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ALBUM REVIEW: The Book of Mormon Original Cast Recording

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have really outdone themselves with their Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.  It won 9 Tony awards, including Best Musical.  It is the biggest Broadway hit in years, with nearly unanimously rave reviews.

They put great emphasis on songwriting.  Trey Parker being a big fan of Broadway musicals, he took this very seriously.  In interviews, he invoked the holy names of Rodgers and Hammerstein.  If he was going to go onto their precious turf in New York City, they had to be worthy of that.  They spent something like seven years working on this play in between their day jobs at South Park, mostly on writing songs. 

All in all, they've outdone themselves musically.  This is by far their most accomplished music.  Not only that, but they've written the best set of Broadway show tunes since at least West Side Story - which is most of half a century. These songs are just that good. Almost every single song is a Broadway classic.

The most absolutely unforgettable hit single is probably "Hasa Diga Eebowai" - but there's not a chance of this ever, ever being broadcast on a radio station.  It is utterly joyful, and perhaps the most profane thing imaginable.  These sincere young Mormon missionaries have come to Uganda and are disappointed to find that Africa is actually nothing like Lion King.  This song is a direct satire of "Hakuna Matata."  Elder Cunningham asks "'Hasa diga Eebowai' Does it mean 'no worries for the rest of our days'?"  Kind of...  This Broadway idea of an African tribal chant is their response to AIDS, poverty, starvation and evil warlords.  I'll avoid translating the title in the interest of keeping this humble website merely R rated.  Their prescription for coping is to "thrust your middle finger to the sky and curse His rotten name" - which they do with detailed anatomic precision.  This song rates twice as good as "Hakuna Matata" musically, as melody, rhythm and harmony - and approximately 100 times as good lyrically not just on a level of delicious profanity but as satire and as a statement of the human condition.  This album rates exponentially higher than Elton John's Lion King album - which was his biggest hit.

Being Parker and Stone, the songs are mostly substantially comedic in effect, but "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" in particular stands out for real true pathos.  It's a big, soaring ballad in which the native girl sings of this heaven on Earth that the Mormons have told her about.  It achieves the effect of being a gospel song of deliverance.  It is also the real dramatic representation of the horrors of their tribal life.  On the page, it might sound funny or cutesy to read the lyrics about Salt Lake City being a paradise with a Red Cross on every corner with all the flour you can eat, where they have vitamin injections by the case.  However, that's not really comedic.  The lyrical point isn't to be funny, but a reflection of how truly bad the African narrator's life experience has been that this would be her idea of heaven.  Listen to this in the musical and melodic context with an open heart, and it can bring a lump to your throat about the time it kicks into the climax with "And I bet the people are open minded and they don't care who you've been."

There's also excellent pathos in the swelling gospel strains of "I Believe", which details the resolution of a Mormon's crisis of faith.  It starts out with proclamations like "I believe that the Lord God created the universe".  The song does not lose that genuine emotion even as he details funky Mormon beliefs like "I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people."  Listen as Elder Price walks directly into the camp of the evil warlord and rebukes him in the name of God. "I believe that Satan has a hold of you. I believe that the Lord God has sent me here."  It's really quite a thrilling moment

Actually though, the cataloging of silly sounding Mormon beliefs doesn't represent the contradiction to the gospel conviction that you might think.  Parker and Stone intend this song and the whole play as a statement about the power of faith - regardless of the actual truth of the underlying beliefs.  Trey Parker would probably be receptive to the Biblical injunction that faith can move mountains.  Despite how much I love this record, I must take this opportunity for a small moment of philosophical counterpoint.  In the words of the prophet Stevie Wonder, when you believe in things that you don't understand then you suffer.  Belief in yourself is a necessary thing to accomplish much good, but if you blindly believe that God will have your back to walk unarmed into the camp of an evil warlord the 99% likely outcome would be that you simply get shot in the face.  End of story.

This duality of parody and sincerity represents what has become their best songwriting trick, which is having things two or three directions at once. Notice how the Team America song "Freedom Isn't Free" perfectly satirizes cheesy country music patriotism and yet is also totally patriotically sincere.  It works somewhat likewise with "Baptize Me."  This r&b love song works from a simple double entendre (if that's quite the right phrase) equating baptism and sex.  This doesn't come off as being a marriage of opposites though because it's an expression not of rutting but romantic love, an anticipation of being re-born in the love both of Christ and His representative.  It's the best love song I've heard in quite a while.

Just as a pure pop song, you can hardly beat the bouncy opening track "Hello" based on the basic Mormon rap as they come door to door.  It's cute and gentle and awesomely catchy.  Plus, the best part is the break in the middle that actually seeds the critical turning point of the whole story.  We are first introduced to the fat dorky sci-fi geek whose never quite managed to actually read The Book of Mormon introduces himself by shouting,


No, no Elder Cunningham, that's not how we do it.  Just stick to the approved dialogue.  You're making things up again

Trey Parker had to at some point detail the story of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, who had "a little Donny Osmond flair."  Thus, the missionaries are presenting their sales pitch to the Africans with a 70s TV variety show extravaganza, as Donny and Marie might have presented it.  Thing is that "The All American Prophet" works musically, and the sharp lyric is both informative as a review of basic history and satire.  Like "Hasa Diga Eebowai" this artistically blows way past the things that it parodies both musically and lyrically. 

Then you get it mixed up, and see Elder Cunningham "Making Things Up Again" on the cuff.  Again, it's a bouncy and catchy pop song and does an exceptional job of advancing the plot point as he's making up stuff that's not really in the book that he hasn't read anyway in order to convince the locals not to do awful things and simultaneously arguing with his conscience in the form of Jesus, Joseph Smith, and various hobbits and characters in his head from his personal movie-based iconography.  This sets up the brilliant African floor show presentation of their majorly re-drawn version of the founding story as re-told by the "prophet" Arnold Cunningham in "Joseph Smith, American Moses."

This album is pretty much brilliant from end to end, with maybe two or three songs that are merely very good.  Just as a general note on the development of their compositional art, these songs are mostly much longer than any of their previous work.  The excellent and Oscar nominated "Blame Canada" for example clocks in at 1 minute 35 seconds.  Whereas "All-American Prophet" for comparison is over 6 minutes.  That's not padded out.  There's legitimately that much song there.  The point being that these songs are much more ambitious and further developed than anything they've done previously. 





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