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‘City of Joseph’ under way

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NAUVOO, Ill. —This year's "City of Joseph" presentation is a kind of homecoming for Don Oscarson. It's been 30 years since Oscarson, 69, Chicago, first put on a performance of the musical he penned with composer Maughn McMurdie.

The pageant, held Saturday, is the largest annual tourism event in a city that largely depends on historical tourism for its livelihood.

But Oscarson said there was nothing about Nauvoo in the early 1960s that suggested the show would grow to draw as many as 50,000 visitors to its annual two-week run.

"(The musical's birth) was before any of this was done," he said, pointing to the expanse of restored19th century homes and shops in the city's outdoor museum district.

Oscarson has ancestors on both sides who were part of the original community of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who built Nauvoo into Illinois' second-largest city by 1846.

Disputes with non-LDS neighbors in surrounding communities eventually forced followers of Brigham Young, who assumed leadership after church founder Joseph Smith was killed, to flee to Utah.

"I just felt the story of this city needed to be told in some kind of outdoor production," he said.

Oscarson was no stranger to musical theater. As a student at Brigham Young University, he wrote a show called "Sand In Their Shoes," a musical based on the story of the Mormon Battalion, an all-LDS militia unit in the Mexican-American War.

Together with McMurdie, then a professor at Western Illinois University, they wove the basic fabric for "City of Joseph." But it was 16 years before the show went on as an outdoor musical.

"There was absolutely nowhere to do this," Oscarson said. A version of the show debuted as an indoor play in 1971. But the first outdoor performance had to wait for construction of the amphitheater that now hosts the event. Volunteers and workers with church-affiliated Nauvoo Restoration Inc. constructed the stage and set up the lights and sound system for the story's first outdoor telling in 1976.

It was promoted as an event for the U.S. Bicentennial that year but grew into an annual pageant that is today the church's second largest. Some 1,300 people apply to be a part of the roughly 500-member cast each year, Oscarson said.

As it is for many others, this year's show is a family experience for the Oscarsons. Including himself, the author has 10 family members in the performance. Oscarson shepherded the show for its first two decades as an outdoor event, but gave it up six years ago to a group called by church leaders. He credits creative director Lynn Bodily with keeping the original spirit alive while bringing new energy and enthusiasm to the pageant year after year.

But this year, Oscarson said he wanted to take an active role once again. Three years ago, the two wrote a new scene and a new musical number for the Nauvoo musical to portray the building of the Nauvoo Temple. That temple is now being rebuilt on its original site.

Though tragedies are portrayed in "City of Joseph," Oscarson said, the show is more a story of triumph. "The real story is the experience that the early settlers gained here, which allowed them to go into a more foreboding environment," he said.