85th birthday for Mormon leader like a Broadway show
One might have mistaken it for a Broadway show.
Soaring voices belted musical theater hits from Annie, Brigadoon, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Cats to a live audience of tens of thousands.
But the performances Friday night weren't just for art's sake; they were songs with meaning for Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints and the focus of the event. A full-house filled the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday night to celebrate Monson's 85th birthday.
Monson did not take the stage or speak during the event but instead watched from the audience. The production's camera zoomed in on him a handful of times over the course of the hour-and-a-half-long celebration, often showing him standing and clapping with the crowd. At the end of the evening, a short, pre-recorded video of the LDS prophet thanking everyone for the celebration played.
Musical theater stars Dallyn Vail Bayles and Rebecca Luker took turns singing the Broadway hits while event hosts, Jane Clayson Johnson, national network news anchor and author, and Steve Young, former San Francisco 49ers star quarterback, explained the meanings of the songs in the context of Monson's life.
"All I Ask of You" from The Phantom of the Opera was to honor the love in Monson's 64-year marriage to Frances Monson, whom he first spotted at a University of Utah dance. "Tomorrow" from Annie represented the lessons of hope Monson has learned throughout his life, Johnson said. Monson has seen Annie performed in 11 languages, Johnson said. Tenor Stanford Olsen also sang, as did the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Between numbers, friends and church leaders offered video tributes, and video clips recapped Monson's life and accomplishments.
"He has set a lofty goal for all of us who try to follow along in his footsteps," said Jeffrey Holland, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in the video.
Monson learned the importance of service early on, the video explained. As a boy he watched his father care for aging relatives and his mother feed transients. In those days, he loved baseball, summers in Vivian Park along the Provo River and animals, such as the dogs, rabbits, pigeons and kittens he kept his family's yard.
Later, as a bishop of the Sixth-Seventh Ward in Salt Lake City, he was known to visit widows with boxes of candy or chickens ready for roasting. He hung a painting of Jesus Christ in his office and, when faced with difficult questions, would turn to the portrait and ask himself what his savior would do. It's a portrait he's hung in every office he's had since 1950, the video said.
The birthday celebration was a meaningful event not just for the honoree, but also for the thousands who attended from near and far.
Samuel Tsibu, 30, from Ghana is studying at the LDS Business College and plans to return to his home country after his studies. He wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to celebrate with Monson in person, while he still can.
"This is a very special day," Tsibu said.
Lola Cook, of South Jordan, called it a "tremendous celebration to a man who has spent his whole life serving others." Cook attended with her family, including two granddaughters, one of whom just returned from a mission and one who will be leaving on one shortly.
For Kevin Goldberg, 26, and Whitney Johnston, 23, it wasn't just a birthday celebration but also a first date.
Goldberg drove six hours from Boise, Idaho, for the event, picking up Johnston in Centerville along the way.
Goldberg converted to Mormonism three years ago. He said he was born Jewish but then became a non-denominational Christian with his parents, who moved to Utah when he was a child with the aim of converting Mormons.
They couldn't have known then their son would eventually become one.
"Any opportunity I have to be in the same room with those men," Goldberg said of the event, "I feel it on every level of my being."