Warning: This song contains adult language and content. Very adult language and content. Hilariously adult language and content. If you have children around, wash out their mouths and ears with soap for even looking at this link. If you don’t have children around, do yourself a favor and hear it now.
It’s a good thing Avenue Q did all that controversial taboo breaking eight years ago (can it really have been that long?!?) because its allowed this equally inspired but taboo-obliterating musical to hit the Broadway stage to the critical raves it deserves rather than the horrified gasps it would have received had shows like Avenue Q not kept eschewing the Broadway musical into this new century where any subject, if handled by true artists, can be handled sensitively, with passion, and with true heart.
Let’s be clear here. Broadway has always been progressive, its just not thought of that way. Rodgers and Hammerstein were making progress in the 1940s with shows that seem to us today to be quaint and quintessentially Broadway. They seem that way because Broadway has grown past them, calcifying them in nostalgia, but musicals like South Pacific, which broke boundaries and taboos, are evidence that the Broadway musical, at its heart, has always tried to approach its mission of bringing disparate people together through soaring melodies seriously and with an eye toward what it can do next. That legacy has continued. Hair was progressive. Rent was progressive. Avenue Q, Spring Awakening, In the Heights, they all had new things to say, and their creators found ways to do it through song. The first show took the chirpy melodies of children’s television and added to them the lyrical content of adults who felt let down when the real world didn’t live up to the Technicolor daydream of Elmo’s world. The second used the guttural pop-rock of Duncan Sheik to ground an over-the-top, gothic nightmare world where adults will always let their kids down in the sounds of teenage rebellion and adolescent discovery. The third brought classic Cole Porter sentiments to a hip-hop/salsa soundtrack that explored the love/hate relationship the protagonist has with his Washington Heights neighborhood. Each one has struck a chord with audiences.
New decade, and everyone has turned their lonely eyes from the Hindenburg that is Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark (what a pretentious name. Tied for horrible pretentiousness with Transformers: Dark of the Moon) to the true first great artistic achievement the ’10s have to offer. Ingredients: Take two long-time television/film provocateurs with a predilection for both shock value and song and dance (no, not you Seth MacFarlane, sit back down…), combine them with one Broadway creator famous for puppet-sex scenes and well-placed obscenities, and ladle them over a base of surprising old-school theater heart and sincere love. On top, sprinkle a high-concept, meeting of the cultures plot which deals heavily in the embrace of a quintessentially American religion struggling to survive on the Ugandan frontier. Season with sincerity-cutting gross-out jokes to taste. What you get is this brilliant concoction that makes you go “Whoa! (because you’re in shock they can say/sing that!) and then go “Whoa…” (because you’re in awe at how much something that makes you laugh that hard can also make you think that much about what religion means to us).
This cast album is a phenomenal listen: sonically pleasing in every way (these are talented singers and arrangers with a good ear for the entire history of Broadway songcraft), side-splitting, provacative, with a strong thematic arc and great character definition. My favorite song is above. “Joseph Smith American Moses” is the musicals penultimate song. In it, the recent Ugandan converts display, in song, their knowledge of the Mormon religion as it has been taught to them by the rediculous Elder Cunningham. He has taught them, for instance, that, according to God’s words to Joseph Smith, lying with a frog will cure them of AIDS. He has taught them this so they will stop raping babies. The natives relay this in joyous African call-and response in the most earnest way possible, which is made all the more hilarious by the presence of the Mormon higher-ups who are visiting from Salt Lake City. The whole thing is so earnestly subversive and also, in its way, thoughtful and meaningful. Listen to it. Don’t just listen to this song. Listen to it all!
My favorite moments in this song:
-“A small and poor village called Oopstait Noo Yoke.” Response: “Oopstait.” This being the small, impoverished village the Africans believe the prophet Joseph Smith lived in.
-The Mormon motto, after Joseph Smith gets the golden plates. “Liberation, Equality, No more Slavery for Oopstait Mormon people!” Yes, Arnold Cunningham included slavery in his revised “Mormon for Africans” faith. Also included: The Starship Enterprise, Mordor, and Boba Fett…
-“The American Warlord, Brigham Young!” Real aggresor, that Brigham…
-The second Mormon motto, after Brigham Young, evil warlord, is brought into the fold: “Compassion, Courtesy, Let’s be really f***ing polite to everyone!”
-“Now comes the part of our story that gets a leetle bit sad…” The group groans in response.
-“Oh no! Prophet Joseph Smith is now getting seeeck!”
-The sound Joseph Smith makes when he dies, immediately followed by Brigham Young’s despairing respone (he’s softened from his warlord ways pretty fast, you see!). “Desperation! Mortality! Loss of Faith! Ahhhhhhhhiiii got the golden plates!” And we’re happy again.
-My favorite though: Upon reaching Salt Lake City, the Mormons, it would appear, “danced with Ewoks and were greeted by Jesus!” Jesus’s welcoming words: “Welcome Mormons! Now, let’s all have as many babies as we can and have big Mormon families!’ And the MOrmons lived happily ever after. As I said, do yourself a favor, listen to this album. Then laugh for a day. Then think about what it means. You’ll find interesting layers there you simply didn’t expect from two raunch-masters like Stone and Parker. When two experienced artists really come to the fore — that’s a good feeling. Revel in it. Then listen to this again!