From dozens of feet above a sprawling stage, a bearded figure in a fluttering white robe descends from the night sky as an audience of thousands gazes up in silent awe. After a majestic touchdown, he slowly strides down an impossibly tall staircase with arms outstretched, each step eliciting a fresh series of gasps from the assembled crowd.
Finally, he speaks:
“Behold,” he declares, in a stentorian voice made earth-rattling by a high-decibel sound system. “I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world.”
Behold one of the more elaborate scenes in the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant, an overwhelming theatrical spectacle held annually in Palmyra, just outside of Rochester, that retells the story of the Book of Mormon with a cast of hundreds, retina-searing pyrotechnics and the latest in church-approved choreography.
It was from this popular summer event that Matt Stone, Trey Parker and Robert Lopez drew the opening scene of their hit musical “Book of Mormon,” which opens a sold-out, six-day run Tuesday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center. In 2009, the trio visited the famous pageant, held at one of Mormonism’s holiest sites. Afterward, according to the show’s own official scripture, they decided to beat the Mormon theater producers at their own game. And by many accounts, including those of many current and former Mormons, that’s precisely what they did.
The musical, a loving, if frequently vulgar, sendup of Mormonism from the creators of “South Park” and the composer of the popular musical “Avenue Q,” was a bona fide hit even before its official opening on Broadway in 2011. It immediately won wide critical praise and has been printing money ever since in multiple international productions. The first Google search result for “Book of Mormon” is not the founding document of the 183-year-old Mormon faith, but the official website for the Broadway production.
To be sure, the provocative musical, which tells the story of a young group of Mormon missionaries in disease- and poverty-ravaged Uganda, has loomed large on the minds of many Mormons around the country since its debut. The official response from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came in a single sentence: “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 the response to the show from individual Mormons has generally been accepting, and the church has bought numerous ads in theater programs, knowing a good opportunity to proselytize when it sees it. (Shea’s program, according to Marketing and Public Relations Director Lisa Grisanti, features three such ads.)
All this was on the mind of Gerald Argetsinger in March, when the national tour of “The Book of Mormon” stopped in Rochester for a six-day run. Argetsinger is a member of the Mormon church’s high council in Rochester and a theater instructor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf who directed the Hill Cumorah Pageant from 1990 to 1997. He also recently came out of the closet in a Washington Post article about gay Mormons in literature. As the tour was readying for its Rochester appearance, Argetsinger invited the cast and crew to tour the Mormon history sites in Palmyra.
And to his delight, on March 7, nearly 30 “Book of Mormon” actors and crew members boarded a bus in downtown Rochester for the 45-minute ride to the birthplace of Mormonism. During the tour of the Hill Cumorah and several sites sacred to the church, as well as a Q&A with four active missionaries, the group came away with a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of the religion.
“Both groups were nervous about this: ‘Should we really let it happen?’ ” Argetsinger said of the proposed tour, which raised eyebrows among members of the touring group and in the top ranks of Rochester’s Mormon leadership. “And I just really felt it was the right thing to do, so I just ignored the naysayers and kept going.”
Welsh actor Mark Evans, who plays the lead role of Elder Price, said the tour opened his eyes to the lives of Mormons and added a layer of authenticity to his tongue-in-cheek performance. His directors had instructed him to play the character with a perpetual, toothy smile. That approach, Evans suggested, made him think of missionaries like the one he plays as young men forcing themselves into a kind of strained optimism. But the tour quickly disabused him of that idea and expanded his notion of Mormonism far beyond what he’d gleaned from his own research back in England, he said.
“They really are just down-to-earth, willing to help, positive people. It kind of really layered my performance as Elder Price to a whole different level. It was amazing,” Evans said in a phone interview from the show’s six-week stop in Toronto. “Until going to Palmyra, I’d never actually met someone who was on their mission, someone who was going around meeting people as a missionary who was potentially trying to convert people to Mormonism. … Going to Palmyra really made me realize they are real people, and they are not just caricatures.”
For Argetsinger, who reviewed the Broadway production for the website affirmation.org, the show had some deep and unexpectedly personal connections. He recounted his first experience seeing the show, which opens with a scene of Jesus descending from heaven that Argetsinger had originally conceived and directed in 1988 and with costumes originally designed by his wife, Gail Argetsinger.
“The curtain goes up, and it starts literally with a scene from the Hill Cumorah Pageant,” he said. “I was seeing my scene and my wife’s costumes, and it was a thrill. It was just electric.”
Though the show contains more profanity than any Broadway musical in history, outrageously vulgar references and a defiantly antireligious tenor throughout, Argetsinger said he was enthralled.
“It’s not an attack on the Mormon church. A lot of people say that; they haven’t seen it,” he said. “What it is, is a spot-on satire of the Mormon missionary experiences. I was a missionary long, long ago and far away. They nailed it.”
Argetsinger, who was enlisted to provide a one-page “theatergoer’s guide to Mormonism” for the London production of the show, also praised Stone and Parker’s sense of theatrical structure.
“They didn’t make the mistake of saying, we’re going to slam a religion. What they did was say, we want the story to end up with salvation,” he said. “Well, if you’re going to end with salvation, if you start with nice people, all you get is a Sunday school tract. And they’re writing a Broadway musical, not a Sunday school tract.”
Other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have not been quite as enthusiastic. But, perhaps surprisingly, they have turned out to be the minority in a response that has been muted if not downright enthusiastic. Argetsinger said that out of 10 fellow Mormons who attended the Rochester production, only two found it completely objectionable.
“I had Mormons who were offended at the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Now, that was a very small percentage. But people who will be offended will find something to be offended at,” he said. “This show gives those who will be offended lots to be offended at.”
“There is nothing in there just to take the piss out of Mormonism,” he said. “The knowledge that Matt Stone and Trey Parker and Bobbie Lopez have of this religion and religion in general is what has made it the musical it is, and what’s made it work.”
Tickets are sold out, but a lottery will be held before each performance for 20 tickets. Those interested in the lottery should arrive at the box office 2½ hours before the performance to submit their requests. Winning names will be announced two hours before the performance. Call 847-0850 or visit www.sheas.org.