‘1820’ Could be the Best Latter-Day Saint Musical Since ‘Saturday’s Warrior’

But for now, the search for the great Latter-Day Saint musical continues.

The closest to ever be achieved was by Lex de Azevedo and Doug Stewart’s ‘Saturday’s Warrior,’ which bounces from the sublime to the sentimental to the painfully cheesy and back again. Despite containing nuggets of musical and thematic triumph, it makes for a lopsided package with a pointlessly tangled set of narrative threads. Azevedo’s other successful Latter-Day Saint musical, ‘My Turn on Earth,’ is cut from the same uneven cloth, juxtaposing lines like “the most precious gift we have been given next to life itself is the power to direct that life” with lines like “John, you’re not really Satan, we’re just pretending!”

BYU Professor of Theatre George D. Nelson’s new ‘1820: The Musical’ is more consistent and less likely to cause the audience to cringe, but like ‘Saturday’s Warrior’ and ‘My Turn on Earth,’ it’s a musical with great songs and moments and yet fails to be a great musical. The songs, written by a team including Kendra Lowe Holt, Kayliann Lowe Juarez, and Doug Lowe, depict various vignettes from the life of the prophet Joseph Smith and Emma Smith and often succeed in capturing the emotions of moments in the story. Nelson’s book, however, is unable to make a plot out of these moments (despite the book being written before the musical, according to Nelson).

In our Reactionary age, it seems that all criticism is interpreted as hate. ‘1820’ could be a great musical, but the problems that will hold the musical back from wider success are downstream from the key issue that it has no plot. To say that ‘1820’ has no plot is not necessarily synonymous with saying that I hate the musical. Lots of things happen in ‘1820,’ some of them in good scenes, but they aren’t connected by cause and effect. ‘1820’ is a series of scenes about the prophet’s life, ordered only by chronology with no sense of storytelling or thematic purpose.

This lack of purpose is what makes some choices in the production itself so baffling. For example, the choreography by BYU contemporary dance instructor Adam Dyer features elaborate group numbers on the “showstopper” songs, but for most of the production has the extras doing a lot of dopey crawling around on the floor and creeping around the set in faux slow motion before pushing and pulling the principals around for no discernible reason. Outside the carefully rehearsed big dance numbers, the dancing extras convey amateurishness in their very movements.

‘1820’ is compared to ‘Hamilton’ in its marketing materials, which explains the otherwise bizarre use of a minimalist set and effects alongside more elaborate lighting effects. ‘1820’ also imitates ‘Hamilton’ in its use of race-reversed casting, and Conlon Bonner delivers an emotionally compelling performance as Hyrum Smith. Musically, I won’t hold the comparison to ‘Hamilton’ against ‘1820,’ which fortunately includes only one big rap sequence, a vaguely 80s-style number that could be mistaken for the work of Will Smith, or maybe MC Skat Kat.

The highlight of the cast is Zach Wilson in the role of Joseph Smith, a triple threat who commands each scene dramatically, has the best male singing voice on that stage, and dances with rhythm and dexterity across multiple genres and styles. The songs are generally similar to those in ‘The Greatest Showman,’ catchy pop tunes with simple lyrics that summarize the basic emotional beats of their scene. Individually, many of them succeed quite well.

‘1820’ just completed a six-week opening engagement at the Covey Center in Provo, opening with a blitz of advertising and attempts to gain a following through Latter-Day Saint “influencers.” The producers say they have an eye on bringing the production all the way to Broadway, but in its current state, it’s not ready for New York. Catchy songs alone won’t make it anywhere without a really big name attached.

‘Hadestown,’ last year’s Tony winner, took a fifteen-year trip through workshops, previews, local productions, and even a concept album before becoming Broadway’s big hit of 2019. If ‘1820’ is to continue along a similar path, it needs serious improvements before we see a better version on a regional tour. Nelson has suggested that ‘1820’ was written in part as a response to ‘Book of Mormon.’ I would suggest then, that in future performances when the cast sings the closing number “I’m Still Here,” the cast holds up copies of the Book of Mormon to accompany their defiance of those who condemn and ridicule the prophet and the faith, both past and present.

‘1820: The Musical’ Official Soundtrack Album Cover (Amazon)

The soundtrack recording, released in advance of the stage debut of the musical, stands on its own and could become a niche favorite independently of the stage production. It’s available on Spotify, YouTube, and other streaming services. Start with “Who is This Man?,” “Alive in Christ,” “All About Timing,” and “I’m Still Here.”

The Authoritarian Moment is an (Incomplete) Complete Formulation of Shapiro’s Thesis on the New Left

There’s a problem with books from radio/podcast hosts: they usually contain nothing that the host hasn’t already talked about a dozen times. If you listen to the respective hosts’ shows a few times a month, there’s nothing to set books like Rush Limbaugh’s See, I Told You So, Glenn Beck’s An Inconvenient Book, or Sean Hannity’s Conservative Victory apart from their daily radio shows except for a new framing device. The talking points remain the same, but at least Beck once had a sense of humor.

Books like this can be useful when they outline a complete version of the author/host’s worldview or their diagnosis of the current situation that we can then critique. Ben Shapiro is cleverer and better educated than any other conservative radio host, so he recognizes this need to write a book that defends a thesis about the social/political world in a complete and concise way.

Naturally, this means that The Authoritarian Moment, Shapiro’s newest book, is formed from a selection of the previous year’s worth of the talking points from his podcast. The fact that there’s nothing new is the natural consequence of talking nonstop for three hours a day. The Authoritarian Moment shapes Shapiro’s ideas into an overall theory that a series of recent trends perpetuated by the new left constitute an authoritarian push to silence dissent. These trends are obvious to anyone who has observed American culture and politics recently: the crackdown on social media, the acquiesce of corporations to woke demands, the bastardization of science, and the takeover of the academy, among others. Shapiro attributes these trends to a few social and psychological factors, like “renormalization,” ultracrepidarianism, the transformation of openly partisan news into partisan news that claims to give the unbiased truth, and the conjunction of the revolutionary instinct with the utopian instinct.

“Trump might have authoritarian tendencies,” writes Shapiro, “but he did not wield authoritarian power.” There’s a problem of definitions in the book that Shapiro seems to be aware of but is not capable of solving. We generally have a understanding of authoritarianism that involves the use of violence, threat of violence, or the use of government power – which is an implicit threat of violence. But the old leftist game is to confuse speech with violence, voluntary acts with fascism, everyday influence with authoritarian power.

If we’re going to create a new meaning of authoritarianism, one that includes non violent, non-state actions, we need to clearly define the new meanings of the term authoritarianism in opposition to each other. What is the difference between authoritarian instincts and authoritarian power? It’s a tricky question, and Shapiro isn’t quite able to give a satisfactory answer. But this matters, because it will take rational arguments within a logically consistent framework gain back ground in the war of ideas.

Shapiro attributes the takeover of certain institutions, like academia, to “renormalization,” a process in which the loudest and most stubborn in an institution are able to shift the status quo by intimidating those who want to take the path of least resistance into going along with their insane new normal. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” as the saying goes.

This might explain why some members of administration cave to the radicals, but is renormalization really adequate to explain the total purge of the universities? How does renormalization work on notoriously intransigent groups like Burkeian conservatives, philosophical Pragmatists, and even classical economists? And why, for the entire twentieth century, were so many intelligent members of the academy intellectually unable to contend with the philosophical equivalent of snake oil-peddling quacks? Shapiro isn’t necessarily wrong here, but he’s trying to use a single theory to explain too much.

The Authoritarian Moment is a good guide/reminder of some of the insanities of the last couple of years, like the cancellations of James Bennett, Gena Carano, Barry Weiss, and the Covington students. Shapiro endeavors to connect these by a common thread. But he avoids going into the weeds to refute some of the core ideas behind this ideology. Critical theory epistemology underlies their “ethical” argument for silencing dissenters while Karl Popper’s idiotic “Paradox of Tolerance” in various forms underlies their practical argument. At some point, conservatives might have to stop talking about how crazy the people who advocate these ideas are and actually refute the core ideas themselves.

Every book like this has some kind of call-to-action in the short last chapter, suggesting how we might fight back against the evil that constitutes 95% of the Book. “They can’t cancel us if we don’t let them” is a good rallying cry, but it brings up a difficult problem. Do we let them cancel neo-Nazis? Would we cancel an anti-Semitic “Black Hebrew Israelite”? Where do we draw the line? Should those who suggest Nazis shouldn’t be canceled be canceled themselves? Should those who suggest that those who suggest that those who suggest that Nazis shouldn’t be canceled shouldn’t be canceled shouldn’t be canceled be canceled?

In his commentary elsewhere about the whimsical mandates of government entities regarding Covid-19 masks and lockdowns, Shapiro often speaks of the need of a “limiting principle.” What is the limiting principle in regards to what speech should get someone canceled? Can we draw the line at advocating violence? If that were the case, we could cancel people for advocating war in the Near East, enforcement of drug or firearms law, or BLM riots. If the standard for cancellation is only societal norms, then anyone with minority views outside the overton window should be canceled. The canceled can only complain that society’s norms have changed while looking in from the outside.

Maybe he’s suggesting that we should cancel no-one, and be tolerant and friendly with those who have evil beliefs. But if that’s what Shapiro is advocating, then he needs to actually say it. If not, what consistent principle protects conservatives but cancels actual real-life white supremacists? It a question that needs to be reckoned with if there is to be a cohesive resistance against the authoritarian left, and Shapiro leaves this important one unanswered.

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Top Image: Children line up in front of a mural in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by Thomas Evans

‘Witnesses’ is a Rare Surprise

I’m a notorious Grinch on the subject of religious film.

I have a theory that the standards for religious films are so low because they only tell the audience what they want to hear. The popular God’s Not Dead, for example, is a lousy movie on multiple levels, made to pander to our lowest intellectual tendencies; the part of us that wants a movie to spoonfeed us proof that atheists are all a bunch of idiots. Beyond this main thread, there are about a dozen other plots in God’s Not Dead, a hodgepodge of unrelated ideas and clumsily connected characters, including Duck Dynasty guy for some reason in possibly the movie’s dumbest scene. An ambush reporter who doesn’t talk over her subject but instead allows him to speak while respectfully listening? Give me a break.

I’m mentioning my prejudice to indicate how how surprised I am to say this: Witnesses is a great movie.

Here is a movie that understands that its role is not to be a sermon or a polemic, but an emotional journey. It doesn’t flatter the audience by telling them how right they are, it “discomforts the comfortable,” and takes the audience to doubt and back.

Witnesses is based on the mostly familiar story of Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. It’s framed by an interview David Whitmer (Michael Zuccola/Paul Kandarian (older)) gave to a reporter as an old man, as well as an incident back in 1833 where he was ordered at gunpoint by a mob to renounce his witness. Even though Whitmer frames the story, most of the heavy dramatic lifting in the movie is done in Martin Harris (Lincoln Hoppe), in the turmoil leading up to and perpetually following the loss of the first manuscript.

Hoppe gives a unique performance, taking us through his Harris’s desperate conflict to reconsile his powerful doubts with his powerful faith. He has a face that is constantly showing his thought process for us to see; big, formalistic expressions playing on top of each other.

Director Mark Goodman’s style here is moderately expressionistic – emphasizing the emotional perspectives of the characters – but it is also grounded in reality. There are no angelic choirs swelling in the background when the prophet speaks. The camera rarely engages in the pointless “artistic” shots endemic to independent film. The gold plates are not magical glowing relics, they are a solid presence throughout the film. Joseph Smith (Paul Wuthrich) even uses them as an improvised club in an early scene when being chased by thieves. This lack of distracting adornment makes the situation of the members of the Smith family living in close contact and even touching the plates with but never seeing them directly even more emotionally surreal.

A lesser movie would have Joseph giving the audence a speech about why he does not show the plates to the world and Harris should just have faith. Witnesses shows, rather than lectures. Joseph says that he intends to keep his covenant about the plates. Martin Harris makes the same covenant about the 116 pages, and we see in visual and emotional terms how he lets his covenant slip away while Joseph stays firm to his.

We are taken through the difficult journey of the witnesses, which combines the despair of not being able to see the plates with the later despair of disillusionment in Kirtland. Having already seen the angel and plates, they still experienced a crisis of faith, leaving Kirtland and the Church after condemnation from a demagoging Sidney Rigdon (Joseph Carlson).

Two of the Three Witnesses, Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery (Caleb J. Spivak, who looks uncannily like the real Cowdery), rejoined the Church years layer. David Whitmer never did, though his witness survived both the guns of an angry mob and 50 years of bitterness at the church.

But if you’re expecting a movie to give you proof of how right you are and how dumb those atheists and anoying evangelical billboards are, Witnesses might not be for you. Witnesses shows us the emotional problem of being lost in doubt and points toward the way out. Whitmer says in the end that “The Book of Mormon was not meant to be proven, it was meant to be read, and then asked of to the creator of all.”

If you want the full stories and facts about the witnesses, try to hunt down a copy of Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard Lloyd Anderson, the late BYU historian and my inspiration and friend. Witnesses is dedicated to his memory and – to my surprise – it is a beautiful and fitting tribute.

Reviewing Moon’s Rare Books

The Greatest Collection of Church History in the World is Tucked Away in Provo

I would say it’s the “best-kept secret in Utah,” but according to a billboard I recently saw on I-15, that title belongs to a carpet warehouse in Spanish Fork, and I wouldn’t want to challenge them. But Moon’s Rare Books, located in the Shops at Riverwoods in northeast Provo, is a unique place that everyone should have a chance to visit. It’s more museum than bookstore, with museum-quality displays of books and historic artifacts from the History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as well as displays from early modern Britain, middle Christianity, Victorian literature, and American film.

This is me with George Lucas’s original Star Wars script after an event at Moon’s Rare Books. You won’t see me this excited about something at any other time.

Reid Moon’s collection includes countless one-of-a-kind books and artifacts from both the Church and the wider history of the English-speaking world. Nowhere else do you have the chance to see the personal copies of the Book of Mormon owned by Joseph, Hyrum, and Samuel Smith during their lifetimes. Or the original fedora and whip used in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Or a first-edition copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone signed by an 11-year-old Daniel Radcliffe. Or a King James Bible that belonged to its namesake, King James I.

I say that it’s a like a museum, but it’s more of a journey, a unique experience every time. I’ve visited on multiple occasions. Once I left overwhelmed by the volume of knowledge in the world of which I’ve only scratched the surface. Once I spent several hours going from artifact to artifact, book to book, and Wikipedia article to Wikipedia article as I explored the past. Once I saw and held things so sacred, I hesitate to mention it online. And not just the Star Wars script.

The collection rivals the Church History Museum in content, and far surpasses it in engagement. It includes an original dictation of a revelation received by Joseph Smith, the only original section of the Doctrine and Covenants not owned by the Church today, as well as at least one article of scripture belonging to each Latter-Day Prophet.

The front room contains a large collection of early modern Bibles, a staple of any great book collection, while the back room contains an immense collection of Books of Mormon (Book of Mormons?), in every language in which it has been published, including a few in the nineteenth century “Deseret Alphabet.” The Bible collection includes a few large partially damaged Bibles, single pages of which are available for sale and framing as a beautiful display. The front room also contains a layout in the form of an old English street full of shops, each with various themed displays to view through the windows.

The front room and main area are free to visitors, open six days a week and alone are worth the visit. But some of the greatest treasures can only be seen on in the back room, on the giant side of a giant oak door imported from an English castle. The back room is typically only accessible during Mr. Moon’s lectures and live events, which he gives over a hundred times a year. It’s during these events that he shows off the amazing breadth of his collection, which he does in the form of requests for books related to any subject. For example, when given the subject of magic he pulled out a book of magic tricks owned and marked up by Harry Houdini himself.

Next time you’re in Provo, Moon’s Rare Books should top your list of things to do. And if you’re not visiting any time soon, it might be worth making the trip anyway. After your visit, I’d recommend either Seven Brothers or Happy Sumo for dinner, which are both just a few shops away in the Riverwoods. Seven Brothers has one of the best burgers in Utah Valley, and Happy Sumo has great sushi in a relaxing atmosphere. Reid Moon also has an Instagram page with enough history to make me break my resolution to never use Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/reidnmoon/

More information is available at https://moonsrarebooks.com/.

Neither Moon’s Rare Books nor any other business has offered any compensation in exchange for this review. Maybe one day…