Trip to Hill Cumorah influenced 'Book of Mormon'

05:00 AM, Mar 03, 2013

The Book of Mormon (©2012 Joan Marcus)/

Written By Eric Grode

If you go

Book of Mormon.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 885 E. Main St.
Tickets: Sold out; pre-show lotteries of 20 tickets at $27.50 each.

How do you top the Hill Cumorah?

You write The Book of Mormon, a biting, bawdy musical satire about two naïve young Mormon missionaries in Africa. It won nine Tony Awards in 2011 and became the hottest show first on Broadway and then on tour.

The show comes to Rochester — 30 miles from the birthplace of Mormonism — for a sold-out run starting Tuesday (March 5) at the Auditorium Theatre. (A limited number of tickets will be available most days through a lottery.)

With its off-color humor and its digs at everything from Mormon doctrine to the very idea of an “All-American Prophet,” to quote one of the songs, the controversy surrounding the musical’s tone and irreverence toward the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints follows the musical to Rochester. Local Mormons, while not protesting the play, are still concerned about messages people might take away from it.

Mormon believers are taught that Joseph Smith received gold plates on the Hill Cumorah, just outside Palmyra along Route 21, which he translated into The Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon was first published in a building in downtown Palmyra, which is now a museum.

Upstate New York is home to about 20,000 Mormons, and thousands more come each July to participate in or see the Hill Cumorah Pageant, performed each July.

Among those attending in 2009 were the three men who wrote The Book of Mormon musical — South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and the Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez — as part of their research. They also visited Joseph Smith’s boyhood cabin and the printing press that first printed The Book of Mormon. One scene that was cut from Act II included as a prop a placemat that Lopez bought in Palmyra illustrating the “Mormon path to salvation.”

Of all the destinations, however, the Hill Cumorah Pageant made by far the biggest impression. As Parker said in an oral history that accompanies the published script, he and his co-writers realized then and there that “we gotta make our musical better than this one, and they’ve been working on that one for a long time.”

As a result, they changed the beginning of the musical. The original plan had been to begin Act I with “Hello,” a chipper song that depicts a dozen or so Mormons on their daily doorbell-ringing duties. But after Parker, Stone and Lopez’s trip to Palmyra, they decided to begin both acts of the musical with what Parker called “our own miniature version of the Hill Cumorah Pageant.”

Karl-Erik Jansson, a bishop for one of Rochester’s Mormon wards (or congregations), and his wife, KayLee, the ward’s primary music leader, are familiar with the original Hill Cumorah pageant, and they’re about to learn about the miniature version as well. They won’t be buying tickets at the Auditorium Theatre, but they will fulfill their volunteer work as ushers for the theater’s Broadway series.

Two bucks for parking — that’s all we’re paying,” says Karl-Erik Jansson, who has directed dozens of musicals as part of his day job as vocal music director at Greece Olympia High School. He says he knows the score from The Book of Mormon CD and thinks very highly of it.

If people see it and it raises questions, then that’s great,” he says of the show. “But if they see it and think they know all there is to know about the Mormon church, then they’ve been very seriously misled.”

KayLee Jansson acknowledges that the anthem “I Believe” made her uncomfortable when it was played during the 2011 Tony Awards broadcast. (In it, one of the young Mormons offers a deadpan recitation of various Mormon factoids, including “I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob.” Mormon scholars have disputed this and some of the other “beliefs” mentioned in the song.)

We could have opted out” of ushering this particular show, she says, “and we thought about it. If we weren’t ushering, would we be going? Probably not.”

Ever since The Book of Mormon opened on Broadway, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has confined its official criticism of the show to this statement: “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.” The church’s head of public affairs followed two months later with some slightly more pointed criticism in The Washington Post.

Beyond that, the church has purchased ad space in Mormon programs as the show has toured the country, elaborating on its official response. The church will place ads in the Rochester and Buffalo programs as well, a spokeswoman says.

The producers of the Mormon tour say no special attempts at outreach or marketing have come with the Rochester stop. But outreach can go in both directions. Jeffrey Clark, the president of the church’s stake (he likens it to a diocese in the Catholic Church), which covers the eastern half of greater Rochester, says casual plans are under way to invite the show’s cast and crew to tour the historic sites during their stay in Rochester.

We’ll even provide the bus to and from Palmyra,” he says.

They’re a few months too early to see the Hill Cumorah Pageant, which is actually depicted in The Book of Mormon musical.

The fact that none of the Mormon creators is a member of the church was not lost on Karl-Erik Jansson. “Fiddler
on the Roof was written by Jews,” he said. “Nunsense was written by a Catholic. … It’s very different when the people commenting on or poking fun at a faith come from outside that faith.”

Clark also used Nunsense, the popular 1985 musical that depicts five tap-dancing nuns, as a point of comparison. He hasn’t seen The Book of Mormon and probably won’t during its Rochester stay, although he said his daughter is a big fan of the show.

One of Clark’s responsibilities as stake president is to have what amounts to an exit interview with each young Mormon as he or she returns from their mission, the very project from which The Book of Mormon derives so much of its irreverent humor. And Nunsense, which he saw a few years ago at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre, brought these interviews to mind.

I know they’re having a good time poking fun,” he said of Nunsense, “and I enjoyed it, too. But these are nuns, people who have forsaken a lot to care for other people. And so my laughing felt a little uncomfortable.

Now, I’ve met with three or four dozen young men and women just back from their mission,” he says. “And almost with exception, the first thing they say is ‘I love those people.’ They come back with this incredible capacity to love other people. And to depict them as naïve or clueless … I don’t mind people having fun, even at our expense, but I wish they knew more about that part of it.”