide underscored by each actor who holds a Sesame Street-style puppet, manipulating the puppet’s mouth while singing or reciting dialogue. The dramatic convention is highly original and plays to the major theme: young adults who can’t quite believe they’ve grown up. They’re no longer on Sesame Street.
When I saw these two musicals within days of each other, I couldn’t separate them. They felt like two sides of the same story: Bright-eyed young people hoping for success as defined by their dreams but utterly stunned that their prospects are not what they thought they would be. In “Avenue Q” the songs “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and “Schadenfreude” say it all. The lyrics are mind-blowing for capturing the time of youth through the eyes of this decade! Puppets make the real world seem like fantasy. In “The Book of Mormon”, the animation genius of Trey Parker and Matt Stone comes to life on stage with human characters in the familiar dialogue we associate with “South Park”. One musical mirrors the other, not surprisingly, since the composer for both musicals is Robert Lopez, and the original director of “The Book of Mormon”, Jason Moore, was the award-winning director of “Avenue Q”. But the similarity of themes in both musicals can be felt viscerally. “Avenue Q” just left San Francisco, but it may be brought back by popular demand. I hope you can see both of these musical spectacles!