A 40-year Utah theater tradition has come to an end. Turns out last year was actually the last year for “Saturday’s Voyeur” at the Salt Lake Acting Company.

It wasn’t a decision that SLAC’s staff and its 20 board members made lightly or came to quickly, said executive artistic director Cynthia Fleming. “We’re keenly aware of what this show has meant to audiences,” she said, “because we share the same love of the show.”

But the annual musical, which has poked fun at all things Utah — including much material about the state’s dominant religion — won’t be produced by SLAC when it returns from its pandemic-enforced layoff. The 2020 production, which Fleming was scheduled to direct, has been canceled and there will be no future editions.

Instead, SLAC is planning an all-new, cabaret-type production for the summer of 2021.

“‘Saturday’s Voyeur’ leaves big shoes to fill,” Fleming said, “but, to be honest, there were big shoes to fill every summer with each new iteration of Voyeur. … If we’re going to launch SLAC into its next 50 years, while boldly upholding our mission to strengthen our community, it’s time for a change.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Classic posters, shirts and memorabilia captured the history of "Saturday's Voyeur" as it celebrated its 40th anniversary of skewering Utah life, politics and religion through musical satire.

SLAC first produced “Saturday’s Voyeur,” which was created and originally written by Nancy Borgenicht and the late Michael Buttars, in 1978. And — with the exception of 1992 and 1993, when Borbgenicht and Allen Nevins (who partnered with Borgenicht in 1990) produced it at the since-closed Green Street venue at Trolley Square — it had been there ever since.

“It’s emboldened us to be brave, unafraid of change and controversy,” Fleming said.

Back in 1992, there was a rupture between SLAC and Borgenicht and Nevins. “But this is nothing at all like that,” Fleming said. “I want to honor them and give them the credit that they deserve for their contribution.”

She has approached the “Voyeur” writer/producers about a one-night gala tribute to the show, an offer that has not yet been accepted.

“In all honesty, we do not understand this decision,” Borgenicht and Nevins wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune. “It is not how we wanted to say goodbye and thank you to the ‘Voyeur’ audiences and the community for the past 42 years.”

But they wished the company well as it moves forward. “This is sadly a time for unwanted endings and loss,” they wrote. “But it’s also a time for hope and reinvention. We hope SLAC and the arts in our beautiful city thrive and stay well and safe.

Pushed by the pandemic

According to Fleming, discussions about what would come after “Saturday’s Voyeur” have been going on for the past decade. But the final decision was made as the SLAC board looked for a way forward after it was forced to close down because of the coronavirus outbreak, which was a “huge factor” in making the decision now.

“Prior to COVID-19, there was not a succession plan in place,” she said. “But we knew that Nancy and Al wouldn’t be able to write ‘Saturday’s Voyeur’ forever. … The reality is that things are going to be scaled back regardless. We’ll likely be operating on half the budget we were before the shutdown.”

(Photo courtesy of Salt Lake Acting Company) A production still from Salt Lake Acting Company's 1985 version of "Saturday's Voyeur," then just eight years old.

Since 1979, SLAC has presented a long list of regional and world premieres, many of them developed by the company itself. But its most high-profile production was the annual run of “Saturday’s Voyeur,” which attracted many ticket buyers who weren’t regular theatergoers.

“For some, when they think of SLAC, they think of ‘Saturday’s Voyeur.’ It’s had an incredible role in helping the theater to fulfill its mission,” Fleming said.

“Lots of people who don’t know or get live theater love that show. They came, and then came back,” said Crystal Young-Otterstrom, executive director of the Utah Cultural Alliance. “And for a lot of people over the years who maybe are a little interested in politics or current events or their community, ‘Voyeur’ was the opportunity for them to dip their toes into the wonder that is live art and live theater.”

However, the production’s role as SLAC’s big revenue generator is “a bit of a myth,” Fleming said.

“Much of the ticket revenue actually goes back into the production — the cast of 12 actors, the band, the designers, and the staff that runs the show,” she said. “And, of course, the author royalties. It’s not an inexpensive production to mount.”

(Ryan Galbraith | Tribune file photo) Jeanette Puhich and Jim Pitts in Salt Lake Acting Company's Saturday's Voyeur 2001 production.

She said “Voyeur” pretty much broke even, generating extra revenue only when its 12-week run was extended for an additional week or two. But it served a “key role” as a platform to drive annual subscriptions.

(About 15,000 people would see the show every year, many arriving with picnic baskets and bottles of wine; SLAC has about 3,400 season ticket subscribers.)

“Saturday’s Voyeur” served as sort of a “gateway drug,” she said with a laugh, to SLAC’s other productions. That’s a role she hopes the new cabaret production also will fill.

“There’s not a blurb that’s good enough for people to say, ‘I’m going to go buy tickets to this new play that I’ve never heard of before.’ So this is the way we get people to buy into our mission and our vision.”

The new production

The untitled new cabaret show is “still very much” in the planning stages, Fleming said. “We’re assembling a writing team composed of local writers, as well as an award-winning comedian and cabaret artist out of New York.”

The name of that person will “most likely” be announced in January. The plan is for a cast of six — half the size of the “Voyeur” complement — and an initial run of five weeks, seven fewer than “Voyeur.” The design and music teams from “Voyeur” will work on the new show.

And it’s clear that SLAC is trying to reach out to a younger, more diverse audience “who may have no reference point for ‘Saturday’s Warrior,’” Fleming said.

“Voyeur” began as a counterpoint of sorts to that Latter-day Saint-themed musical, which was first produced at Brigham Young University in 1974 and was, for a time, popular in the church community. But the reference to “Saturday’s Warrior” is lost on many theatergoers who weren’t born 40+ years ago (as well as many who were), and the last time “Voyeur” really made much reference to “Warrior” was 1996.

SLAC is planning a show that features “new voices to amplify changing demographics and to be inclusive,” Fleming said. The staff is kicking around ideas like having members of the community submit songs or sketches or names for the show.

“We are confident that we’ll continue to also please our loyal summer fanbase,” Fleming said, with a “fresh take on the culture and politics of Utah. And, of course, picnics are still allowed.”

But she knows that there will be some backlash to the decision to end “Saturday’s Voyeur,” she said. There were a few negative comments about the decision on The Tribune’s website and Facebook page — including a couple of commenters vowing they’d boycott future SLAC performances.

But the one word that was repeated was “sad” — as in “sad to see it go.” And several echoed one commenter who wrote, “I look forward to seeing what comes next.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A scene from the 2009 production of Saturday's Voyeur, with Shannon Musgrave and Steven Fehr.