Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
When Latter-day Saint David Nolan heard about the billions his church squirrels away for a “rainy day,” he wasn’t pleased.
But he didn’t leave the faith. He didn’t stop believing. He didn’t stop attending services. He didn’t stop paying tithing.
Instead, he wrote a musical.
“The Good Shepherds” — a satirical show about the church’s wealth — was previously scheduled to debut March 21-23 at Peery’s Egyptian Theater in Ogden.
Nolan said on Dec. 30, however, that, “due to some unforeseen circumstances,” the production will now premiere Aug. 18-20. Tickets start at $19, plus a $5 processing fee, and are available online at bit.ly/3p4F38I.
Despite the topic, Nolan is adamant that he’s not bitter at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has been accused of amassing deep dollars intended for, but not spent on, charity.
“The value [of the church] still outweighs the negative,” he said. “Let’s have a social conversation about the value of a human life versus the value of [billions] in stocks just sitting there.”
He also said Latter-day Saints should have no problem attending “The Good Shepherds.” It’s not like “The Book of Mormon” musical, he said, the raunchy Tony-winning Broadway hit that mercilessly mocks many of the faith’s beliefs and practices.
Rather, Nolan said, “The Good Shepherds” steers clear of everything members consider sacred (such as prophets and temples) and aims its satire solely at the church’s money.
He even feels that most of the music was “completely inspired,” he said. “Some of the songs just poured into my mind and poured onto the piano keys.”
‘Like a punch to the face’
The project got its start three years ago, when Nolan — a Cache Valley resident, musician and father of six — faced a crisis.
His business had recently failed. His savings were wiped out when, after insurance wouldn’t cover a rotting exterior wall in his home, he had paid nearly $20,000 to replace it. And he wasn’t sure how he was going to make his next house payment.
Nolan said he went to the bishop of his Latter-day Saint ward, or congregation, for help. He knew that the church sometimes provides financial assistance to those in need, and — given his longtime devotion, including a two-year proselytizing mission and “significant” service positions in his ward — he thought he would find support there.
Instead, Nolan said, the bishop reviewed his finances and authorized him to get $40 worth of food. That was it.
Several months after this experience — during which time Nolan said he worked three jobs to scrape by — a whistleblower alleged that the church had amassed $100 billion by stockpiling surplus donations instead of using them for charitable works.
Church leaders say the “rainy day” account is meant to guard against disasters or lean economic times — like credit crunches, stock slides and recessions — and to fund operations in poorer parts of the world where member donations cannot keep up.
Nolan said learning that the church has billions of dollars but didn’t help in his time of need “literally felt like a punch to the face.”
To process his emotions, Nolan turned to something that’s always been therapeutic for him: writing music. And after composing several songs, he realized a musical would be the perfect vehicle to share them.
The show’s story follows four young professionals who are thrilled to land their dream jobs at Mormon Inc.
However, “after discovering that their fellow church employees are quite obsessed with hoarding insane levels of stocks, land and other investments (while donating very, very little to external charities),” the production’s website states, “some of these new hires have a change of heart.”
The music’s style is a mix of hip-hop, pop and rock. Songs like “Let’s Buy Florida” poke fun at the church’s massive landholdings (“We ‘bout to hit a million acres/Cause you know that God just loves those beachside vacations”) while others like “Look Down On Me” take a more serious tone (“That ‘rainy day’ that you’ve been waiting for?/I got news for you, it’s pouring to death outside”).
He also has collaborated with musicians like Brandon Richardson, who performs under the name Lyric Richardson with the hip hop-group JTLR and is the rapper on “Look Down On Me.”
Richardson said Nolan initially reached out to him to do some songwriting, and he was so moved by the work they did together that he independently recorded some more rap verses and offered them to Nolan, who “ran with it.”
Richardson said most of the music he helped Nolan produce for “The Good Shepherds” is for the main character, who acts as a fictional whistleblower in the story.
Richardson spent a lot of time figuring out this character, he said, eventually drawing off his emotions to bring “a little grime and a little grit” to the person.
He said he didn’t have much familiarity with the LDS Church before working with Nolan. In the end, he believes the production doesn’t apply to a single denomination.
“I hope that [the show]... becomes thought-provoking and makes people go, ‘Oh yeah, that is kind of funny. What’s all this about?’” he said. “You can’t go back and you can’t change history. But maybe we can make things better in the future.”
‘It has the power to literally save human lives’
Nolan anticipates the show selling out because he believes it will resonate. He also hopes it will connect with other members who would like to see the church exhibit more financial transparency.
“Here they are requiring the members to freaking every single year declare to the bishop, ‘Yes, I am a full tithe payer,’” Nolan said. “That is just an insane level of financial accountability. … The church requires it from us, demands it from us and withholds blessings from us if we don’t do it. And yet, they don’t give a shred of transparency.”
Church officials have noted the global faith, as a whole, gives about $1 billion a year to “humanitarian causes and charities.” They add that COVID-19 spurred its largest relief effort in the church’s history.
But Nolan looks at those vast reserves and argues his church can give more — so much more.
His “biggest dream” is for the church to echo that sentiment and, in fact, “do more.”
“If enough people are talking about the fact that the church should be doing more with their insane fortune,” Nolan said, “… it has the power to literally save human lives.”