Mormons Got Talent: the Choir Library Wayback Machine

By August 15, 2012

My new calling as ward choir director came with the keys, so to speak, to the closet of old music. I cleaned it out, took it all home, and spread it all over the floor of our library to organize. I didn’t intend for this to be an archival research moment, but as I sorted and tossed I became drawn into the experience and starting reading slower and slower… it was, in a sense, a historical archive dating back at least to the late 1970s. There were documents I couldn’t bring myself to throw out, including a signup of musical talent that went around in the High Priest quorum in our ward maybe 20 years ago; many of those men are now gone, either moved or passed away, and it touched me to see their signatures (and, typically, their protestations of lacking any musical talent). I also now have a full set of the Church handbooks of instruction produced for musical leaders, dated 1981, including separate booklets for Church Music, Organists, Choral Music, Children’s Music, and Conductors. And there are three dog-eared copies of the tomato-red Activity supplement to the 1970s Primary songbook, Sing With Me.

Several fascinating items in the archive illustrate the affection Latter-day Saints had, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, for LDS-themed pageantry, theater and spectacle. “Saturday’s Warrior” may have been the best-known, but Lex deAzedevo and Doug Stewart created other theatricals for Mormon use and our library has “The Master’s Touch,” an Embryo Music 15-minute mini-musical “for choir and readers.” The back cover advertises a number of related choral works composed by various combinations of Stewart, de Azevedo and Carol Lynn Pearson, most “with Demonstration LP available.” I also came across a bundle of glossy black-and-gold choral books for what looks to be a 1980 Sesquecentennial “multimedia musical production” of Zion, where the multimedia element was to include a set of 35-mm slides or filmstrip and a cassette tape score.

But the artifact I wanted to write about today is a slightly water-damaged booklet, printed by Church Distribution in 1982, titled Because of Elizabeth. It’s an adaptation of an outdoor pageant originally presented at the dedication of the Monuments to Women in Nauvoo in the summer of 1978, and then later presented as an indoor musical at Promised Valley Playhouse as the Relief Society’s presentation for the Church Sesquecentennial. The booklet presents a “shortened, simplified” concert version of the play, suitable for ward or branch dramas, Relief Society opening socials, family reunions, or “just a pleasant evening of play reading.” The book was written by Moana B. Bennett, music by Larry Bastian and lyrics by Duane Hiatt.

The story, narrated by a Greek chorus, follows a surnameless Elizabeth, a young convert in England, to Nauvoo where she meets and marries a young Mormon, joins the new Relief Society, lives through mob harassment and the death of Joseph Smith while her husband serves a mission. They are reunited long enough to have a child and suffer at Winter Quarters, only be separated again when her husband is called into the Battalion, leaving her to travel alone to the Salt Lake Valley. They establish a prodigious family, including 4 daughters:

The years pass and the little girls become women. Susan gets a job on the Women’s Exponent. Martha is called to preside over a Relief Society and her first big assignment is to save wheat—Brother Brigham says the women of the Relief Society should save wheat. Louise receives a call to go east to learn medicine so she can help staff the new maternity hospital that is being built. Brother Brigham doesn’t trust those new gentile male doctors who have come to the valley and Elizabeth tells her daughter: “The Lord expects us to overcome the problems of the earth by learning.” Louise wants to go but she does not want to leave her two small babies and her husband. “After all,” she says, “I can’t just put them on a shelf until I return.” But David reminds her that it is the Andrews family’s proud tradition to respond with excellent to the prophet’s call. Bruce grows to manhood and leaves on his mission. And the baby, Mary Ann, sings in the Tabernacle Choir. (p.6)

Musical numbers include the rousing “Building Nauvoo,” a couple of love songs for Elizabeth and David (“When the Light Flickers Out” which uses the “courting lamp” as a prop and “Your Life, My Life,” a kind of Mormon “Sunrise Sunset” wedding song), one that sings the praises of the Relief Society (“The Work of Love”), “Westward Zion” which removes all the terminal Gs from its verbs (“Leavin’ this fair land to others, we’re goin’ west!” etc), a lament at parting with the Battalion (“By the Rivers of Babylon”), and a spirited “Brother Brigham Says” recounting the work of crossing the plains. The play ends in triumph with Elizabeth’s husband proclaiming “We’ve established Zion in the tops of the mountains and our children will see that it won’t fail,” and a closing vignette fast-forwarding five generations to her infant great-great-great-grandaughter being named… Elizabeth.

I was intrigued by what was included (the wheat program, women getting the vote in Utah, the Exponent) and what was omitted (any mention of polygamy or Indians, for starters). Elizabeth comes across as spunky and heroic: “In Winter Quarters there are only five hundred men and more than three thousand women and children. Elizabeth learns to shoot a gun to protect Edward and herself. She learns to drive an ox team. She helps tend the sick, and she learns to help with the birth of new babies” (5).

Notions of class and taste enter into the staging instructions: “use simple, compatible clothing from current wardrobes” but “long skirts are more graceful when sitting on stools” and “generally basic street makeup will be sufficient.” If budgets allow, “costumes, properties and scenery can be rented from Promised Valley Playhouse” in Salt Lake. Regarding choreography, “avoid the obvious at all times,” and “work to make the weakest person look best. This will make everyone look wonderful” (9-10).

I’d be curious to know if anyone participated in staging “Because of Elizabeth” or remembers seeing it presented. It seems such a period piece of the grand era of Church roadshows, dance festivals, and genteel but ambitious amateur theatricals, which have been nearly entirely replaced by Church-made films that are consumed, rather than produced, by members, or require a trip to a visitor’s center to view. Last year our stake mounted a gorgeous full-costume version of the “Savior of the World” Easter cantata, but that felt rare and special. Of course outdoor pageants have a long tradition and show no sign of disappearing from the Mormon cultural landscape, but play scripts no longer find a place in the Distribution catalog.

Because of Elizabeth reminds us of two earlier eras: not only the Nauvoo period it very partially reconstructs, but also the early flowering of Mormon women’s history in the 1970s, and a whole self-contained world of earnest, sentimental, artistic productions designed to celebrate Mormonism’s distinctiveness and bind them together as a people… one cultural hall at a time.

PS – It goes without saying, perhaps, but I am happy to scan any of these documents and send a PDF to erstwhile researchers. Just say the word.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Gender Miscellaneous Popular Culture


Comments

  1. Used to have a vinyl LP, but that’s as close as I came to participating. This came out while I was a missionary, and I think it had passed its peak by the time I got home, but it was instantly familiar when I saw your image.

    What fun to go spelunking through your closet!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 15, 2012 @ 7:50 am

  2. I’m not familiar with this piece although my parents might be.

    Duane Hiatt is one of the 3Ds, a folk music group, but he’s undoubtedly best known in the church as the author and composer of the children’s song “Follow the Prophet.”

    I’m less familiar with Larry Bastian although you see his name from time to time. I just played through a couple of his songs, and they kind of have a Janice Kapp Perry feel to them.

    Comment by Amy T — August 15, 2012 @ 8:24 am

  3. Loved this, Tona. I was raised listening to music from these types of things (my mom has been ward chorister for almost two decades). I also remember performing said spirited “Brother Brigham Says” at some youth function.

    Comment by Ben P — August 15, 2012 @ 9:29 am

  4. I participated in the Rupert Idaho Stake’s production of ‘Because of Elizabeth’ as a youth in the late 70’s. I have fond memories of rehearsals and performances, especially the choreography for ‘Brother Brigham Says’ and the moving performance of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’. In fact, those fond memories are why ‘Brother Brigham Says’ was performed by a group including my son Ben (see comment above) when our stake in New Mexico recreated Nauvoo in our Cultural Hall for a Youth Conference in 2002. I cherish the many old hymn books I’ve collected over the years as vignettes into the past. Music is responsible for my strong testimony today. Thanks for this poignant walk down memory lane.

    Comment by Melanie P. — August 15, 2012 @ 10:54 am

  5. Aw, Ben. No wonder you turned out so well!

    Comment by Kristine — August 15, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

  6. Great post, Tona. Your bit about consuming rather than producing made instant sense, and was something that I hadn’t really thought about earlier. Something to consider there, more broadly, I think.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 15, 2012 @ 3:04 pm

  7. My mother played Elizabeth sometime in the early ’80s. If you’re looking for personal reminiscences, I can send her a note. I was quite young at the time. The only things that stuck in my young mind were (1) a lyric in one of the songs (Bro. Brigham Says?) about washing behind our ears, and (2)the blue stage lights that came on in one scene (losing a baby?) Wow. Those memories are way back there.

    Our family also participated in a play put on by a stake in Boise in the late ’80s called “The Brothers” about Karl Maeser. And then there was the musical presentation of my YM days in the early ’90s “A Time to Love”.

    My favorite musical artifact from the Church library is the official songbook for Aaron Priesthood choruses. Or the purple-bound “Sing Unto God” choirbook with choral movements from the great composers of the protestant reformation.

    Good stuff. Thanks for the invitation to walk down memory lane.

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 15, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

  8. How nice to get a multi-generational comment series! Thanks Sister P! J Stapley, thanks too. In my mind it’s linked, somehow, to the end of RS fundraising and of local percentage contributions for ward building construction and to the demise of stake welfare farms. All these things that Mormons used to DO for themselves, make for themselves, paint and crochet and hoe and can for themselves… I’m not asking to go back to unconsolidated schedules and DIY chapels, but there’s something lost with the passage of those, isn’t there?

    A few weeks ago L. Tom Perry was in the Boston area, visiting as his 90th birthday celebration some of the places where he and his wife had lived and the buildings he’d helped build over the years. He was kind enough to speak to the youth of Boston and Nashua stakes at the Weston building during their youth conference. He pointed to a spot midway down the chapel wall, high above the heads, and said: underneath that paneling is a part of that wall that I painted and sweated over. I think there’s something important that you connect with when you bodily make/sing/create/enact/plant/paint/hammer/dance that you don’t get when you just purchase/watch/read. The transition from production to consumption (especially for women) is a long, slow and incomplete process, we are still in it.

    Comment by Tona H — August 15, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

  9. Thanks, Tona.

    Comment by Ryan T. — August 15, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

  10. Awesome, Tona. Thanks for the post.

    Comment by Christopher — August 15, 2012 @ 11:18 pm

  11. Tona: MORE OF THIS.

    The producer-to-consumer observation seems apt. Talking with a good friend the other day we wondered aloud why we as members just let the Church (Corporation of the President) provide for us, rather than being the engine for supply as partners. Be it emergency preparedness, culture (the arts especially), or local adaptations for good, there is a lot to think about as a subtext to this post.

    Cheers!

    Comment by Tod Robbins — August 15, 2012 @ 11:48 pm

  12. Very intriguing. I’d love a copy of Because of Elizabeth!

    Comment by Saskia — August 16, 2012 @ 1:39 pm


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