“1820: The Musical” is a new portrayal of the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and captures the events through the main viewpoint of Emma Hale Smith, the prophet Joseph Smith’s wife.
BYU theater professor George Nelson is the playwright, director and producer of “1820: The Musical.” Nelson described the musical as “a result of many years of seeing others use theater to make fun of the LDS faith and what we believe.”
As others look at what Latter-day Saints believe and try to come up with artificial and commercial responses, “1820: The Musical” is meant to characterize Joseph Smith by using records of family members, colleagues and associates’ interactions with him.
The musical is guided with Emma Hale Smith watching Joseph’s life unfold and how it affected her own life. “One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received about the show is that Joseph would be very proud of the way his wife has been represented here,” Nelson said.
The musical is an opportunity to show Emma’s light, strength and power of her womanhood. One of the greatest heroes of the restoration is Emma; she stood by Joseph through so much relocation and loss of children, as well as having him taken away from her, Nelson said.
“So many scriptures and historical stories have women as an afterthought, but I believe men and women are nothing without each other,” Nelson said. “This has become such an important part of what we wanted to achieve with this production.”
Nelson wanted to tackle the most common criticisms of Joseph Smith head on. The same problems people had with Joseph when he was alive are the same today — the biggest attacks toward Joseph often regarded his character, he said.
The topics of laziness, greed and the use of plural marriage as a way to excuse adultery are addressed through many songs. “Joseph never said he was perfect, but in so many ways, people have expected him to be. Our show confronts those themes,” Nelson said.
BYU alumnus Zack Wilson plays Joseph Smith, and the show’s music writers reached out to him when the first readings of the script and songs began.
The most rewarding part of playing Joseph has been gaining a better understanding of who he was through study and preparation. At times, the experience has been daunting trying to do justice in the portrayal of him, Wilson said.
“Trying to put my brain into the situations he, Emma and Hyrum faced has been really an incredible experience,” he said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to play the role of Joseph and in some small way, try and portray his story, him as a person and the things he faced.”
Diversity in cast and music might possibly be the most notable aspect of the musical, Nelson said. “We are a very diverse Church. When putting this whole thing together, we needed to do what would be most accessible to everyone — if we made the musical classical or operatic, who would that be accessible to?”
Nelson didn’t want to use different musical styles just for the sake of it. He said utilizing different styles of music lets the story speak to different people in different ways.
The music is what sets “1820: The Musical” apart from anything else, Wilson said. “You have everything from slow rock ballads to more upbeat pop-centered style embedded into the soundtrack.”
“One of the exciting parts of the gospel is the Lord’s promise that all of God’s children will hear the truth of the gospel in their own language,” Nelson said. “For some, the language best fit for them is dance or music.”
Musical theater can be used as a tool to bear testimony so that truth reaches people’s hearts who might not have been reached in any other way, he said.
Wilson believes having a diverse cast is very important, as it represents the many cultures Joseph and Emma Smith’s story has impacted. An example of this is Conlon Bonner, an African American portraying Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s brother who was martyred alongside him.
One of Wilson’s favorite moments of the show is singing the song, “One Last Ride.” The song is performed as Hyrum and Joseph decide to return to Nauvoo which they know means essentially going back to their deaths, he said.
“Conlon does a phenomenal job at representing Hyrum and the spirit of Hyrum. There’s a bond that Hyrum and Joseph had that is so special and I feel like the bond Conlon and I have is very special as well,” Wilson said. “I love him like a brother so it’s easy to portray that relationship on stage with him.”
BYU theatre arts major Katie Arnold will graduate with an emphasis in stage management; she is co-stage manager for the musical and has been involved with the project since April 2021.
One of the most special aspects of the musical for Arnold is the set. “It’s built to look like Carthage Jail and it’s always on the stage with us,” Arnold said. “The prophet’s life would end there, so it’s so poignant to have that structure constantly there while we show his life.”
The stage is a place where Joseph Smith falls in love, sees God and Jesus Christ, translates the Book of Mormon and more. The set represents all those events and his martyrdom, she said.
Arnold expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be on the show. She said when she was first brought onto the project, her personal testimony of the Church was not at a great spot.
“Working in a professional setting where the story and music tells us that questions are OK is an amazing experience,” Arnold said. “Joseph constantly asked Heavenly Father questions and so do I. But it’s important to choose to have faith and believe God will answer everything in the end.”
As Arnold has talked with other cast and crew, she’s come to find many others who have had similar experiences. Like her, others have felt they were brought to this show to have their testimonies strengthened. “God’s constantly working and teaching — he’s very busy,” she said.
Nelson hopes the show provides new representation of the prophet for those who may have previously believed Smith was a prophet, but have struggled to believe now with the mass bombarding messages against Smith’s character.
“1820: The Musical” was presented to a New York music producer very early on, Nelson said. The producer told Nelson the show had the potential to become the Latter-day Saint version of “Fiddler on the Roof.” He believes his cast bares strong testimony without being overbearing.
The trials and struggles the show’s characters faced were hard and emotionally taxing. Some of the certain trials they faced are still faced by people today, Wilson said.
“I feel like this show can lift a lot of spirits. We face so many political, physical and spiritual trials,” Wilson said. “There can be so much healing given to people by coming and witnessing this beautiful production of ‘1820: The Musical.'”