Your comments on yesterday’s Prologue are greatly appreciated. I think I’m old and crusty enough that I’m not too scared of being mangled by critics. I don’t know if I can incorporate all your suggestions, but this gives me a bit of direction. I thank you.
Please, please continue to comment on it, though – I won’t post the next chapter until next week.
It’s very difficult to write in a vacuum. You have no real idea of what works and what doesn’t until someone else reads it. This experience reminds me of one of the last things I did living in St. George, which was rewrite Tuacahn’s signature piece, UTAH! (The exclamation mark is what really sells it.)
For those of you who don’t know Tuacahn’s history, the facility was built to accommodate a live, musical spectacular entitled UTAH!, an outdoor musical which featured all manner of singing, dancing, pyrotechnics, and hoo hah. It told the story of the settlers of Southern Utah, led by Jacob Hamblin, a guy I’d never heard of until I saw UTAH!
The show was nothing if not ambitious – it featured an appearance by Jesus Himself, descending from a massive, wooden, elevated platform up against the 1,500-foot red-rock cliff backdrop. Tuacahn’s irreverently named “Jesus Lift” is still there behind the stage, rotting in the sun. We talked about using it for other shows, but the thing is rickety as all crap. I think it’s only through divine intervention that UTAH!‘s Jesuses never plunged to their deaths.
The centerpiece of UTAH!, however, was the massive outdoor flood that poured across the stage at the end of the show. Thousands of gallons of water were pumped up the side of the mountain and then released to wash over the stage to provide a grand bit of spectacle. When Tuacahn abandoned UTAH! in 1999, they still felt it necessary to incorporate the flood effect into just about everything they did. It knocked out a bridge in 1999’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers; it washed away the village of Anatevka at the end of 2000’s Fiddler on the Roof, and I think it did something in 2001’s Oklahoma! (notice the exclamation mark!) but I can’t be sure what it was. They gave it a rest for awhile, but I tried to bring it back in 2004 when I directed Guys and Dolls. I wanted use it in the sewer scene and have gamblers splashing around in the water for “Luck Be a Lady,” until the choreographer pointed out that the audience might feel uncomfortable imagining dancers mucking about in water that, in the context of the show, would presumably be filled with poop.
Anyway, for the fall of 2002, Tuacahn wanted to extend their season into September and decided to relaunch UTAH! as the vehicle to make that happen. Why UTAH!? Well, in the words of one executive, “We own it. So it’s cheap.”
The problem is that UTAH! had been relaunched before, and it had never generated an audience sizable enough to sustain the place, which is why it had been thrown in the dustbin after 1998. It first appeared in 1995 with music by Kurt Bestor and Sam Cardon, lyrics by Tuacahn founder and Saturday’s Warrior auteur Doug Stewart, and a book by Robert Paxton. It was retooled the following year by the same folks, and then retooled even harder the following year by Reed McColm, who was credited in the playbill alongside UTAH!‘s original authors with providing “additional material,” which understated McColm’s contributions significantly. His UTAH!, which added the subtitle “The Peacemaker Saga,” rewrote Paxton’s book almost entirely and fiddled substantially with Stewart’s lyrics. The result was a more cerebral UTAH!, more theatrical and less “pageant-y,”and a version that remains the favorite of many UTAH! veterans who consider it a noble effort to save a flawed concept.
Still, like all UTAH!‘s before it, it tanked.
So in 1998, UTAH! returned with an all-new version, dubbed The New UTAH!, scrapping everything that had gone before except the score by Bestor and Cardon. Tim Slover wrote the new story, which abandoned the Jacob Hamblin narrative and focused on the history of the entire state. Marvin Payne wrote new lyrics and songs that were grafted on to the old tunes, and while this new UTAH!, like all the others before it, had its share of admirers, it, too, failed to set the box office on fire.
Tuacahn almost closed its doors after that.
After clawing its way back to life in 1999 and mounting a more traditional Broadway season, Tuacahn found a new lease on life, which everyone believed meant that UTAH! was dead for good. It wasn’t until 2002 that the “It’s cheap!” mantra became a rationale for reviving the thing yet again.
But which UTAH! would be revived?
See, one of the main problems of UTAH! The Musical is that there are things in Utah the State’s history that many would just as soon forget. Polygamy tops that list, yet the practice makes an appearance in all three of the original UTAH!‘s, even getting its own featured song in the 1997 version. The other is the gruesome Mountain Meadows Massacre, arguably the darkest chapter in Latter-day Saint history and one that still haunts many Southern Utah families even to this day. Jacob Hamblin wasn’t present for the massacre, but it was a seminal moment in the lives of the Southern Utah settlers, and it was part of all three original UTAH!s. (Neither polygamy nor the massacre made their way into 1998’s version. In fact, I don’t have any idea what was actually in that version. Maybe some pretty birds.)
So, in considering a revival, all this was taken into account. Tuacahn’s brain trust decided they wanted to go back to the Jacob Hamblin version, which was still the most beloved of any of them. However, this time it needed to be done right – i.e. completely inoffensively. That meant no polygamy. No Mountain Meadows. No Mormons as bad guys. And no Indians as bad guys, either. (It seems there’d been a number of complaints from both Mormons and Indians. Maybe a few from Indian Mormons. I can’t be sure.)
That was the task they gave me when they came and asked me to rewrite the script.
In hindsight, maybe I should have talked them out of it. But the truth is, I wanted to take a shot at this. It was a chance to have something I wrote produced in a professional setting! How could I turn that down? I was leaving Tuacahn at the end of the summer, anyway, so what harm could this do?
I said yes and went to work.
The problem was that I had no story. If nobody’s a bad guy, there’s no conflict. So what do I have these folks do? Should Jacob Hamblin flit off to the North Pole and visit Santa Claus? Maybe there’s an audience out there hungry for Jacob Hamblin Saves Christmas, but I’m not the guy to tell that particular story.
Eventually, after considerable whining on my part, I got a bad guy. He was a Mormon, but a sneaky, duplicitous one who’s booted out at the end – and he wasn’t named after a real person. (This was a problem with other UTAH!‘s, too. Real-life descendants of on-stage villains weren’t pleased with how the musical treated the historical record.) This guy, for reasons of his own, engineers a misunderstanding between the Mormons and the Native Americans, which almost leads to war until Jacob Hamblin the Peacemaker sets things right. Unlike previous UTAH!‘s, it focused on a very narrow time frame, one presumably before Jacob Hamblin took a second wife and before Mormons started killing folks at Mountain Meadows.
I went back and kept all of Doug Stewart’s original lyrics with a few very minor tweaks. I did, however, rewrite one song entirely and used it for my new comic relief subplot, which was my favorite part of the show, due largely to an expert performance by Doug Bilitch in the role. (Unfortunately, that subplot was more interesting to me than the main story, and critics seemed to notice. More on that later.)
I left Tuacahn and moved away from St. George before rehearsals began, but I kept rewriting as necessary. I came down and saw one of the rehearsals, and it was a surreal experience to see everybody on stage actually taking what I had written seriously. Moments were working, which excited me. Yet some moments were not.
The show opened to blistering reviews. I can’t find them online anymore, but nobody much liked it. The complaint was that the goofy subplot overshadowed the main action – which was true – and the story just didn’t have much heft to it – also true.
I came down with my family to see the show right after it opened, and the thing was rained out. So I came down again and saw exactly what the critics were talking about – and decided they were right. I mentally reshuffled the show and decided that if I’d just been part of the rehearsal process and heard the feedback as it was fresh, I could have fixed it. The criticism stung, but in retrospect, it was a great experience. I got to produce a play on Tuacahn’s nickel, and I learned a whole lot at their expense. What could be better than that? I also wrote the thing under the pseudonym Stallion Cornell, which made me laugh and probably had the Tuacahnites pulling their hair out. Every playbill said “Book and Additional Lyrics by Stallion Cornell.” That made the whole thing worth it, for me at least.
However, based on the box office performance of my version, I think UTAH! is finally dead for good.
10 thoughts on “UTAH!”