The theme for April 2012 at Musical Cyberspace is “Single-Song Showstoppers”, a series of big numbers sung by a featured characters in a show – typically their only solo, although they might sing minor bits and pieces elsewhere – each of which raise the roof.
Today’s single-song showstopper is “Turn It Off”, from The Book of Mormon, a musical comedy by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. The song is sung by Elder McKinley, a role that was introduced by Rory O’Malley, and Missionaries
The Setup: Elder McKinley is the District Leader of the Mormon Church’s station in Uganda. Secretly gay but in denial of his feelings, “Turn It Off” is philosophy he uses to keep his feelings in check.
The Song: “Turn It Off” is not the funniest song in The Book of Mormon. Nor is it the most technically well-crafted: there are a handful of classic not-quite true rhymes here, like ‘time’/’line’. Some might say that doesn’t matter, but many people tend to knock the skill it takes to craft a song using true rhyme and in a witty comedy song, it’s one of the things that’s simply a must. So it’s clear that “Turn It Off” is probably not, as written, and speaking objectively, one of the best songs in the show. Yet, it is one of my favourites and it is a genuine, character-defining showstopper for Elder McKinley, with his missionary buddies in support. A great deal of that has to do with the phenomenally clever staging of the number. Starting off in a manner that reflects a simple conversation between the Mormon missionaries, the number shifts gear with a tap break that develops into a number with sequin clad waistcoats and clap-controlled light switches. And thus, a piece of charming dramatic writing turns into a moment of sheer theatrical magic! Their rhymes may not be perfect, but those South Park boys, Robert Lopez and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw know what they’re doing.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on “Turn It Off”. Click on the comments link at the end of this post and share them with us!
Which is your favourite song in The Book of Mormon? I think “Turn it Off” is one of the best. In general, I think the interest in the show wore very quickly for me. Recordings of, for example, Sondheim shows or Tom Lehrer songs (or even the soundtrack for the South Park movie) I can listen to again and again, because they are so well crafted that the jokes feel fresh even though I’ve heard then a gazillion times. I don’t think The Book of Mormon has quite the same quality.
I really The Book of Mormon. Although I think that the book isn’t quite what it could be, degenerating as it does into little more than a series of song cues as the show progresses, I certainly find that I am able to listen to the score repeatedly and that I still find the jokes in the songs funny after many listens. I disagree that it is less successful that South Park: the Movie in that regard. The score for The Book of Mormon builds what Trey Parker and Matt Stone achieved there, both in terms of form and technique, and this is no doubt helped by the presence of Robert Lopez.
I don’t know that it’s useful comparing the show to Sondheim shows in general or to Tom Lehrer songs, because I think there’s no real basis for comparing them. Lehrer songs are entertaining, but they aren’t particularly theatrical. They’re fun to listen to and work well in a cabaret setting, but they don’t have to and, indeed, could never, achieve anything dramatic beyond holding one’s attention for the duration of an individual song. The only Sondheim show that might serve as a basis for comparison is Anyone Can Whistle because it is a satirical musical comedy that makes use of pastiche and, to an extent, meta-theatre, in a linear narrative structure. Of course, Anyone Can Whistle is absolutely a more complex piece musically that bears repeated listening in a more cognitively intellectual fashion than The Book of Mormon does, but its major failing is that it is uncertain of the target of its satire and that lack of focus in the book bleeds through into the score.
At any rate, my favourite songs in The Book of Mormon are “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”, “Hasa Diga Eebowai” and “I Believe”, all of which I think are actually better crafted songs than “Turn It Off”, which only really comes to life fully when staged. But I think the score also achieves some great things in songs like “All American Prophet” and “Joseph Smith American Moses”. Does that mean I think it was the best new score of last season? No. I don’t even think it was the best new score on Broadway last season. What I do think is that the score has a great deal to offer and that it most certainly bears repeated listening.
I have never seen the show or read the script. I was not commenting on how the songs carry character, only how it wears after repeated listening. That is the only reason why I brought Tom Lehrer into the topic. It is of course only one quality of a genre of songs with several other qualities in addition.
For me, the BOM songs don’t hold up very well after repeated listening. I think it has to do with the language. Tom Lehrer songs and Sondheim songs have so solid language that the songs contiune being surprising even when you know what the surprise is.