At one point, the question on everyone's mind was "how did The Book of Mormon ever get made?" The show is a piece of odd musical mania that shares a name with an infamous holy book, and was created by two guys who earn a living making a cartoon about foul-mouthed fourth graders — and it premiered on Broadway in 2011 to rave reviews and nine Tony Awards. It went from being an oddity to the little musical that could to being coronated with cult status seemingly overnight. And The Book of Mormon hasn't just maintained its cult following, but expanded on it with musical mission trips around the world.
"It's one you still want to come back to because it delivers something that's so remarkable and unique," says touring actor Ron Bohmer. Bohmer is an award-winning actor who has performed in Broadway productions of Fiddler on the Roof and Les Miserables, and currently plays Joseph Smith (and others) in The Book of Mormon. "Even though you laugh your head off through the course of the night, you end up feeling like 'that was really smart.' You're thinking about the message of it over the next several days and that's what art aspires to be."
Questioning The Book of Mormon's initial appeal is unnecessary. The show is vulgar pop-art made by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the ubiquitous and hilarious writers of South Park who are known for pushing the boundaries of taste in an incredibly playful way.
Pinpointing the source of Book of Mormon's staying power is a little more difficult. The musical is sick enough to make it hilarious that it landed at the Mecca of high-brow theater, but if it were really that easy, the joke wouldn't have lasted as long as it has. "What has been really powerful about it is that it has, for many people who have seen it, become a favorite," says Bohmer. "It's one of those experiences that they want to have again and again, and rightfully so because it's just so incredibly brilliantly written." What else would you expect from two writers who once made a puppet Kim Jong-il sing about being lonely?
The jokes, like seeing a devout Mormon attempt to kill his despair with coffee, are hysterical, but the characters are well rounded. "You care about these characters from the word 'go.' And that's greater than any shock value," says Bohmer.
Thanks to his current touring gig, Bohmer has gotten to witness Book of Mormon's fanbase and reactions across the nation, and, along with providing insight to the broad appeal behind the performance, the tour is a masterclass in irony. Bohmer says the best response came from the Church of Latter Day Saints' home base Salt Lake City. "Without question, they were our most outrageous and boisterous audience." With such a heavy Mormon population, the crowd understood more esoteric jabs at the religion, like the use of traditional Mormon underwear in one scene or the constant shouting of "Praise Christ" in another. In fact, the Church of LDS turned the other cheek to the show with their official response on mormonnewsroom.org. "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."
But, by far, the worst reaction was in New Orleans, with The Times-Picayune calling the production "tasteless" and asking when enough is enough for vulgarity. In response to the article, Bohmer says "the irony to me was not lost with Bourbon Street right around the corner, with people getting blowjobs in the alley right outside my dressing room."
A large part of The Book of Mormon's (mostly) universal appeal is that it's able to bring in the non-theater kids just as easily as it brings in committed thespians. Bohmer notes that in a lot of ways, the show is "a love letter to an old fashioned musical." The homage largely lies in the set design. The backgrounds are painted on, similar to the progenitor of musical theater, Oklahoma!
"Somewhere along the line, the tables got turned and theater became cool again," says Bohmer. "People pay $1,000 to sit in the front row of Hello, Dolly. It's made a big switch and I do think shows like Book of Mormon and Hamilton have had a huge thing to do with that."
But, the general thesis behind the show helps cement it further as a cultural talking point. In The Book of Mormon's final South Park-ian "I learned something today" moments, the characters find a meditation on religion that describes many modern people's understanding. "Faith is what serves you best," says Bohmer. "Faith serves a purpose in our lives and that purpose is ultimately up to you to determine."