By FRANK RIZZO
11:34 AM EDT, March 18, 2014
Here’s the pickle: The biggest Broadway hit of the new century celebrates (yay!) and mocks (uh-oh) your religion.
What’s a latter-day church to do?
If the show was “The Book of Mormon” and you were The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints you might be advised to seize the phenomenal marketing opportunity — but ever so carefully.
When the smash show opened on Broadway in 2011, the reviews noted that while the musical from the talents behind TV’s “South Park” and Broadway’s “Avenue Q” outrageously, irreverently, scatologically joked about some of the history and habits of the faith — and what religion doesn’t have its hard-to-believe tales and ceremonies? — it also portrayed its followers as sweet-natured, ever-polite folks whose spiritual mission was to do good for others.
So the church launched a million-dollar branding effort to sell itself in its own image in its own way — and taking advantage of an opportunity to reach that hard-to-tap youth demographic. The campaign included a 40-foot digital Times Square video and billboard and hundreds of taxi-toppers featuring “I’m a Mormon” ads.
And it didn’t stop there.
If you open the program at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford during the run this week and next, you’ll find not one, not two, but three full page color ads for the church, costing several thousands of dollars at this one venue alone.
To which I say, “Smart branding, guys.” (Religions only have guys at the top, have you noticed?)
On each of the three pages in the program various diverse and attractive folks (one a black male, another a woman of Asian heritage, and third a white attractive male) are all smiling with a golden glow. The various ad texts read: “I’ve read the book,” “The book is always better” and “You’ve seen the play. Now read the book.” (OK, OK, it’s not a play but a musical, but no matter, you get the idea.)
So what’s the purpose? Well, it shows A) The Mormons have a sense of humor, which is more than you can say for many faiths. B) It shows that this church is — if not hip, then at least — smart. And C) It can capitalize on a phenomenon without endorsing it.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Pope Francis isn’t now praying for a musical to call his own. After all, it’s been a while since the Vatican gave a semi-blessing to “Jesus Christ Superstar” — but the recent revival flopped . And all those “Nunsense” and “Late Nite Catechism” shows have their following but nothing like “Mormon”-mania.
The 1955 musical “Plain and Fancy” centered on the Amish it lasted a little over a year. The Jews have done significantly better with such shows as 1961’s “Milk and Honey,” and especially 1964's “Fiddler on the Roof.” But these musicals were respectful about the faith and easy for religious leaders to love.
“The Book of Mormon,” on the other hand, while playfully sweet about the faithful is profanely satirical about the faith.
So it was big news in Utah earlier this month when it was announced that the touring show will play a 16-performance run Salt Lake City in July and August, 2015.
Ellen Fagg Weistwriting in The Salt Lake Tribune quoted Jessica Moody, of the LDS Church, about the news of the local gig.
“[Moody] offered the faith’s standard response to the musical’s content: ‘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.’ Moody said there weren’t yet any specific plans for an advertising campaign to coincide with the musical’s hometown dates, to play just blocks from the church’s headquarters and its iconic Salt Lake Temple.
“In other tour cities, the church has purchased ads in the musical’s program. ‘Our message in the playbill,’ Moody said, ‘invites the audience to seek a more complete perspective on the book, its Christ-centered message and its place in Mormon belief...”
Do I hear an “Amen?”
An earlier version referred to "Jesus Christ Superstar" revival starring Ricky Martin. He was not in that revival but another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, "Evita."
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