A 300-pound daughter, a white missionary mimicking a Japanese accent — while some say this satire about Utah can go too far, one co-writer has no regrets

It started as a satirical dart thrown to deflate Utah’s dominant culture, a little theater production put on in a Unitarian church to get people to laugh and maybe gasp a little.

Over the past 40 years, “Saturday’s Voyeur” has grown into a Salt Lake City institution, a summer delight that draws thousands to the Salt Lake Acting Company’s 200-seat theater over a good chunk of the summer — still making people laugh and, occasionally, do spit-takes into their wine glasses.

The musical, written fresh every year by Allen Nevins and Nancy Borgenicht, lampoons Utah politics and the Mormon church, often pointing out where the two are inseparable. Even the name — a goof on the straight-arrow 1970s LDS-themed musical “Saturday’s Warrior” — plays up the focus on Utah and Mormon culture.

This year, Borgenicht says, “we’ve taken the very first show and we’ve morphed it into the past meets the present.”

Several people involved in the creation and production of “Saturday’s Voyeur” — as well as past critics and a few targets of the show’s satire — talked to The Salt Lake Tribune about the show then and now.

I. In the Beginning

Nancy Borgenicht, co-writer since 1978 • “The muse hit me in 1977, when a song came into my head. … This beautiful guy, Michael Buttars, who was an actor with me at plays at Salt Lake Acting Company, was a returned missionary with these stories that were both hysterically funny and sad and painful. He also was gay. I just went running to him after the song came into my head. I said, ‘Michael, Michael, Michael, we have to do this.’”

Nancy Melich, former theater critic, The Salt Lake Tribune • “Nancy and Ed Gryska [SLAC’s artistic director then] asked me to come over to Nancy’s house. They wanted to talk about a show to be an alternative to the Days of ’47 festivities. … They went around and asked us to tell them if we had any Days of ’47 stories, or stories about picnics or anything we might have done on that holiday.”

Borgenicht • “It was a roadshow, an hour long, that had an opening prayer that was always contemporary to whatever was really happening that particular year. It was about Family Home Evening, the mission, young girls wanting to find a missionary and get married, and the wedding. That was the core of it, and it stayed the core of it for 18 years.”

Janis Bennion, audience member for 38 of the show’s 40 years • “I didn’t know what [temple] garments were, until you had the Great Salt Lake beach scene, when they’re all in their bathing suits with their garments underneath.”

Borgenicht • “They weren’t real, but still the reaction was [puts hand over open mouth].”

Justin Ivie, actor who has performed in 10 “Voyeur” productions since 2004 • In performance, those moments are gold. … You live for those moments where you go, ‘I don’t believe they just did that.’”

Christine Helfrich, longtime ‘Voyeur’ fan • “The one that’s still most memorable to me [is] this thing where the missionary is being talked to about chastity. They’re passing a banana back and forth, and talking about what happens if you touch a woman’s breast. And by the time they all touch the banana, it’s this horrible mess. … It’s funny, but it’s also tearful, because it’s so much like the #MeToo movement right now, because the consequences are all on the woman.”

Borgenicht • “It opened at the Unitarian Church, and it was off the charts. It kept extending and extending and extending and extending. At the end of it, I think it was going to be five performances, or 10. It ended up being 20.”

Melich • “I remember sitting in Eliot Hall [at the Unitarian Church], thinking this is different than most local productions. … My memory of it was it was pretty funny and pretty clever.”

Borgenicht • “[After the run,] we took my kids back to my parents’ house in New York, and I slept for four days. Then Ed Gryska said ‘We have to do this again.’ And I said, ‘Really?’”

II. Bumpy early years

SLAC, and “Voyeur,” moved to The Glass Factory Theatre in Arrow Press Square through 1982, when the company moved to its current home in a converted LDS ward house at 168 W. 500 North.

Borgenicht • “Michael Buttars left after the first year, 1978. … Becki Mecham was in it from ’78 to ’93, her iconic presence and her headdress, the temple headdress on the top of her head, kept getting bigger and bigger.” (Buttars died in 1986; Mecham died in February 2017.)

| Courtesy Becki Mecham as Mother Elthora in Salt Lake Acting Company's "Saturday's Voyeur."

Melich • “They moved it to a Christmas show, and Nancy wrote it for the 1985-86 season.”

Borgenicht • “I’m quite proud of the 20-minute [‘Nutcracker’] ballet we did.”

Melich • “[Current co-writer] Allen Nevins joined the party in 1990. That was when they turned it into a summer show.”

Borgenicht • “Al wrote some parts in 1990, but really [started in] 1992. … Al said, ‘This has to change. This has to be new every year. It has to do that, because people have seen it.’”

Cynthia Fleming, SLAC artistic director and “Saturday’s Voyeur” director • “That’s huge, to write ‘Saturday’s Voyeur’ new every year.”

Melich • “When Allen got involved, they somehow decided it was their show. They got sideways with Salt Lake Acting Company [and Ed Gryska].”

Borgenicht • “A sort of falling out, you could call it, … when SLAC decided they didn’t want to do it anymore. … In ’92 and ’93, we were at Green Street [a pub in Trolley Square].”

Melich • “It turned more antagonistic toward the Mormon church. After a while, I said, ‘I can’t go see this anymore. It needs fresh eyes.’ It just got so mean-spirited.”

James Arrington, LDS playwright (“The Farley Family Reunion”), in a 2003 interview about “Saturday’s Voyeur” • “The pitfall of satire is that over time it tends to go for the laughs, and the laughs are in the scatological, the racist. In a culture that’s supposed to be diverse and accepting, we get up and take out our feelings that way. Pretty soon you’re just swearing and telling dirty jokes.”

Brandon Griggs, former Salt Lake Tribune arts writer • “I remember one show in the mid-1990s that contained a pointless and racist bit in which a white missionary mimicked a Japanese accent.”

Borgenicht • “For 19 years, [the Japanese missionary] LaMar Takahashi never ever raised anything over the top we heard directly, though it would now. And I still wish it were in [the play] for that very reason. … I would say there is nothing we would take back.”

“It’s always a surprise to be accused of Mormon bashing, since we don’t come from that place. We actually come from a place of, ‘We live here, we’re all Mormons.’ You’re traveling, [you tell someone] you’re from Utah. ‘Oh, are you a Mormon?’ I just say, ‘yes.’

“[Out-of-state viewers] say, ‘How do they let them do that?’ And you’re going, ‘Well, this is America.’ The perception of the church closing us down, and ‘How do you get away with this?’ … speaks to the perception of the church in our lives.”

‘Saturday’s Voyeur: Limbo’<br>Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City<br>When • Performances run June 27-Sept. 2 (except Saturday, Aug.11); performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays (except Wednesday, July 4, at 6 p.m.), and 1 and 6 p.m. Sundays. Additional performances are Tuesday, Aug 14, at 7:30 p.m., and two Saturday matinees, Aug. 18 and 25, at 2 p.m.<br>Tickets • $45 to $55 at saltlakeactingcompany.com.

III. Going topical

Borgenicht • “Whatever happened [in the news] in those years, from ’79 to ’96, was incorporated. … In 1996, which was Enid Greene, it was clear it was a huge new section, that the audience would go for it. They wanted it. They needed it.” (Greene, then a congresswoman, was embroiled in a campaign-finance scandal with her then-husband, Joe Waldholtz.)

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

Fleming • “We had scalpers. The first part was Enid Greene and Family Home Evening, Enid Greene growing up. The second half was when she met Joe Waldholtz, and it was all ‘Phantom of the Opera’ music. And you could tell in that moment, put on your seatbelts.” (Enid Greene Mickelsen, as she’s now known, did not return calls seeking comment.)

Dan Harrie, Salt Lake Tribune political editor • “[Nevins and Borgenicht] brought me and [some of our political reporters] in to sort of pick our brains. … When the show was ready, they sent us tickets. They said, ‘You guys and your news stories, you just wrote our scripts for us.’”

Celia R. Baker, former Salt Lake Tribune arts writer (in her review of the 25th anniversary show in 2003) • “Does [Enid Greene’s] young daughter deserve to be lampooned as a 300-pound enfant terrible? No.”

Borgenicht • “My memory is a number of people thought we went too far with Enid’s 300-pound daughter.”

Bennion • “A few years, it got a little cynical and political. It could have been the [George W.] Bush years.”

Griggs • “I remember that ‘Voyeur‘ in 2005 was pretty dark. That was the year the show toned down its usual saucy irreverence to explore the Iraq War, suicide, mental illness and polygamists taking child brides. It wasn’t that funny, and people complained. SLAC audiences appreciate social commentary, but when it comes to ‘Voyeur,’ I think they mostly just want to laugh.“

Borgenicht • “The rap year. 2005 was the dark year. There was nothing funny about that year in our lives, or in the world.”

Ralph Becker, former Salt Lake City mayor • “I enjoyed it, even being somewhat the victim of their humor. They did stuff around me as the cycling mayor, so they had me dressed up one time in Lycra. They had me in sort of a Boy Scout uniform once.”

Shannon Musgrave, dramaturg for “Saturday’s Voyeur” and former actor • “I love the year that [LDS feminist activist] Kate Kelly came, and she was in the show. She got up onstage at the end, and that was the most surreal experience I’ve ever had. She said, ‘Watching this play made me realize I’m still pretty Mormon.’” (Kelly did not respond to a request for comment.)

Fleming • “Gayle Ruzicka’s daughter came to the show and became a subscriber.”

Gayle Ruzicka, conservative activist and president of Utah Eagle Forum • “I’ve never seen it. I didn’t ever go to watch it. I’ve had some legislators who have told me [about] somebody that was playing the part of me. They’d tell me it was funny.”

Borgenicht • “She’s so often been played in drag.”

Ruzicka • “I guess if I never did anything, and just stayed home all the time and kept my mouth shut, that wouldn’t happen.”

Fleming • “For some of them, it’s an honor: ‘I finally made “Saturday’s Voyeur.”’”

IV. Putting it together

Musgrave • “I remember my first ‘Voyeur.’ You sort of have no idea what you’re in for. … The first time you’re in front of a ‘Voyeur’ audience, it blows your whole world open.”

Fleming • “We’re doing a world premiere musical in six weeks. And [most] musicals take seven years to write. … Each week is a year of work, in terms of putting it together. And then, of course, the audience comes and tells us everything. And there are more changes. And even after we open, we work to get it right.”

Eric Lee Brotherson, actor, performing his third “Voyeur” this year • “People always ask me, ‘What part are you doing this year?’ I have no idea until I show up.”

Ivie • “In many ways it’s like a traditional musical, like we spend time learning our lines word-perfect and finding the steps exactly right and polishing — and doing all those things you would do in a musical that had been workshopped over the course of years, rather than weeks. But the material is also being polished as we’re polishing the performance of it. So it’s this strange feedback loop.”

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Eric Lee Brotherson, Devin Rey Barney, Justin Ivie and Tito Livas act out a scene during a preview of "Saturday's Voyeur" at Salt Lake Acting Company, Tuesday, June 14, 2016.

Musgrave • “Everybody on this production has to be so flexible. Even the technicians. They have to completely change designs in a heartbeat. You can’t be precious about anything.”

Fleming • “It’s so collaborative. As a director, I’m lucky if I’m five minutes ahead of the actors. A lot of times, we’re on the same page, so we’re diving into this together.”

Ivie • “I’ve never had an experience that has taught me more about how to interact with an audience, how to listen to an audience and how to respond to them. We work for six weeks, and we think we understand the show, and it really starts on the first preview when the audience comes in.”

Borgenicht • “The audience, of course, thinks the cast makes it up.”

Ivie • “There’s a certain sense of spontaneity when you watch ‘Voyeur.’ It feels very much like it’s just coming out. But it’s not. There’s so much thought behind it.”

Fleming • “It’s truly for the community. It’s what every theater in the nation strives to have. And nobody else has it. Because nobody can do what [Allen and Nancy] do. Who can write a play in a year that touches the souls and the funny bones?”