Introducing Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon: Critical Essays on the Broadway Musical

Introducing Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon: Critical Essays on the Broadway Musical

by Jerry Argetsinger

Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon: Critical Essays on the Broadway Musical
Edited by Marc E. Shaw & Holly Welker
Roman & Littlefield Publishers, 2016
Hardcover, 196 pages, $75.00 (Kindle $56.80)

Now in its 7th year, having opened March 24, 2011, Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon is still one of the most popular shows on Broadway.  Two national tours have been crisscrossing North America for five years. Productions are also running in London, since 2013 and Melbourne, since earlier this year. Even as I write, a National Tour is performing for the second time in Salt Lake City.

An excellent collection of critical essays on the musical was published last year but seems to have gone mostly unnoticed. Mark E. Shaw and Holly Welker’s Singing and Dancing to the Book of Mormon: Critical Essays on the Broadway Musical has yet to be reviewed in any theater or academic venue. I was invited to write a brief introduction to the book for AML, even though I authored one of those essays. To be completely transparent, I do not know any of the other contributors and the first time I read their essays was when I received my author copy of the book May 3, 2016. When I finished reading the volume, I wrote this general response in my journal: “Six brilliant, two very good, and two all right essays on the Musical.”  Of course I included my own as one of the six, so there may be a bit of exaggeration on that point. I was honestly amazed at the quality of scholarship and am very proud to be included. Among the “reader reviews” at Amazon.com and Mormon Main Street, it is clear that essays are valued differently by individual readers who point out their own favorites. Continue Reading →

2016 AML Awards Finalists #5: Drama, Film, and Video Series

We are excited to announce the 2016 Association for Mormon Letters awards finalists in the Drama, Film, and Video Series categories. Middle Grade Novel, Young Adult NovelPoetry, Short FictionComics, Novel, Picture BooksCreative Non-fiction, and Religious Non-fiction finalists were announced previously. There will also be a Criticism award, but there will not be finalists for that category. The final awards will be announced and presented at the AML Conference at Utah Valley University on April 22. The Smith-Pettit Foundation Award for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters and the AML Lifetime Achievement awards will also be presented there. The finalists and winners are chosen by juries of authors and critics. The finalist announcements include blurbs about each of the books and author biographies, taken from the author and publisher websites.

Drama

The judges for the Drama award considered only the written scripts, not the production, or any music that might have been part of the play.

Matthew Greene. Gregorian. Working Artist Theatre Project, New York City.  August.

Gregorian portrays one family’s journey through the bloodiest century in human history as four generations discover the gravity of a name passed from father to son. The play explores the cyclical effects of genocide on humanity, the consequences of denial, and the essential place these stories hold in our existence. Beginning with the Gregorian family’s own tragic roots in the Armenian Genocide, through the rise of the Nazi Party, across the killing fields of Cambodia, and the continuing crisis in Africa, they do all they can to hold on to heritage, history, and hope. Continue Reading →

2015 AML Awards Finalists #5: Drama, Comics, and Criticism

We are excited to announce the finalists in the fourth group of categories of 2015 Association for Mormon Letters awards, Drama, Comics, and Criticism. We previously announced Creative Non-Fiction and Religious Non-Fiction, Novel, Short Fiction Collection, and Short Fiction, Young Adult and Middle Grade Novel, Lyrics, Picture Book, and Poetry and soon will announce Film. The final awards will be announced and presented at the AML Conference on March 4 at BYU Hawaii.

Drama

Matthew Ivan Bennett. A/Version of Events. Premier run: Plan B Theater Company, Rose Wagner Theatre, Salt Lake City, March 5-15.

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Lisa Hall Hagen (adaption) and Shannon Hale (original book). Princess Academy. Premier run: Pardoe Theatre, BYU, Provo, May 29–30, June 4–13. Continue Reading →

Shame, Support, and a Mormon Playwright

Note: On Thursday, November 5, 2015, I was invited to Skype in and speak to Kylie Nielson Turley’s Mormon Literature class at BYU about Mormon Drama. As they had already read my historical overview of Mormon Drama in Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, I decided to go more personal. This is what I came up with, followed by a wonderful Q&A session…what a sharp class! This was NOT meant to be a commentary on recent events in the Church, on either side. Correlations between the relationship between the LDS and LGBT communities addressed in the essay are purely coincidental, in regards to the current controversy, and were not intended to be construed as any public statement regarding it.

 

Farewell to Eden Cast

Me and the 2004 cast of “Farewell to Eden”

My play Farewell to Eden had received its premiere at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University) that previous November, and then had been invited to KCACTF’s regional festival in California. The play really excited a lot of the judges and audiences there, despite being a relatively religious play performing before chiefly secular audiences. Although the production itself didn’t advance to the national festival, I was invited to attend to receive a couple of awards for the writing of the play.

At the National Festival, I attended a workshop with Oskar Eustis, a renowned director, dramaturg, and theatre artist. He was the Artistic Director who commissioned and directed Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America in its premier in San Francisco at the Mark Taper Forum. As the subject of his workshop, he discussed the process of developing Angels in America and working with Tony Kushner, which was all very fascinating. I found his thoughts on the interaction between politics and theatre particularly interesting, and was enjoying his dynamic and personable style of speaking. It was also very fun hearing how the development of such a dynamic, famous, and powerful play came about. Eustis’s personal anecdotes about working with Tony Kushner were really insightful into the creative process, not to mention quite funny. Like I said, I was happy to be there. Grateful, even. I felt like I was among like-minded people celebrating an art form I loved, and listening at the feet of those who had accomplished great things within that art form. I was laughing, I was listening, I was enjoying myself.

Then came that gut punch. Obviously, since Eustis was talking about Angels in America, it was a distinct possibility that Mormonism was going to come up. Anyone with any cursory awareness of the two plays knows that it heavily features Mormon characters in conflict with LGBT characters, and draws heavily upon Mormon iconography with much of its symbolism and thematic material. However, despite its often aggressive stance against Mormons, Kushner also allows for some sympathetic treatment of Mormon characters with the character of Hannah, a tough and insightful LDS matriarch within the play. So, as a Mormon playwright myself, I thought that if my faith community came up, it would probably come up in a balanced way, stating some of our general flaws as a community, but also recognizing that not all Mormons are uniform in their beliefs, and that Mormons should be treated with the nuance and respect that any population grouping deserves.

Mormonism did come up, but not with nuance, and not with an eye towards sympathetic characterization. Continue Reading →

Mormons Placing Mormons Center Stage, by Jerry Rapier

RapierWe asked Jerry Rapier, PlanB Theatre Company’s Producing Director since 2000, to write a guest post about the company and the many Mormon-related works it produces. Since 1991, the Salt Lake City-based Plan-B Theatre Company has developed and produced unique and socially-conscious theatre with an emphasis on new plays by Utah playwrights.  Rapier has guided the organization to its current state as perhaps the most respected theatrical company in Utah. Performances are usually held at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W 300 S, Salt Lake City.

Mormons Placing Mormons Center Stage

By Jerry Rapier, guest author

As we at Plan-B Theatre Company gear up for our 25th anniversary, I’ve been thinking a lot about being in the business of telling stories about and inspired by this place we call home.

We at Plan-B believe in sharing stories with a local point-of-view, as well as global stories from a local perspective. Thus we strive to create and nourish a pool of local playwrights to rival that found in any other city in the country, to assist local theatergoers in valuing the work by local playwrights alongside that of nationally prominent playwrights.

It only makes sense then that we would share stories by and about Mormons. Regularly.

We at Plan-B also believe that the best way to serve our community is to reflect it onstage. That’s why the goal of each Plan-B production is to create conversation, to provide an opportunity for patrons to think a little differently, to consider a point-of-view that may have been previously foreign, to listen in a way they may not have before. Time spent with us should truly be the beginning of a much larger experience.

That being said, we’re not interested in Mormon playwrights per se. We’re interested in playwrights, and if they happen to be Mormon, so be it.

Let me explain.

Think of your favorite book/film/tv show/play. I’d place 100-to-1 odds that what you connect with most is how someone in said book/film/tv show/play faces overcomes/faces some sort of conflict/issue.

Propaganda, whitewash, the vibe of a press release—these are all dangers when a member of a particular group writes about that group. Judgment, levity, insensitivity—these are all dangers when a non-member of a particular group writes about that group.

I firmly believe that if you are lucky enough to find someone with both skill and membership (i.e. a playwright who is Mormon, not a Mormon playwright) you have a chance of getting to the good stuff which, at the end of the day is what I’m looking for when programming a season: authentic, compelling, well-told stories.

Why do we at Plan-B share stories by and about Mormons? Because they are our stories. Honestly, how can you tell a story rooted in this place we all call home without doing so?

I asked four actively Mormon playwrights who have worked with us over the past decade to share their thoughts:

ADAM & STEVE AND THE EMPTY SEAMatthew Greene (whose play ADAM & STEVE AND THE EMPTY SEA received its world premiere at Plan-B in 2013, played the New York International Fringe Festival, was named “Best Original Play” and “Best Theatre Production” by City Weekly and was published in Sunstone Magazine) responded: “I think candor and courage are necessary for a healthy spiritual life, but honesty doesn’t always seem like the best policy when trying to fit into a religious mold. That’s why the opportunity to explore these “big questions” at Plan-B is so valuable: it allows artists and audiences to be uncomfortable and find obvious and unexpected truths in the complex web of Mormonism.”

FACING EASTCarol Lynn Pearson (whose play FACING EAST received its world premiere at Plan-B in 2006 and transferred off-Broadway and toured to San Francisco in 2007, has received more than a dozen productions nationwide and was named “Best Original Play” and “Best Theatre Production” by City Weekly), reflects: “I think I’ve never had a thrill greater than sitting in the theatre at Plan-B watching the seats fill with my community—middle-aged Mormon couples in their Sunday best, Mormon gay couples, Mormon counter-culture kids with piercings and in black, all kinds of just regular theatregoers—come to see a play about the suicide of a beautiful young gay Mormon man and the deep grief of his parents who wonder, along with the audience, “What did we do to contribute to this tragedy?”  For a writer, it doesn’t get better than that.

BORDERLANDSEric Samuelsen (whose plays MIASMA, AMERIGO, BORDERLANDS, NOTHING PERSONAL, RADIO HOUR EPISODE 8: FAIRYANA, CLEARING BOMBS and 3 have received their world premieres at Plan-B; AMERIGO was named “Best Theatre Production” by City Weekly; BORDERLANDS was named “Best Original Play” and “Best Theatre Production” by City Weekly”; NOTHING PERSONAL was nominated for the American Theatre Critics Association/Steinberg Award for Best New American Play Produced Outside New York; CLEARING BOMBS was named “Best Theatre Production” by City Weekly and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama; and 3 was named “Best Original Play” by City Weekly; his new play, THE KREUTZER SONATA, opens Plan-B’s 25th anniversary season this fall), texted me this response while watching General Conference: “My biggest fear is that I’ll take shortcuts, not write real, dimensional human beings, but follow lazy cultural stereotypes. The Plan-B audience is too discerning. I can’t worry about what other Mormons might think. I have to write real people.”

PILOT PROGRAMAnd Melissa Leilani Larson, whose play PILOT PROGRAM is receiving its world premiere through this Sunday puts it succinctly: “Mormon characters are quirky and fascinating, but sometimes it can be hard to find a home for them. Plan-B is no respecter of characters.”

More information about Plan-B Theatre Company is available at at planbtheatre.org

Exploring Polygamy through the Living Room Drama

Sometimes the best thing to write about is the thing that scares you the most.

Tonight, at 8:00 p.m. MST, I have a new play opening in downtown Salt Lake. It’s a living room drama set in the very near future—2019, to be exact—and it places a faithful LDS couple in a precarious position. Abigail and Jacob Husten, just minutes before the play opens, are called to participate in a Church pilot program restoring polygamy to Church practice. Eventually they accept the calling, and they invite a dear friend of Abigail’s—her favorite grad school student, Heather—to join them in it. Suddenly we have a play, a complex series of human interactions that, I hope, raise questions and conversation among those who come to see it.

Polygamy, as a topic and a practice, has always frightened me somewhat. Which is why I’ve known for some time that I needed to write about it, and also why I’ve kept putting it off. Of course, I can’t help but think about it in dramatic terms: character and plot and obstacle. There’s so much to mine. I can’t imagine those relationships being easy to maintain. Historically, some unions went incredibly well while others simply did not. Such is the way with relationships in general, whether plural or singular.

The living room drama has become a standard of sorts in the American theatre. The U.S. has a rich tradition of bringing drama to the home-front, putting personal crises front and center on stage, at the same time that they are closed off and intimate so that the neighbors can’t hear. All the greats—Miller, O’Neill, Hellman, Williams—demonstrated their finest moments in the front rooms of middle class America. There is something intrinsically voyeuristic about living room plays, and that’s why we love them. We want to be on the inside, in the know. We enjoy being flies on the wall as relationships begin or unravel, as children grow and leave home, as lives begin and end. It’s part of what makes Death of a Salesman so engrossing, and why we’re drawn to the next generation of living room dramas: Clybourne Park and Clean House. Can the setting of a play really make that much of a impact on the drama itself? Yes. We’re reminded of our own homes, our own experiences. We put ourselves in the places of the characters and wonder how a scene might play out at home, or how we might deal with similar circumstances. We share in joys and failures on stage because we’ve experienced such things in our own homes.

I didn’t realize until recently that Pilot Program is, for all intents and purposes, a living room play. Sometimes a drama, sometimes a comedy, all of its action is contained beneath the vaulted ceilings of a five-bedroom craftsman house in suburban Salt Lake City.

While I usually gravitate to historical settings and stories, I needed to explore polygamy in a contemporary setting. With the recent changes to Utah law touching on both gay and plural marriage, I was struck by the plausibility, if not likelihood, that a contemporary setting lends to this story. Plausibility and relatability. It has, at least for me, made the thorny topic much more accessible. I have spent much of the last two years thinking about polygamy in terms of its fundamentals and logistics. I’ve attempted to break down the experience to its simplest elements: Awkward dates. Days on a calendar. A leaking kitchen faucet. It makes sense, at least to me, for this story to unfurl in a living room.

If you’re anywhere near Salt Lake, tickets are still available for Plan-B Theatre Company’s production of Pilot Program on April 16, 18, and 19. Visit planbtheatre.org for more information.

The Power of Not Preaching

When one says the word “religion,” there are a number of images and ideas that come to mind. One of the strongest, complete with positive and negative implications, is preaching. To those who don’t align themselves with an organized religion, just the idea of preaching leads to deep sighs and eye-rolling. And even for those of us who do, a good, old fashioned preach-fest can make us squirm in our hard, wooden pews.

Why is that? What is it about preaching that just turns us off? Looking at myself, I don’t do well with lectures. I never have. There’s a negative bent that comes with parents in stern voices telling their children to not put their elbows on the table, to vacuum the family room, to scrub behind their ears—usually because the more even-keeled first request has been ignored.

I think about the the Great Awakening, about pastors and preachers getting up on their soapboxes to testify of pending hellfire and damnation. Preaching tends to have a negative connotation because it often carries a negative tone. I don’t know about you, but hearing someone tell me I’m bound for hell no matter what I do— Well, that doesn’t exactly make me want to sit and listen. The fact that it was against such a backdrop that Joseph Smith, an ordinary man touched with spiritual gifts, received his First Vision is poignant.

Even when preaching takes on a more positive tone—General Conference is the most positive example that comes to mind—it is what it is. A spiritual leader stands before a congregation and meditates on the gospel. And while I look forward to General Conference as much as anyone, there are places preaching does not belong. One of those places is the theatre.

There is an age-old argument that the theatre is a place of enlightenment, not entertainment. That entertainment is in fact an unworthy pursuit. Like most issues in this life, the question of enlightenment and entertainment is not simple. It’s very much a gray area. The very best plays—the work of luminaries like unto Ibsen, Chekhov, Hellman, and Shakespeare—use drama as a shell for social commentary and suggested improvement. They suggest rather than preach.

It’s not to say that there aren’t playwrights and filmmakers who do take audiences captive and sermonize. I think sometimes that writers approach their work backwards: they start with the message and try to clothe it in a story. But the message, the preaching, the sermon—whatever you want to call it, if it’s the starting place of the work, it lingers. Looms. Considering my own work, as much as I know I want the story to trump the message, I might not always succeed. In the instances where I’ve started working with a specific agenda in mind, the play proves incredibly difficult to write. I’ve found that if I focus on the story built around relatable characters, powerful messages will come through and audience members will hear what they need to hear.

This weekend I saw the much-lauded film Boyhood. While I don’t personally find it the best film of the year, there is a lot about it to be praised, particularly in regard to its primary conceit. Writer/director Richard Linklater chose to tell a coming-of-age story quite literally, following a young boy for a week or so each year over 12 years. The cast, including well known actors Ethan Hawke and Rosanna Arquette, age right alongside the young protagonist. While there isn’t much plot, there is something quietly engaging about watching a boy mature before our eyes. Linklater doesn’t preach, and Boyhood is moving and effective in its tiny moments of real, familial affection. Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful it would be to see an ordinary Mormon family like this. What could we learn from such an exercise? And how would the world react to it?

Waiting for the Mormon Serial

A couple of weeks back I did something I’m awfully good at: I stuck my foot in my mouth. A friend had posted a link on Facebook to a T-shirt designed by another friend. A black shirt that read in white block letters: “Adnan did it.” I commented on the post: “Wow. People are jerks.” To which the shirt’s designer promptly replied, “Thanks.” Yep, that’s my foot, and it’s in my mouth. But I should probably rewind a bit and explain.

Over the past couple of months, I have listened obssessively to a new podcast called Serial. An offshoot of the popular NPR program This American Life, Serial has broken records as the most listened-to podcast ever with something like 5 million listeners.

Serial is faithful to its name. It tells a fascinating story over a number of episodes, each roughly an hour long. The finale, episode 12, airs this Thursday. The premiere season revisits a 15-year-old murder. In late January 1999 a Baltimore teenager disappeared; her body was discovered in a park a month later. Her ex-boyfriend, a high school senior, would eventually be convicted of the crime; he is presently serving a life sentence. He still maintains his innoence.

Sarah Koenig, the podcast’s writer and host, has rehashed the case over the past year. She’s sifted through court records and police interviews, logging numerous hours of phone conversations with Adnan Syed, the man the state of Maryland found guilty of killing Hae Min Lee. With each episode—and I promise, there are no spoilers here—I swing back and forth in my belief regarding either Adnan’s guilt or innocence. As I listen, I ask myself: If Adnan didn’t do it, who did? Why did the police never really investigate Hae’s current boyfriend Don, a man considerably older than she? What was Adnan’s lawyer thinking? What’s the deal with that guy named Jay? Who is telling the truth? But did Adnan do it after all? Could he?

Beyond all of that is a simple truth: A girl is dead. A high school senior. A girl with dreams, with plans, with college ahead of her. With life ahead of her. A girl who wrote in her diary about boys and school, who had a great sense of humor, who played lacrosse and field hockey, who had a job at the LensCrafters at the mall.

What troubles me the most about Serial and its sudden, overwhelming popularity is that this story, this true and tragic situation, is being treated as an entertainment. It’s taken over conversations at water coolers everywhere. Separated by 15 years and the frame of a podcast, we talk easily about the people involved in the case like they are characters on a Dick Wolf crime procedural. Sure, the story is fascinating. But does that mean it’s acceptable to weigh a man’s guilt and innocence flippantly, like we might consider entrees on a menu or prices at the gas pump? “Are you on Team Adnan, or Team Don?”

And yet I won’t stop listening. I can’t stop listening. I want to know more. Serial is well crafted, a narrative that just sucks you in. My writer’s brain wants to create as complete a picture as I can of the murder and the events surrounding it. I want to wander the halls of Woodlawn High School with Hae and Adnan, understand their relationship, deducing what drove them apart, all the time wondering if those events drove Adnan to murder. It’s almost as if I appreciate the humanity and reality of the story more because it makes me uncomfortable.

You might ask: Mel, what does any of this have to do with drama, let alone Mormon drama? Maybe not a lot, so I hope you’ll forgive me. But it’s got me thinking: Mormon history is pretty thorny and uncomfortable, and that thorniness is a turn-off for many. I may be the odd one out, but the thorny bits intrigue me. Do we as Latter-day Saints have a story of Serial proportions? And though it may be all kinds of difficult to hear, I’m definitely looking forward to the telling of it.

Dedications and the Real Narnian

Right before the first chapter of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, one finds this short letter that C.S. Lewis as the volume’s dedication:

My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too dear to hear and too old to understand, a word you say, but I shall still be
your affectionate Godfather,
C.S. LEWIS

Lucy_barfield

Lucy Barfield

Little did C.S. “Jack” Lewis know that his Goddaughter, Lucy Barfield (1935-2003), hardly saw herself as “too old” for fairy tales. Much to the contrary, this simple and elegant dedication (as well as having the main character in the book, Lucy Pevensie , named after her) would impact Lucy for the rest of her life. She cherished being Lucy of Narnia.

Lucy was the adopted daughter of Owen Barfield, one of C.S. Lewis’ closest friends, and Maud Barfield. Owen had been vital in his spiritual development from an avowed atheist to one of the most influential and greatest Christian thinkers of the 20th century. Lucy was four years old when Lewis began the book, 13 years old when the manuscript arrived to her and her family, and 15 when it was published.

According to Walter Hooper, Lewis’s secretary at the end of his life, Owen Barfield had this to say about his daughter:

Lucy was a very lively and happy child – apt for instance to be seen turning somersault wheels in the garden immediately after a meal. From an early age she showed marked musical taste and ability. After a short-lived ambition to become a ballet dancer, she eventually qualified as a professional teacher of music and was employed for a year or two as such by a well-known Kentish school for girls (C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide,  p.758).

Continue Reading →

Abandoning the Field or Fighting the Good Fight: Ethics in Business, the Arts, and Hollywood

Although I doubt it was really targeted specifically for me, I received a family e-mail the other day with an article that the Deseret News published about Scott Ditty, a Mormon actor trying to make his way in Hollywood. Ditty was a working actor for 15 years, but eventually abandoned his enterprise because he felt that acting was too compromising of a career choice to be made if one wanted to stay true the values of the LDS faith. He now works at Alta High School in Utah as a football/track coach and film studies teacher.

I appreciate the personal integrity that this showed in Ditty, especially since he adds the caveat “I’m not saying you can’t be a good member of the church if you’re in that profession; I have many dear LDS friends who make it work. Mine was a personal choice to follow inspiration and pursue the noble profession of teaching and coaching.” However, I was also discouraged by the continuing pressure this kind of sentiment puts on Mormon artists, writers, actors and film folks to abandon the field of their creative aspirations.

When I tell people that I’m working towards being a screenwriter/playwright/TV writer, I can’t count the number of doubtful reactions that I have received, not because it’s such a competitive industry (which I’ve received, too…and it certainly is absurdly competitive!), but because they consider it to be a “corrupt” environment. “Oh, Mahonri, that’s not for you,” is a typical response.

Now is there some legitimacy to some of these concerns? Of course there is. However, if I had told some one that I was working towards being a lawyer, would have they told me that the moral compromises seemingly required in the legal field were incompatible with my faith? Or a politician? Or a businessman? To me, those fields are riddled with moral pitfalls, but they are common vocations for many Mormons, without the same cultural stigma attached to them.
Continue Reading →

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