The Book of Mormon

Shop around in New York and you’ll find satirical gems, writes Gina Allum.

The Book of Mormon
Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York

On arriving in New York's theatre district, you might think that you travelled a long way to get nowhere. The same old franchises such as Wicked have their fastness on Broadway. British exports (Billy Elliot, War Horse) are here in facsimile and Mark Rylance stars in Jerusalem.

The theatres cluster around midtown Manhattan. Shows are put on alongside the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and the Church of Scientology in a competition of brands. Even theatres have sponsors (the American Airlines Theatre, the Snapple Theatre). The hard sell takes some getting used to - but then, Broadway has always had commerce at its heart, since it was first carved out as a Native American trading route. What sells today are tribute shows and jukebox musicals: productions such as Rain (a nod to the Beatles) or the disco karaoke that is Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. Even awful films such as The Addams Family don't escape the musical retro rehash. This salvaging of storylines speaks of a desperate need to peddle the familiar. The great expense of mounting productions, meanwhile, can only increase the conservatism. Of the 12 kiosks at the TKTS discount booth (they're far too busy to spell out "tickets"), only one is specifically for plays, not musicals. Its queue moves along briskly.

It's easy to think of what has happened to Broadway as a cautionary tale - a case of "there but for the grace of subsidy go we" - but much of the musical populism is the same as in London, only with the heat turned up. Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is its apotheosis, a Vegas-style triumph of scenography over substance.

So where to go to escape the escapism? Some British, subsidised work is providing a sterling contribution. One might try off Broadway, or even off-off Broadway, neatly represented by Shakespeare in the Park and Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot, respectively. Right now, however, there are things to admire on the "main stem", including Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherfucker With the Hat: a scorching 90-minute play in patois that is part-jailbird, part-schoolyard and all obscenity. The locals love its grit (there's a lot of sitcom whooping) and the racial mix of cast and audience is something that the West End would do well to emulate.

Given the Mormon founder Joseph Smith's ability to find the word of God in his topper, Motherfucker could have been an alternative title for The Book of Mormon, the popular new musical written by the South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with Robert Lopez of Avenue Q. The show blends puerile iconoclasm with mellow clemency, as two young Mormons - "Elders" Price and Cunningham - go on their squeaky-clean mission to bring the "blonde-haired, blue-eyed voice of God" to Uganda and "make tomorrow a latter day".

As well as an eye-wateringly blasphemous parody of The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata", there's a cheeky number called "I Am Africa", which perfectly expresses the west's bogus identification with the continent: "I am the tears of Nelson Mandela/The lost boys of the Sudan . . . just like Bono!" Mormon might not have the sting of South Park or Team America but the show tunes and theme-park choreography gift-wrap the subversion. Comparing favourably with the porcine scratchings of Betty Blue Eyes, the new musical in London, Mormon is a brand worth exporting - and proof that Broadway still has a pulse.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?