The controversial musical: A new outlet for the offensive?

Since its creation in 2011, The Book of Mormon has wowed audiences both on Broadway and the West End, but what makes it so successful and why do audiences revel in its controversial content?

EventGallery-1755The theatre is no stranger to controversy, but with The Book of Mormon, a highly risque piece in the typically safe form of a musical, it could be said that audiences are becoming more relaxed about being exposed to non-PC and irreverent content? With tickets shamelessly priced up to £175, I was lucky enough to see the show recently at the relatively modest price of £47. It’s clear that demand is incredibly high, and The Book of Mormon’s reputation as an offensive musical seems to present no barrier to the popularity of the show. In fact, it boosts the show’s appeal to a surprisingly large target audience.

In an industry where new work struggles to take off (it has been recently reported that Made In Dagenham is to close next month after a mere six-month run) and where revivals of musicals such as Cats or Miss Saigon seem to be the safe option for producers, The Book of Mormon seemingly ticks all the boxes of regarding what not to put in a musical. With offensive material aimed pretty much any sub-culture, gender, sexuality, nationality – in other words anyone and everyone, The Book of Mormon (similarly to The Producers) subverts the criteria of a traditional musical and the world has been responsive, perhaps even enlightened by this fresh piece of theatre for challenging the form.

The Book of Mormon carries a message beneath its offensive exterior: no matter how ridiculous one’s religion tends to be, spiritual belief and togetherness are what it takes to make it through life

It would seem that there is something about this musical which seems to brings out the cheek in all of us. Perhaps it’s because the show pokes fun at everyone, so that we can all laugh along together. Looking around the auditorium, I was surprised to see the variety of audience members who came along to witness what is clearly the most controversial musical currently in the West End. Part of me relished the idea of a theatre scandalized by the show, and I was informed that many are seen to walk out in outrage before the interval.

Scene from The Book of Mormon in London, 2013Ten years previously, Jerry Springer the Opera was the buzz of the West End and even amassed protests outside the theatre before each performance. Yet, with The Book of Mormon, the fuss outside is instead made by hopeful spectators vying to win the ticket lottery for the show.  It comes as no surprise that the masterminds of irreverent animation South Park were behind this musical.  In fact, any fan will remember South Park’s episodes about Mormons. Musical tunes in that episode followed by the gleeful chant ‘dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb’ could perhaps have been foreshadowing The Book of Mormon.

However, The Book of Mormon show carries a message beneath its offensive exterior: no matter how ridiculous one’s religion tends to be, spiritual belief and togetherness are what it takes to make it through life. Perhaps it is the moral of the story that allows us to forgive and enjoy the show’s relentless rounds of satire and humour, none of which should be taken seriously. When we see shows that are deemed controversial, the hype tends to be some form of political drama to market a piece as engrossing and relevant. But on many occasions we are left underwhelmed by such shows. The fact that The Book of Mormon is a musical shouldn’t prevent its writers from exploring the controversial reaches of comedy. It could even be suggested that the musical form acts as some sort of security for the show to be as controversial as it is.

The Book of Mormon gives the theatre audiences hope for future productions. Far too long have musicals been branded as twee and irrelevant. Whilst there remain token productions of Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera to represent the treasures of the West End, I invite theatre audiences to welcome new and exciting productions such as The Book of Mormon. It is a shame to see so many productions fall off the theatre atlas due to today’s audiences becoming too habitual with their viewing pleasures. At the same time it is enlightening to see audiences attitude towards controversy improving.

Mark McDougall

Images: Prince of Wales Theatre

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