Will Book of Mormon stir up religious protests?

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Will the Book of Mormon the musical open to a sea of protests, when the previews start at the Prince of Wales theatre on 25 February 2013, with the official opening night on 21 March 2013?

Other shows in London that have mocked religion have been subject to rigourous protests. However, the producers don’t expect to find any members of the Mormon faith protesting outside The Book of Mormon, although this absolutely uproarious new musical from the creators of South Park is at the very least irreverent and at times completely offensive, if you are easily offended that is.

Even while parodying Mormonism, particularly their doorbell-ringing practices of its dedicated followers, much of The Book of Mormon also pokes fun at the London theatre, in particular the Lion King and an alternative version of Hakuna matata (No worries), entitled Hasa Diga Eebowai (F*!k you God), which is bound to raise some criticism.

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1971 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is a four-decade phenomenon, that has sparked vehement protests. Protesers claimed it was “a witches’ brew of anti-black and anti-Semitic venom”. It was “evil… rotten to the core”. It was “demeaning” and “nothing less than a catastrophe”. And despite all that seven million albums were sold; productions in 41 countries and an Oscar-nominated movie adaptation.

Jesus Christ Superstar also deserves another accolade, thanks to the portrayal of Jesus as a fallible figure uncertain of his own divinity, the show remains the most protested-against work in the history of musical theatre; and these protests are still in evidence. Which perhaps goes to show that the producers of The Book of Mormon might actually welcome protests outside the Prince of Wales theatre and the resultant publicity?

Jesus Christ Superstar was recently banned in Belarus after a campaign by Orthodox prelates, who claimed they were acting on behalf of ‘insulted believers’. A tour of Ireland in 2011 was picketed by Presbyterian ministers who slammed it as ‘utter blasphemy produced by two sinful, blinded, benighted sinners’. A Texan Baptist declared in 2008 ‘Every born-again Christian should readily recognise the evil of Jesus Christ Superstar, and should shun it like the plague’

More recently Jerry Springer the Opera provoked even more outraged protests. And yet initially the original production at the Royal national theatre in London went largely under the radar. It was only when it transferred to the Cambridge theatre and the BBC screened a documentary about the show that it attracted huge protests.

The BBC itself was subject to Christian complaints and in Plymouth a group of about 40 Christian Voice supporters turned out to sing hymns and hand out leaflets to the audience as they entered the theatre.

Protests against Jerry Springer The Opera

Protests against Jerry Springer The Opera

Around the country as it toured it attracted protesters handing out leaflets in Birmingham, Manchester, Oxford, Glasgow, Cambridge, York, Bristol, Newcastle and Liverpool from members of the Salvation Army and Christian Voice protesters.

Over a hundred church leaders in Cardiff signed a letter expressing their wishes for the show to be cancelled. The Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, expressed his concern, stating that the show was ‘gratuitously offensive’.

The producers inflamed feelings by saying ‘if this show manages to incite religious hatred then the opera has done its job’

Christian Voice labelled the show ‘full of filth and blasphemy.’ Stephen Green, national director of Christian Voice, said: ‘I find it astonishing that Mark Thompson and David Soul (who starred as Jerry Springer) claim they are Christians and they can see nothing wrong with Jerry Springer – The Opera. What kind of Christians are the sort of people who find mocking God and Jesus Christ acceptable? If this show portrayed Mohammed or Vishnu as homosexual, ridiculous and ineffectual, it would never have seen the light of day.’ In 2007 Christian Voice actually attempted to prosecute the BBC director-general Mark Thompson for blasphemy over the show. A summons was refused due to lack of evidence that a crime had been committed.

Interestingly a provision of the 1968 Theatres Act enshrines the right of free expression in theatrical works and that a play could not be considered as blasphemous. So no worries then for The Book of Mormon, the musical.

The Book of Mormon show ridicules organised religion as well as traditional musical theatre. Two naive young Mormon missionaries are sent to an isolated village in Uganda, where a brutal warlord is threatening the local population. The show opened on Broadway in 2011 and received positive critical acclaim and a host of theatre awards including nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album.

It will be interesting to see if The Book of Mormon does provoke any protests.