This is not your mother’s Joseph Smith musical: BYU professor puts a contemporary twist on Mormon founding

“1820: The Musical,” which premieres Aug. 6 in Provo, brings the love story of Joseph and Emma to the stage.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Actor David Weekes breaks up a fight amongst delegates as the cast of "1820: The Musical" runs through scenes during a recent rehearsal on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in American Fork. George Nelson has spent the past several years writing and producing the show, which is about the Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith and wife Emma Smith. Nelson created the musical as a response to "The Book of Mormon" musical.

George Nelson remembers watching the lewd but lauded “Book of Mormon” musical and listening to the audience laugh at religious teachings he holds sacred.

“It hurt my heart,” he recalled.

So Nelson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a theater arts studies professor at church-owned Brigham Young University, decided to write a response to the Tony-winning production. Why not, he reasoned, create a play that offers a different view of his faith?

As he began penning his own musical rooted in the church’s beliefs, however, he felt a “darkness” about its direction, so he stopped. Then, in 2017, an area Seventy (a high-ranking church official) raised the idea again, asking Nelson to write his own musical.

Recalling the difficulties he faced with the first attempt, he hesitated, but after pondering and praying about it, he was invited to the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. It was there that Nelson returned to an old notion of crafting his musical around Joseph and Emma Smith’s love story rather than around the traditional gospel restoration narrative so familiar to Latter-day Saints.

“When I went back to that idea,” Nelson said, “it just started to flow.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Director George Nelson, center, has spent the past several years writing and producing "1820: The Musical," which is about Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith.

Four years and untold hours of development later, Nelson’s vision finally is coming to fruition. “1820: The Musical” premieres at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo on Aug. 6 and runs through Sept. 11. Tickets are $35 each and are available at bit.ly/2TbKpDf.

This isn’t the stuffy, preachy period piece some people might think it is, said Kerilyn Johnson, who plays Emma Smith. Rather, it’s full of contemporary music and dance, from a toe-tapping pop song about Emma and Joseph’s courtship (“Kiss My Cheek”) to a hip-hop number about why husbands should help their wives around the house (“Kiss Forever Bye-Bye”).

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Emma and Joseph Smith.

Nelson said he worked to make “1820: The Musical” as high quality as any Broadway show.

“Our music stands up to the music in ‘The Book of Mormon’ musical,” he said. “I think there’s kind of an equalness, if you will, in the quality of the music involved.”

He also said members and nonmembers alike can enjoy “1820: The Musical.” After sharing the script and music with a theater contact in New York, Nelson said, the person called to say how much he learned about the faith and how much he enjoyed the story.

“He said, ‘The way you deal with the characters… I think these are universal themes.’”

From page to stage to pandemic

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Production stage manager Kirsten Busse helps actors remember their lines in the script for "1820: The Musical" during a rehearsal on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

After he finished the first draft, Nelson used BYU’s playwriting workshops to get initial feedback and then began looking for composers.

He eventually connected with Kendra Lowe Holt, a family friend and the former musical director for “American Idol” alum David Archuleta.

Holt brought in her brother and sister, who are also musicians, Nelson said, “and they were the golden ticket.” They worked on the music from October 2018 through the early summer of 2019.

The group then began holding readings in Nashville, Tenn., and Salt Lake City, Nelson said, earning “exciting responses” from church members and nonmembers alike.

After rewrites, Nelson said, the troupe staged a reading in December 2019 that was attended by senior apostle M. Russell Ballard and other high-ranking Latter-day Saint leaders.

At that point, the group was ready to perform. The musical was set to open in May 2020 at BYU’s De Jong Concert Hall. Nelson also booked a three-week run in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and was invited to bring the musical to the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre in Logan.

COVID-19 closed the curtain on those plans before they could even be opened.

Disappointed but determined, Nelson and his team kept their dreams alive by staging home concerts and distributing the soundtrack via Spotify, Apple iTunes and Amazon Music.

The cast and crew’s passion played a big role in keeping the play afloat during the pandemic, Johnson said. She turned down several major projects to stay involved, she said, and fellow participants did the same.

“[We all felt] just a ridiculous connection to the material,” she said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kerilyn Johnson and Zach Wilson, playing the roles of Emma and Joseph Smith, react to a noise moments before a scene in which Joseph Smith is tarred and feathered during rehearsals for "1820: The Musical."

Johnson, who has been on stage much of her life and teaches vocal performance, said this isn’t her first star turn as the faith’s initial first lady. Several years ago, she played Emma Smith for an entire summer in the Nauvoo Pageant in Illinois.

When Nelson approached her about “1820: The Musical,” all it took was reading one page of the script and hearing half of one song before she said, “I’m totally in.”

Johnson said she feels a deep connection to Emma and a sense of honor in playing someone she wants to emulate.

“I get to play her,” Johnson said, “which means I get to practice being her.”

From polygamy to martyrdom

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The cast of the upcoming production of "1820: The Musical" about Joseph Smith, played by Zach Wilson, second from right, is shuffled around from court scene to court scene during a recent rehearsal on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

Nelson said his musical is “very contemporary,” ranging from musique concrète in some places to Celtic influences in others. Some have even described it as “Hamilton” meets the Latter-day Saint restoration.

The dancing is also “very heavy,” he said, with choreography by Adam Dyer, who teaches contemporary dance at BYU and previously performed on Broadway.

Nelson said just like the cast and creators didn’t confine the music and dancing to the strictures of 1820, they’re also not limiting their actors, who are mostly locals.

Johnson, for instance, won’t cover her blond hair with a curly black wig each night to look more like the real Emma Smith. The actor playing church founder Joseph Smith will keep his own curly black hair rather than wearing a brown wig, and a Black actor plays Joseph’s brother Hyrum.

“We’re not trying to set it back in that time period,” Nelson said. “We’re taking present actors and having them play these roles in our time.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Actors Dennis Wright, left, and Conlon Bonner listen to one of their colleagues deliver a testimonial about his upbringing before the cast of "1820: The Musical" during a recent rehearsal in American Fork on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

The show also doesn’t shy away from tough topics. The scene in which Joseph and Emma struggle with what polygamy means for their relationship — and includes the song “One Day We Will” — is the longest in the production.

“We don’t try to come to a resolution,” Nelson said. “We just deal with the angst that it caused and the heartache that it caused.”

The show also includes a scene in which Joseph is dragged into a courtroom, meant to represent the dozens of times he was brought before judges throughout his life. That scene, Nelson said, addresses how Joseph sometimes was accused of being “lazy” and a “gold digger.”

In the scene before his 1844 martyrdom, Nelson said, Joseph asks the audience to decide for themselves who he is.

“We’re trying to have people [take] another look at Joseph Smith,” Nelson said. “We’re not trying to indoctrinate them into our church. … But we present [the church’s teachings] in a way that I think they can spiritually kind of feel through the music and dance and the characters.”

Johnson hopes audiences, no matter their beliefs, will come away feeling less alone in their difficulties and knowing there’s a higher power to whom they can turn.

“[The show], not overtly, does testify of God, in the beauty of Joseph and Emma’s love for each other, and how they held together through their faith through all their trials,” Johnson said. “I hope they walk away… better for having spent some time going on that emotional journey with us.”

As for what’s next, Nelson hopes for a Broadway run down the road. Theater contacts in London and Denmark have expressed interest in bringing the musical to their countries, he said, while at least one executive in New York has an eye on the project.

“I’ve done what I feel inspired to do,” he said, “and I would love it to have a broad reach outside of Utah to help people take a new look at the restoration.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Taylor Stanger, center left, and Zach Wilson, playing the role of Joseph Smith, work through an early scene in the upcoming production of "1820: The Musical" during a rehearsal in American Fork on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.