For two years, there’s been an expensive hardcover biography of Joseph Smith sitting unread in my living room. I may never get around to reading it. To me, Joseph Smith’s life is starting to feel like the burned over district of Mormonism. As blog posts, podcasts and books ceaselessly roll out new treatments on the same old Mormon subtopics, I find myself reacting with fatigue and disinterest. The benefits of a change of pace should not be underestimated.
Recently I listened to a Mormon Land podcast featuring Jake Johnson, an assistant professor of musicology. He was on to plug his book: Mormons, Musical Theater, and Belonging in America. The title seemed up my alley in a way I couldn’t and shouldn’t pass over. I’ve been in love with musical theater since that day in the late-80s when I tried listening to my sister’s double LP of the London cast album of Les Misérables. So began a love affair with musicals which directly affected my path through college, dating, and career.
The historical connection between Mormonism and musical theater comes as no revelation. Many of us have taken self-righteous swings at Saturday’s Warrior. Frankly, it’s fun to beat up on that musical. Perhaps we do so to compensate for the personal embarrassment of knowing that Saturday’s Warrior—for all its hindsight awkwardness—truly gets to the heart and soul of what it meant to live and love 20th century Mormonism. Incidentally, I have in mind the 1989 video production of this musical, which I embraced at the time.
As Dr. Johnson points out, decades before The Book of Mormon became a megahit musical on Broadway, Saturday’s Warrior presented us with an over-the-top pair of missionaries playing out a conventional musical theater romance. I don’t mean the missionary pair in Saturday’s Warrior literally become lovers. Rather, as Johnson explains, the musical’s plot cannot achieve resolution until the pair of Elders come together and find the convert who will bring the show full circle of love. Once they do, the missionaries fondly reprise their Premortal duet. It’s a clever “homosocial” spin on what usually happens in 20th century musicals: a white heterosexual couple struggle to connect in a chaotic world and then marry. Sounds pretty Mormon to me.
By recounting history all the way back to 1840s Nauvoo, Johnson shows how Mormonism and American musical theater prove symbiotic. It’s much deeper than a mere case of cheery compatibility spawning grand pageants and campy roadshows. The connections go all the way back to Nephi assuming the voice of Laban in the Book of Mormon to secure the brass plates (1 Nephi 4:20).
The next big performance involves Brigham Young taking on the voice and appearance of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo shortly after the latter’s death. Johnson, calling on the suspicions of respected historian Richard S. Van Wagoner, asserts this was nothing short of a stage performance. Brigham the thespian deliberately assumed the voice of Joseph Smith in an effort to consolidate power.
Next, pioneers perform theatricals during the trek west, and Brigham Young begins building the Broadway-sized Salt Lake Theatre, dedicated in 1862. Jump ahead to the turn of the century. Mormons, eager to combat harsh stereotypes proliferated by operettas, grab hold of the art form and make it their own. It all culminates with the Utah centennial musical Promised Valley, which expensively emulated the marketing triumph of the Broadway musical Oklahoma.
By the time you wind up on YouTube watching Prop 8 – The Musical, which in a sense prepared the way for Book of Mormon the musical, the connections will be crooning in your ears. Here are some of Johnson’s observations I found especially interesting:
- Both Mormonism and musical theater are cultural outgrowths of 19th century Jacksonian ideology. What does that mean? In a performance context, think minstrelsy back when it was A-Okay for mainstream white people, including Mormons, to be caught doing blackface.
- Mormon leaders have displayed a marked fondness for Fiddler on the Roof, going back to a 1971 Ensign article by then Elder Thomas S. Monson. In the article, titled “The Women’s Movement: Liberation or Deception?” Elder Monson used a speech by the musical’s patriarch, Tevye, to persuade Mormon women to remain loyal members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and its patriarchy).
- Performances at the Polynesian Cultural Center, and other outlets like the Lamanite Generation (a musical group started by a BYU professor in 1971), propagated a stereotype of the “happy native.” People believed to be of Lamanite lineage learned to celebrate their culture by singing and dancing it in a “white and delightsome” way.
- Notwithstanding their coarse racism, performance traditions like minstrelsy and satirical operetta provided a non-violent outlet for societal tensions. Such lampooning inadvertently helped the process of normalizing othered groups (including Mormons).
- Book of Mormon the musical dramatizes the failure of the Church’s correlation efforts. This is typified in the character Elder Cunningham, a well-intentioned compulsive liar, and easily the show’s most successful missionary.
The general leaning of the above points is unmistakably toward criticizing the Church, and Johnson is upfront about this. Yet, rather than simply castigate the Church as an agent of Jacksonian racism, that needful word in the title, “Belonging,” becomes more and more significant over the course of the book. As I neared the final pages of Mormons, Musical Theater, and Belonging in America, I scribbled a note to myself. Perhaps nothing has proven more helpful to Mormons’ quest to be both set apart and yet fully mainstream than musical theater.
Questions linger for me. When analyzing Mormonism’s cultural origins, how heavily should musical theater be weighted in relation to other factors like patriarchy and politics? Would anyone other than a music professor come to the conclusions this book comes to? Some might dismiss the notion that the Osmonds and their like have played as influential a role in shaping Mormonism as leaders like Bruce R. McConkie, but Dr. Johnson makes a pretty good case.
I suppose due to the niche quality of the title, this book is unlikely to find a wide readership. That strikes me as sad. Jake Johnson meaningfully explores many of the big issues and events in Mormonism we folks on the bloggernacle obsess over. Moreover, he does so with a novel approach few blog posts and podcasts do. If you think you could benefit from a fresh look at the history of Mormonism, and I submit most of us would, Mormons, Musical Theater, and Belonging in America is a great opportunity.
It’s a well-written book. I’ve incorporated some of Johnson’s ideas in my own work on Mormonism and aesthetics. Actually, it’s the arts where a lot of Mormonism’s cultural and doctrinal contradictions are often most visible. The appropriation and adaptation of certain artistic styles and theories and the rejection of others is a significant part of Mormon history and is a good way to track Mormon thought as it has evolved (or not) on certain issues. When it comes to things like aesthetics or affective/emotional responses to art, things get both complicated and interesting. There’s a whole thread in Mormon theology about the body and bodily empathy, e.g., that is linked to current thinking on how neurobiology relates to religious thought and experience. Interesting stuff.
In the area of Salt Lake where I grew up, musical theater was huge among the Mormon community. It wasn’t just the campy roadshows. I remember participating in stake productions of The King and I, Les Mis, and Music Man. We would perform downtown at the Promised Valley Playhouse on State Street.
Personally, I feel like a disproportionately large amount of Mormon youth participate in musical theater and the arts in general. I fully agree with your assessment that musical theater allows a way for Latter-day Saints to participate in the mainstream community while still remaining set apart in their private lives.
I lived most of my 20s in Utah. I loved the large quantities of professional and amateur performing arts available. Community theaters at the time were totally in love with the musical “Big River,” about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve seen that show three times, all via local Utah productions. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was another that had become a local favorite even before Donny Osmond starred in a highly successful Canadian revival, soundtrack, and subsequent video production. To get the riskier, more risque fare, by which I mean Sondheim and the like, I usually had to go to a college or professional production. But still, the strong community support tended to be there for musicals in general.