I walked across the street to grab some lunch at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building the other day (having received a 50 dollar gift card for Temple Square restaurants from my office building’s management company after spending an hour stuck in an elevator a few months ago). The Joseph Smith building is an elegant showpiece for the LDS Church, planted deep in the heart of Salt Lake City. It’s got an enormous and striking central lobby, anchored by a looming statue of the first LDS prophet. This building is actually a perfect representation of the Mormon Style, in that it makes strong, semi-confident steps toward the refinement and good taste of fine public buildings in other cities, while at the same time bearing just the slightest scent of kitsch. The kitsch is supplied mostly by the pianist at the back of the entrance hall, who (bless her volunteering soul) fills the grandiose lobby with the sounds of The Phantom of the Opera and Can You Feel the Love Tonight? Who knows, maybe the prophet would have liked Mem’ries, but the music, and the aging hosts and hostesses that try to suffocate you with geriatric sweetness, and the other invading signs that this is actually not a place of great worldly sophistication, give the whole scene a peculiar mood that is both quaintly lovable and a bit bizarre.
Let’s see, should I wow ’em with the Tigers Come at Night, or blow ’em away with Part of Your World?
Sitting there eating my lunch in the caffeine-free cafe off to the side, I started pondering the elements of the Mormon Style in greater depth. I’m sure someone has analyzed the aesthetic in much greater detail than I am capable of, but the best summation I can come up with is to say that the Mormon Style is an amalgam of whatever happened to be hip or attractive in the larger cultural milieu five to eight years ago, cleansed of all edges and rough spots, mixed with the the florid tastes of a slightly-more-up-to-date-than-average grandmother. Temple Square is the bastion of this style, where the LDS Church tries, for good reason, to be both beautiful in the broad sense, and spiritual in its own parochial way. Other outposts of the LDS Church apply and develop the style in various ways, but these elements remain consistent throughout– a nod to beauty as defined by extra-Mormon sources, and a subtle Mormon spin to both clean up and dilute the original material nearly beyond recognition.
These ponderings took me back to the formative days of my youth, and the form that at one time gave the Mormon Style its greatest mode of expression: The Road Show. The influence of Road Shows on the modern Mormon Church is in steep decline. I haven’t heard of one being done for years. But a few decades ago, this was a pretty popular activity. The Road Show was an exercise in which the artistically inclined or attention deprived within a congregation would come together to create from scratch some sort of musical production involving a large cast, original stories and scripts, hastily assembled sets and costumes, and risible attempts at comedy. In my day, several groups would plan their own plays and then come together in one big night to put them all on in sequence for one audience. It was awful.
I was involved in several road shows, all very much against my will. One was a fanciful retelling of the story of how the development of Utah was aided by the introduction of silkworms. The silkworms in the cast were the lucky ones. They were extremely condescending to us mulberry bushes. But everyone learned a valuable lesson about worms, and their important part in helping the pioneers develop the silk industry which has remained a huge staple of Utah’s economy (that’s not remotely true). For another road show we enacted the ancient parable of the Star-bellied Sneeches, which actually had some dignity about it. For the road show the following year, the entire youth corp was forced to memorize the words and harmonic parts to Whitney Houston’s One Moment in Time. I was around 15. My religious leaders thought it would be a good idea for me to stand in a chorus among my peers, in front of an audience of a few hundred, and sing Whitney Houston’s One Moment in Time as an emotional finale to our inspiring revue. This is why anyone who grew up Mormon will tell you without hesitation that Mormons do not believe in infallibility when it comes to their leaders. Now, with the distance of many years and through the prism of adult maturity, there is still no song in the world I detest as much as Whitney Houston’s One Moment in Time.
The artistic high water mark of Farmington Road Show accomplishment
I just asked Macy if she has any memories of involvement in road shows. Her instant response was “Yeah. One year I was a tap-dancing chipmunk.” Exactly.
My worst experience was at age 18. I was forced to go down and take part in the road show. New format: “we’re casting, writing, staging, rehearsing, and then performing the road show all in one crrrrazy Saturday!!! Think how old you feel when you’re a senior in high school. I had a girlfriend, and the beginnings of a little chest hair. The next oldest cast member was 15. I’m pretty sure Davis even weaseled out of it somehow. It was horrible. Despite an audition where I mostly tried to just be invisible, I was cast as the lead– an acerbic, comically modern Noah, who received revelations about the coming flood via fax. Most of the script consisted of puns between ‘fax’ and ‘facts,’ and my (Noah’s) wife berating me while Paul Harvey (whom no person in the cast had ever heard of) narrated. After we resolved a contrived conflict with the cardboard-costumed livestock, I had to do a solo dance to I Can See Clearly Now the Rain Is Gone, apropos of jack squat. I tremble with shame and self-loathing as I type this. It was honestly one of the most painful experiences of my life.
Anyway, for all its kitschy feel to outsiders, the Mormon Style is worth something if only for the sacrifices its pawns have suffered to bring it to pass. Which brings me to one final point of interest. You may have noticed on the sidebar of this blog that there’s a plug for a book called The Road Show. This is the debut novel of our brother, Braden Bell, and is just hitting bookstores now. Braden has written an extremely readable and engaging book also focusing on a road show, populated by people drawn into the production every bit as unwillingly as I ever was. His characters have real problems like depression and alienation, and manage to find some peace through a moving process involving, yes, a road show. I do not believe any of the characters’ difficulties were nearly as challenging as what I’ve described above, but still, it’s a very human book with intense focus on experiences that are universal, and universally interesting. Let me be the first to say (because my brothers clearly don’t care) that this book is very worth reading. You can find it on Amazon, or in other places where LDS books are sold. Note: This is a religious book. This blog will never be about religion, but if you subscribe to any brand of Christianity, you will find definite uplift in this book. Hope you enjoy it.