“Hamilton” vs. “Book of Mormon”
Last summer I saw “Hamilton” in previews just as the show moved to Broadway. I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed stepping out of the multi-racial city of New York and into a hip-hop musical about a founding father of our country.
On the first day of August, the show was so fresh that the actors seemed to really be thinking both about their language and about where to step on their complicated moving stage!
I saw the show not long after President Barack Obama had taken time away from running the country to see the show, but it was early enough in the previews that there were still occasional lines where the emphasis could have been better or the rhythm was still a little rough.
Even with a few minor issues in previews, “Hamilton” was amazing, and I of course immediately told everyone I met that they had to go see “Hamilton” right away. I hope you got tickets then, because good luck laying your mitts on them now!
Last week Hamilton won a well-deserved Best Musical Theater at the Grammys for their Broadway cast album (which you can stream for free if you are an Amazon Prime subscriber) just after the live remote of their performance of the show’s opening tune. (I was in a loud bar in Austin, Texas squealing, “Look! Hamilton!) when the live performance aired.) I watched this version.
In the seven months since I first saw the opening number of “Hamilton” in New York City, it’s nice to see that some of the phrasing has changed as the actors get deeper into the show. It looks like everyone is more invested in the continued exploration of the language—or maybe they were just more invested on television last night.
One of the things that I found so impressive about Hamilton is how much it feels like the future, like a headlong rush to a post-racial, bi-cultural making of a new country. Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wrote AND stars in the show) is an effing genius.
In contrast to the freshness and overall amazingness of seeing “Hamilton” last summer, just before Christmas I made the mistake of seeing a touring production of the last big theatrical Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” when it came through Austin. It was awful and upsetting.
From Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the dudes who brought you South Park) and Robert Lopez “The Book of Mormon” was offensive as billed, but instead of being offensive about religion and God in a cheeky and delightful, “I’m going to hell for watching this show” sort of way, it was offensive about race and gender.
The “Book of Mormon” is the tale of young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda on a mission to convert the natives.
Sadly the musical takes the easy low road full of racist, hackneyed character types.
Sitting in a mostly white audience watching “jokes” in the Book of Mormon featuring an African village where the villagers were ignorant, they all have AIDS, and where the biggest excitement is the pretty village girl getting a “texting machine” (a manual typewriter) then “texting” all her friends felt pretty awful. There was even a song about the local wanker who wanted to rape a baby to cure him of his AIDS. I’ve never seen a minstrel show, but I suspect the take on Ugandan village in “Book of Mormon” isn’t so far away from one. I felt like I was rubbernecking at a train wreck while I was watching the show, and I kept looking around me to see if other people were laughing. They were.
But I was surprised that I could only a few other writers who felt as strongly as I did about the treatment of the African villagers in “The Book of Mormon” even though the show has been out for years with multiple touring companies and is still playing on Broadway. Why haven’t more people noticed what I noticed?
When I pointed out this article about the more racist elements of the show on social media, a friend who is also a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin noted that a character in the show, General Butt Fucking Naked was named after a actual African warlord. When I said that that fact didn’t make the show not racist, he pointed out to an Urban Dictionary link of “It’s funny because it’s true.” I don’t think that using the name of a real-life warlord (who was from Liberia, not Uganda) makes the show any less racist, especially given that General Butt Naked admitted to being responsible for the deaths of at least 20,000 people.
Considering that modern African villagers conduct a lot of their lives including banking and bill payment via SMS and more people in Africa have mobile phones than have landlines, the “texting machine” in “Book of Mormon” felt hopelessly colonial and out of touch with modern times. Like a racist uncle at Thanksgiving who doesn’t realize that times have changed.
I haven’t been to Africa since the 1990s, and the depiction of an African village in “The Book of Mormon” feels dated to me.
In comparison, “Hamilton” feels like a step into the right kind of theatrical future, a racially complex society with a love of language and complexity, not a show that’s mocking poor African villagers who are dying of AIDS.