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The 60s and 70s were a time of incredible cultural upheaval, and in response, some timeless music emerged. Just like the rest of the country, members of the LDS Church responded likewise by creating enduring works of art to express their feelings and faith.
One of the most recognized works from that period, Saturday’s Warrior, struck such a chord it took the LDS community by storm. Its journey to the stage and now 40 years later from stage to screen has been just as eventful as the decade in which it is set.
How it came to be
Lex de Azevedo originally developed the music for Saturday’s Warrior with the goal of creating an LDS-genre music production company. What many may not know about Lex, before composing Saturday’s Warrior, he had ghostwritten many musical numbers for a variety of Christian personalities including Billy Graham, among others. “The Christian music market was ready to explode at that time,” relates Lex. “And I thought if Christian pop music can be successful, why not Mormon pop music?”
And if anyone knew the music market it was Lex. In addition to being a composer and pianist, Lex was also a producer for Capitol Records and the musical director for The Sonny & Cher Show, Michael Jackson & The Jackson Five and The Osmonds. But it was his dream and goal of creating LDS-themed popular music that drove him to partner with Doug Stewart and write Saturday’s Warrior as musical theater.
“I never pictured Saturday’s Warrior as a classical stage musical,” says Lex. “To me, it was originally more a concert that happened to include some dialogue to cohesively string it together.”
At first, a disaster
The inaugural performance of Saturday’s Warrior was at BYU in 1974 by a group of BYU students and musicians, and according to Lex, it was a complete disaster. “After seeing the first performance, I called Doug and told him I thought it was dead. It wasn’t at all what I had envisioned Saturday’s Warrior could be,” Lex said.
Undeterred, Lex returned to California, regrouped and decided to stage the show as a unique missionary effort in Southern California and moreover, to fit his and Doug’s original vision. Lex twisted arms, called in favors and begged family members to help him put on a performance of Saturday’s Warrior that would fulfill his and Doug’s dream. “Most of the main parts were played by my family members,” recalls Lex. “But here’s a little-known fact. The part of Pam was played by 13-year-old Shawn Engemann, better known now as Shawn King! Maybe starring in Saturday’s Warrior at the Sherman Oaks ward house was what inspired her career.”
While preparing to stage the musical, Lex and his family planned a move to Utah from Southern California. “We had sold our house and completely packed up to move the day after Saturday’s Warrior was performed,” Lex recalled. But that performance would change Lex and his family’s lives forever and set them on a path that has ultimately led to the production and release of Saturday’s Warrior as a major motion picture.
“It was stunning,” says Lex. “I truly believe music is powerful, but the response from the audience was overwhelming.” After that night, Lex knew there was no way he could move to Utah – not yet anyway.
Requests for performances poured in from all over the west. Ruth Latimer, who had been Young Women’s President and helped organize the first Southern California cast, joined Lex and Doug full-time to help produce the traveling show. “Ruth and I worked together full-time for 25 years on innumerable projects,” said Lex. “So many miracles came out of Saturday’s Warrior, and I count my relationship with Ruth as one of the greatest.”
Lightning in a bottle
In 1975, Saturday’s Warrior ran 134 consecutive sold out shows in Spanish Fork and Salt Lake City. Only Broadway and Elvis in Las Vegas have experienced runs like that. When Saturday’s Warrior debuted in Phoenix, it sold more tickets in two hours than Elton John, at the height of his popularity, did in two weeks! As they say in Hollywood, Lex and Doug had definitely caught lightning in a bottle.
Fast forward 40 years. The album went gold, the musical has been performed thousands upon thousands of times throughout the world, and now the feature film adaptation will open in Utah theaters on Friday, April 1 before expanding nationwide.
When asked why now, Lex is quick to respond he has resisted making a film version of Saturday’s Warrior for years. But several years ago, while living in and serving the people of Brazil, Lex had a powerful feeling that now was the time to reintroduce Saturday’s Warrior to its original fans and introduce it to a new generation of fans.
Soon after, Lex moved back to Utah and set out on his mission to produce the film. Teamed with two of his daughters, Rachel and Emilie, and with Michael Buster as screenwriter and director, Lex has created an updated version of the classic musical that is sure to evoke the powerful nostalgia of the stage play, while inspiring a new audience with its timeless messages.
For more information on Saturday’s Warrior, visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/saturdayswarrior.