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.
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.”