Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Being Genuironic

Just a few words about The Book of Mormon, which I saw over the weekend at the Pantages (and good heavens, what an incredible theater). I am a great advocate for Parker/Stone's work, and I'm still sorting through what I learned about them (and about entertainment, and about culture, and about life, and about politics, & etc.) when I marathoned South Park in late 2012-early 2013. Because this musical has gotten reviews waaaaaay beyond the norm, I figured it would be the best thing evar, so I was really excited about going.


It's not that the show isn't good. It's great! It's funny and smart and subversive and big-hearted and it has this piquant quality that I noticed in large supply in latter seasons of South Park: its writers seem to know a lot about life. I guess you call that wisdom? For many it's a surprise to find such a quality in a "silly cartoon show" or a silly Broadway musical, and maybe that's why I felt there was a disconnect between the insanely good reviews I read and the show I saw, which was great!, but which was not really much greater than South Park.

My operating assumption is that the reviewers of Mormon are just not that familiar with South Park, or at least that they didn't watch all 221 (at the time) episodes in relatively quick succession the way I did. Because as outstanding as Parker/Stone's brand of entertainment is, Mormon felt like more of the same of it, not something way beyond their grasp. I'm not going to call it a disappointment, because it wasn't. But it wasn't the best thing evar.

The finest thing about it was the same thing that was surprising about the "Up There" number from Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Here that is:

So, not to be tedious, but the dynamic in "Up There" goes a little something like this:
  1. It's absurd that Satan would sing a Little Mermaid-style number, with a backup choir and everything, about getting out of Hell. 
  2. This kind of song has evolved into being a cliche, and so this song is a parody of itself. 
  3. In context, the character genuinely feels the desire to get out of Hell. That desire is real
  4. Hence, the song feels genuine, even though a) the situation is absurd and b) the song is parodic. 
  5. The song evokes real feeling in the audience, in part because it's a well-written parody, and in part because there is genuine feeling behind the parody. 
This is a very tidy and difficult trick, being ironic and genuine at the same time, and it's one that Parker/Stone pull over and over and over again throughout their work. It's the precise trick on which The Book of Mormon operates. The songs are drawing from Broadway tradition: cheery, South Pacific and Music Man-type songs that are no longer acceptable to the jaded audiences of today, but which are still catchy and fun and real to the characters, which makes them real to us, despite us laughing at them.

So I expected nothing less from these guys (who have won a Peabody, after all), but apparently reviewers were not so credulous, which created a gap between my expectations and the show. Which is great! So you should go see it when it comes to your town. But if you're really familiar with South Park, don't break your heart if you can't make it to Mormon. The Mormon episode of the show, while very different, makes some of the same points and is equally funny.

Is this more interesting than news about writing? Because I did a lot of that in the last several days, and wrote a few paragraphs about it, and then decided to post this instead. Ah well. You'll get the writing stuff later in the week.


Maria said...

I was surprised at how much I didn't like "The Book of Mormon." I went with my sisters and they detested it, thought it shameful. I didn't find it shameful, I was just mostly bored, as I always am at what I call "boy humor." It just didn't resound at all with me.

Katharine Coldiron said...

I'm sorry to hear that, Maria.

Maleesha said...

I am dying to get to a Big City sometime to see it. All indicators point to me LOVING it.