This guest post comes from Jake Johnson, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the Wanda L. Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University. His 2019 book Mormons, Musical Theater, and Belonging in America was reviewed by Wheat and Tares permablogger Jake Christensen last November.
The Christmas season places musicals and Mormons center stage. The air rings with holiday tunes drafted from the Great White Way, and Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir every year helps make that possible. This year’s production, though, was more illuminating. With her catapult from Broadway into America’s heart, Kristin Chenoweth’s appearance alongside the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra of Temple Square for last month’s Christmas special calls attention to what have become unsuspecting staples in America’s holiday tradition—an American genre and America’s fastest-growing religion.
I recently wrote a book that examines musicals within Mormonism, and I now happen to teach at Oklahoma City University—the place where, famously, Chenoweth learned how to sing. These worlds colliding may be uniquely vexing for me, but the combination isn’t all that surprising. Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir says something significant about Mormonism and its place in curating the sounds of America’s displays of acceptance.
Chenoweth is the latest in a line of Broadway stars appearing with the Tabernacle Choir during Christmas, joining ranks with Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sutton Foster, and, on deck for next year’s televised Christmas special, Kelli O’Hara, who called the opportunity “the ultimate invitation.” There is a story for how musicals and Mormons and Christmas became a darling trio. There is an explanation for how an increasingly progressive musical community with a huge hit satirizing Mormons stands alongside them every Christmas season. The story teaches us something about America.
By now we know that Mormons and musicals have become something of a meme. Since 2011, Book of Mormon has asked audiences to consider what makes the faith such easy fodder. But the relationship with Broadway started much earlier. Polygamy and proto-socialist values held Mormons apart from most Americans, making for easy ridicule. Nineteenth-century musical comedies took Mormons to task as villainous mobs, sex-crazed tyrants, or worse. Mormon-themed productions were so common that in 1917 a New York Times reviewer shrugged that “Mormonism is just about the only religion that can be exploited in musical comedy.”
Over the decades, Mormons have changed and so has Broadway. Audiences for a while grew tired of villainizing Mormons on stage, partly because the much-maligned faith was using musicals to win broader American acceptance. Their high-profile 1947 musical Promised Valley—modeled on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 hit Oklahoma!—projected a squeaky-clean, non-polygamist version of frontier Mormonism that looked and sounded as American as apple pie. The plot worked. What’s today just as American (and white) as musicals, you might ask? Mormons, answered Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Musicals continue to play a large role in Mormon life. Not only are made-for-Mormon musicals like Saturday’s Warrior, My Turn on Earth, and Promised Valley mainstays of the culture, but the very principle of musicals—acting and speaking on behalf of another—is a central tenet of Mormon theology. From pageants to road shows to the temple ceremony itself, what keeps Mormons close to musicals is also what binds Mormonism together.
Not everyone was convinced that cheery show tunes would be an appropriate emblem for the Mormon brand. “I don’t think the Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir belongs on Broadway,” Mormon apostle Joseph Fielding Smith once said. For the choir to be “on Broadway” would have been an admission that en vogue trends held sway in the Mormon church. Broadway represented a kind of popular culture that, given one church leader’s missive against the “pornophonic sound” of rock music, had no place among God’s people. On the other hand, the choir had a platform, and could make money selling Mormonism and musicals as iconic Americana. Despite the pushback, in 1971—during Smith’s presidency—the choir released a successful album of Broadway show tunes titled Climb Every Mountain. Prophet upstaged by profit.
The Tabernacle Choir has since moved beyond Reagan’s designation as “America’s Choir” to become America’s commercial impresario—coordinating the razzle dazzle of musicals and the trappings of Christmas with the spectacle of a nearly 400-voice choir. Mormons took a path through villainy to find belonging on America’s biggest stage—a happy ending deserving of a musical. It seems fitting then that Chenoweth, whose Glinda the Good Witch in Wicked flipped the script on wickedness and goodness, stood with them this last season of Mormonism’s wildest decade on America’s biggest stages. This Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas concert was a spirited opportunity to reflect on what belonging in this country looks and sounds like. Because of Mormons and musicals, America has been changed, and for good.
Lead image from Church Newsroom. The televised special is a recording from the previous year’s live concert. Kristen Chenoweth performed with the Tabernacle Choir in December 2018.