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‘Polygamy,’ the Broadway play: Mormon controversy on stage nearly 100 years before ‘Book of Mormon’ musical

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Andrew Rannells, center, performs with an ensemble cast in "The Book of Mormon" at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York.

Andrew Rannells, center, performs with an ensemble cast in “The Book of Mormon” at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York.

Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus, AP Photo/Boneau

LAYTON — "The Book of Mormon" musical has been a Tony Award-winning success, but this isn't the first time a Mormon-themed stage production has generated attention and controversy on Broadway.

Almost a century ago, a story based on Mormonism played on the Great White Way — only in 1914, the hot topic was polygamy.

The Broadway show "Polygamy" was discussed during a concurrent session on June 7 at the 48th Annual Mormon History Association Conference in Layton.

Presenter Kenneth Cannon, a member of the MHA board, presented his paper on the Broadway production.

Presenters at the conference gave history and facts about a specific discipline within a broader theme. Cannon presented in a session themed "Mormon Case Studies of Progressive Era Moralism."

"Polygamy" followed four LDS adults in 1914 who were each members of prominent Salt Lake City families. The play, which portrayed the events and misunderstandings of one 24-hour period, highlighted one family which dealt with the contrast of believers and non-believers, even among intimate social circles, when it came to the doctrine. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outlawed the practice of polygamy in 1890.

At the peak of its run on Broadway, "Polygamy" was a great success.

"Harriet Day of the New York Women's Press Club enthused, 'The cleverest and best balanced play of the season, not second to any, even Bernard Shaw, and a feminist play indeed,'" Cannon read.

Cannon said one of the reasons the play was a success was because it dealt with the new and startling fashions in marriage.

Though not as openly controversial as "The Book of Mormon," response for "Polygamy" was divided as well.

Cannon gave an example of B.H. Roberts, a member of the LDS Church's First Council of the Seventy who was once denied a seat in Congress over the issue of polygamy. Roberts attended the play with a theater critic friend of his.

"He emerged smiling, without feeling hurt or offended," Cannon read.

Roberts had said he felt it was an excellent melodrama although it was, as a whole, totally unbelievable. This feeling of incredulity could have stemmed from the dramatized and fictionalized scenarios in which the Saints of the time dealt with the issue of polygamy, according to Cannon's paper.

President Joseph F. Smith, who was the prophet and president of the LDS Church at the time, did not embrace the show with the same zeal as many critics.

"He said of the show that he was glad 'Polygamy' was 'proving to be a financial failure' because he thought it a contemptible falsehood." Cannon said.

The play closed in April 1915 after 159 performances.

Emmilie Buchanan is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: ebuchanan@deseretnews.com or on Twitter: @emmiliebuchanan