For years, our hi-fi stereo languished in the attic. But it’s been dusted off and now resides in a place of honor in our teenager’s room, because vinyl is hip again, and suddenly we’re glad we saved our record collection all these years. Recently an LDS friend passed along some records she thought our teen might enjoy spinning, and tucked into the stack was a genuine piece of 1970s Mormon culture, a double album cast recording of the 1977 musical My Turn on Earth. With lyrics by poet Carol Lynn Pearson and music by Lex de Azevedo, My Turn on Earth turned the Plan of Salvation into a modern-day child’s parable tracing one girl’s journey from her preexistence in heaven, through allegorical earth life and back.
The girl is named Barbara. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more generic name for a female person in the 1970s, since Barbara stayed solidly in the American most popular top 10 girls’ names from 1928 to 1958.  In heaven, this young everywoman Barbara learns about the competing plans of her elder brothers, chooses to follow Jesus, and then allegorically travels through life accumulating “treasures” because she senses she’s supposed to be seeking something very important, but she’s forgotten what it is. Near the end of her life (though throughout the entire play she’s portrayed as a child), Barbara’s compassion overwhelms her as she–as a Good Samaritan–encounters other children who need her treasures. One by one, she gives away all her treasures. Despairing that she’s about to be called home empty-handed and with nothing to show for her time on earth, Barbara is instead reassured to discover that by giving everything away, she’s found the very thing for which she was supposed to be searching: eternal life. Final scene: apotheosis of Barbara and triumphant reunion in heaven.
My Turn on Earth (MTOE) crosses several categories. It serves as a live-action didactic tract dramatizing Mormon folk theology of the plan of salvation (like its better-known companion Mormon musical Saturday’s Warrior). It’s a 1970s religious performance piece orchestrated with some bouncy TV-theme-music songs and others as schmaltzy Carpenters-soundalike ballads; a little like the campy/goofy-sweet Godspell which debuted off-Broadway in 1971. It was suitable for stake theater during the golden age of ward/stake activities committees, a show which needed only a small cast and didn’t require elaborate staging or sets. The dual-record set represents an analog-technology material culture artifact of the Church’s massive multimedia publishing efforts, in a largely obsolete genre (2010s teen hipsters notwithstanding) along with filmstrips and cassette tapes.
That said, it’s important to note MTOE wasn’t officially a Church production at the time. The record set was produced by Embryo Music in North Hollywood, California, recorded in London, with members of the London Philharmonic featured in the orchestration. Embryo changed names over the years, eventually becoming Lumen Productions and merging into Excel Entertainment, now a part of Deseret Book, and MTOE has since edged closer into the Mormon culture canon with a 2008 release of a stage production DVD and a CD, currently available on the Deseret Book website .
Upon re-listening to MTOE on the hi-fi, complete with occasional crackles and pops from the long-unplayed LP, a few observations came to mind.
While vibrant commercialization of religion is not unique to Mormonism and has long been part of the American religious landscape (as a recent stop into Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church bookshop and gift store during a visit to Houston reminded me once again), those that are uniquely Mormon in style and theology always lend themselves to scholarly unpacking. Despite its dated 1970s vibe, MTOE comes from the energetic world of cultural production designed to reinforce and embellish Mormon culture, a vast universe of LDS-themed art that spans the range from highbrow to kitsch, lesson assists, clip art, and devotional music – notably, much of it illustrated, authored or performed by women. It directly speaks to women’s authority to instruct in the gospel… though all too often not just TO, but literally IN the voice and persona of children. Though neither are physically represented on stage, the open references to both Heavenly Father and Mother in various songs are a reminder of the ebb and flow of denominational comfort with women’s presence, authority, and divinity – as well as the ebb and flow of noncanonical, speculative theology about Mother in Heaven, often in poetic form – a genre where Carol Lynn Pearson has herself been a significant figure (most notably in her one-woman show Mother Wove the Morning, first staged in the late 1980s).
These days, Mormon cultural production — especially of the uncorrelated sort I always find so fascinating — generally takes other shapes (although, the musical is making a serious comeback on stage and screen, so… maybe it’s a cultural form that Mormons might take up again, too, don’t count it out). MTOE’s sincerity and simplicity remain endearing, though its reductive theology turned resolutely away from grappling with any serious issues of its era (feminism/ERA, the Church’s race issues, environmentalism, just to name a few). Even Saturday’s Warrior took on the population debate, didn’t it? MTOE imagines everyone’s “turn on earth” as basically reduced to free agency, the golden rule and eternal family formation, prefiguring the Proclamation on the Family while displacing Christ from powerful personal Savior to vacuous hero. I venture a guess that an entire generation of Gen X Mormons like me grew up hearing these songs, as familiar a part of their childhood as Sesame Street. Like the Church itself in the 1970s, MTOE borrows from the surrounding culture in a highly self-conscious way, but mainly to nourish its own insular LDS universe.
Discuss. Your turn.