Adaptive Mythology and the Book of Mormon Musical

I love musicals, and while Avenue Q isn’t my favorite musical of all time, it’s certainly in the top ten. Additionally, I loved South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut because it was clear to me that it was, at its heart, a high-concept musical as well. And I still find both as funny as hell. So knowing that the creative forces behind both projects were creating a musical together…well, let’s just say that the Book of Mormon was on my radar.

Then I heard the original cast recording streamed on NPR. I bought it first chance I got, and fell in love. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized what it was I loved so much about this show. Sure, the music is catch and funny. And yes, it’s an affirmation of the power of faith—any faith—in our lives. No, what real hit home for was the power of Adaptive Mythology.

Fair warning: there will be some minor spoilers and a language that would make a sailor blush if you continue. Everyone still here? Good. Let’s get going!

At its heart, The Book of Mormon is about how one mythology (the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) is brought to a place and a people where the message just isn’t relevant to their ordinary lives. If you’re unfamiliar with the tale, the first song in our lesson will condense the history of the religion down.

The problem is, the people who are being taught this history have no context. They live in a war torn region of Uganda, fraught with violence, disease, famine, and AIDS. They have bigger problems to deal with. Elder Cunningham grasps desperately for ways to connect the message to the audience, adapting the tale to reflect their conditions—to hilarious effect.

The result is a great example of Adaptive Mythology. The fundamental point of the message remains the same, but the way that people are led to that truth has become more intuitive, better suited to their frame of reference. Our final musical cue presents the new interpretation of the original song from this perspective.

This is the hook for me, because this is the power of storytelling. They say there are only so many original plots, and that’s true. But how those plots are interpreted is what makes them stories. Finding the plot/story/mythology that connects to you is a powerful thing. And as a writer, it’s a powerful tool to learn to use properly. Remember that you aren’t just telling a plot—you’re connecting your reader to something bigger. Find a way to make that connection happen by grounding your story in real human experience. And if you do it right, if you do it well, you’ll reap the rewards.

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