The danger in telling people you write a little bit is that they then assume you can. Last week a friend from my ward called and asked me to write the libretto for a musical show she has been called to coordinate for the stake; a few of the creative decisions had already been made, she told me, but she needed me to write lyrics and a narrative frame for the story. The show is meant to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of our stake, headquartered at the Butler Hill meetinghouse; the stake presidency had designated a “Sound of Music” theme, and the show had been titled, naturally, “Butler Hill Is Alive with the Sound of Music.” Last night, at the end of a three-hour meeting with the other creatives recruited for the project–at which I was utterly floored by everyone else’s encyclopedic knowledge of “The Sound of Music”–we had hammered out the basics: the best seven songs, one for each ward, will be re-written with Mormon-themed lyrics, Herr Detweiler will be the master of ceremonies for an overarching talent show narrative that will link the numbers (just like the talent show at the end of the movie, you see), and we’ll even throw in a salsa number to showcase the Spanish-speaking unit.
Amateur theatricals of this sort have a long history in the church. Nauvoo had a community theater, and Joseph himself directed that a home dramatic company be established. Soon after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, the saints erected a bowery–a makeshift pavilion–on Temple Square to house performances of concerts, plays and dances. In 1853, scarcely five years after arrival, the bowery was replaced with Social Hall, in which a full complement of theatrical exhibitions was maintained during the winter. And in 1862 the Salt Lake Theater, one of the finest facilities of its time in the west, was dedicated: at the service, Brother Brigham said, “On the stage of a theatre can be represented in character evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards, the weaknesses and follies of man and the magnanimity of the virtuous life.”
As Utah gradually become more diverse and more secular by the end of the century, the ward replaced the community as the focal point of church-centered social and cultural life. Colorful dance festivals appeared at June conferences; in the 1930s road show competitions, featuring original mini-musicals, emerged in stakes and wards and persisted for many decades. The church sponsored–and continues to sponsor–a number of religious-historical pageants. Even as recently as my childhood, our stake participated in large regional dance festivals and mounted a full-scale annual musical.
Beginning in the 1960s, though, wards and stakes have diminished somewhat as centers of social and cultural life. The consolidated meeting schedule, the reallocation of tithing funds to pay ward expenses, increasing workplace demands, and the proliferation of competing secular extra-curricular activities for youth and children have all contributed to this scale-back. It’s my sense, however, that recent years have seen a renewed emphasis on stake and regional cultural events, an attempt to recover the cultural traditions that had been somewhat impoverished. Our stake president told us that “Butler Hill Is Alive” was conceived specifically in response to a letter from SLC urging that large cultural events be reinstated; a few years ago I attended a leadership training meeting that conveyed the same message; even the construction of the Conference Center, the establishment of the Orchestra at Temple Square, and the occasional cultural events at the Conference Center seem to suggest this renewed emphasis.
I look over this history approvingly, and in theory I like the idea of recovering a Mormon culture of amateur arts. In reality, though, I am not blessed with an optimistic vision, and I confess that my heart quails at the prospect of long meetings, under-attended rehearsals, last-minute emergencies, and uneven results. I am glad to help my friend, and I am pleased to associate with other people from around the stake, but I acknowledge some dread as I think about the ordeal ahead.
What kind of cultural events do your units sponsor? Have you noticed a recent resurgence in emphasis? Do these events strengthen members?
Oh, and if you can come up with a clever lyric to “How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria,” sister-missionary style, I’m open to suggestions.