The original title of George Nelson’s play about Joseph and Emma Smith was “Tale of a Lunatic?”
It was later changed to “1820: The Musical” because the Brigham Young University theater/arts professor and award-winning playwright didn’t want to offend anyone, especially members of his own faith — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Even so, Nelson finds the original title to be more “provocative” and accessible to a larger audience.
“He was called a lunatic so much,” Nelson said. “The original idea for me was, come and see whether he was a lunatic or not. Come and look, and when you’re done looking, is he a lunatic or did the things he said happened to him really happen to him?”
That’s the deep question Nelson hopes audiences will consider when they come to see his Broadway-style play “1820: The Musical,” which opens Friday, Aug. 6, and runs through Saturday, Sept. 11, at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo, Utah.
With opening night approaching, the director spoke with the Deseret News about the inspiration behind the musical, its religious themes, the yearlong pandemic delay and his aspirations to reach a larger audience with a thought-provoking message.
What inspired ‘1820: The Musical’?
As a Latter-day Saint, it bothers Nelson when people attack Joseph Smith.
The attacks were evident when he saw “The Book of Mormon” musical, which makes light of the prophet, the church and its missionary efforts in irreverent, vulgar and profane ways.
Nelson felt inspired to write “1820” as a result of that experience. He wanted to revisit some of the key moments in Joseph’s life and show a more faithful side to audiences.
“There’s a definite message coming out of ‘The Book of Mormon’ musical, and out of our musical there’s a definite message, which says, ‘Take a look again, see for yourself, try to figure this out.’ He’s either a prophet or he’s a lunatic. There’s no common ground.”
What is ‘1820: The Musical’ about?
The stage production is a contemporary and personal portrayal of the life of Joseph and Emma, their lives and trials in little vignettes, as told through Emma’s eyes and heavily driven by song and dance.
Nelson’s goal is to show the human side of the decisions and choices made by the Latter-day Saint leader. The show does not avoid sensitive topics, such as polygamy.
“We’ve tried not to back away from things,” Nelson said. “You can’t really deal with the Prophet Joseph and Emma without taking a look at the part that plural marriage played in their relationship. A lot of people have attacked Joseph on that, and a lot of people have tried to defend all those things. We just try to show what it did to Joseph and Emma.”
Does Zack Wilson act and play football?
The part of Joseph Smith is played by a person with a familiar name to football fans.
“Isn’t that interesting?” said Nelson, a former walk-on BYU football player himself. “People said, ‘I didn’t know Zack was an actor.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know he was a football player.’ But our Zack is probably one of the most athletic men I have ever met.”
Zack Wilson the actor is one of 17 performers on a racially diverse cast. Kerilyn Johnson portrays Emma Smith with blond hair and Conlon Bonner, who is Black, plays Hyrum Smith.
“We’re telling the story from our point of view, in costume, in dance,” Nelson said. “It’s very eclectic in its look where we want to feel for the past, but we want it to kind of be here in the present.”
The production’s music was written and composed by Kendra Lowe Holt, Kayliann Lowe Juarez and Doug Lowe.
Artist David Archuleta has described the show and music as “fantastic and well-written,” according to a news release.
Delayed by COVID-19
The play was originally scheduled to open as part of the church’s bicentennial celebration of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in 2020, but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had sets under construction, costumes in construction, we had a cast in place,” Nelson said. “We were all ready to move forward when the plug got pulled.”
Despite the pandemic, a soundtrack for the show was recorded and distributed so audiences could get a feel for the music in advance. Most of the cast also remained because they were excited about the show, Nelson said.
What is the ultimate goal with ‘1820 the Musical’?
Ultimately, Nelson wants to take the play to a larger audience.
He showed “1820” to a producer in New York who is very interested.
“In his estimation, this could have as much universal appeal as ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,’ as ‘Jesus Christ: Superstar,’ because to him, it dealt with human issues and real-life characters,” Nelson said. “He said, ‘The only thing I knew about your religion at all was from what I what I saw in ‘The Book of Mormon’ musical or Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America.’ He said, ‘I knew nothing about your religion.’”
Nelson welcomes people of any religion “to come and see for themselves and examine who this Joseph Smith really was.”