In The Book of Mormon musical, the hero’s journey seems as unlikely as it is hysterical, in the form of an unexpected but endearing Mormon missionary, Elder Cunningham. The story begins when an overeager Elder Cunningham gets his mission call to serve in the dangerous foreign land of Northern Uganda. Elder Cunningham’s character is introduced as awkward and embarrassing; even his own parents don’t seem to be proud of him as they bid him farewell at the Salt Lake City airport. After getting paired as mission companions with the overachieving and “Peter Priesthood” leader and mentor Elder Kevin Price, Elder Cunningham begins to look up to Elder Price as his best friend and role model, and even goes to the extent of acknowledging his own limitations and shortcomings, evidenced through the song “You and Me, But Mostly Me.”
This hilarious number (somewhat) accurately illustrates the domineering archetype role that many Mormon missionaries seek to attain, depicting Price as the authority-seeking “hero” elder who believes he has something to prove—to himself and his family back home, but mostly to God. The lyrics of this duet include Elder Price singing “Every hero needs a sidekick,” and Elder Cunningham’s back-up vocals cautiously singing phrases like “I’ll stay out of your way…” and “I can stand next to you and watch.” This scene and accompanying music becomes more ironic as the play goes on; Elder Price, the expected hero, soon finds himself in a crisis of faith, while Elder Cunningham steps up to fulfill his role as the innocent and inexperienced spiritual leader of the entire African village.
Elder Cunningham’s “monomyth” isn’t all smooth sailings as he is confronted with trials and challenges that test his dedication and perseverance. He soon finds that in order to get people’s attention to teach and convert, he has to stretch the Book of Mormon stories and put his own modern twist on the scripture’s application and its meanings. There’s even a song entitled “Making Things Up Again” that highlights Elder Cunningham’s perpetual compulsive lying, as his conscience and God’s booming voice call him to repentance.
While his newfound skill of teaching and helping others is based on legends and myths that aren’t completely true, Elder Cunningham continues to build his reputation on a faulty perception on who Mormons are and what they believe. The Ugandan villagers, however, discover that they are happy the more they listen to and learn from Elder Cunningham. They begin to see him as a lovable, personable, and genuine missionary who is truly trying to help them live the gospel and bring about change in their lives, even if his stories and teachings seem far-fetched.
Elder Cunningham’s symbolic death and rebirth is naturally overdramatized and demonstrated in his solo number “Man Up,” which compares his low point as a missionary to Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for mankind. Elder Cunningham crosses this threshold of uncertainty and discouragement by looking to Christ as an example and acquiring the strength to keep fighting and enduring on his mission, specifically after seeing no success, which leads to Elder Price abandoning him. Although the number is performed in a sacrilegious tone, this turning point sheds light on Elder Cunningham’s spiritual and personal revival. This episode of self-discovery sheds light on Elder Cunningham’s strengths and abilities, and provides him with confidence to carry out the task of converting the African people and proving to his mission president that his work is unique but still honorable.
The character roles seem to come full circle as Elder Cunningham tries to bring his companion Elder Price back to his long-standing Mormon beliefs and help him see the positive in their circumstances.
Elder Cunningham’s journey of change and self-discovery is likely representative of many Mormon missionaries. His weaknesses and unexpected success are also relatable to all who feel insecure in their abilities or who surprise him or herself in outdoing their inner self-expectations. Elder Cunningham’s goofy charm makes the story fun and light-hearted and sends a blaring message that regardless of our perceived abilities and strengths, everyone has something unique to contribute to a task or cause, regardless of how unconventional and eccentric it may seem. As is representative of the hero’s myth and the healing myth, Elder Cunningham returns home as a changed individual who has earned respect amidst his family and peers; but more importantly he has happily and humbly witnessed a transformation in his own life and the lives of the Africans he converted.