REVIEW: 1820 The Musical
Amidst a family reunion and a somewhat whirlwind vacation in Utah County, I managed to join some other members of The ARCH-HIVE for a performance on 1820: The Musical at the Covey Center for the Arts. I had a delightful experience watching the performance.
Practically across the board the performers are committed and enthusiastic, with the ensemble being a particular pleasure to watch, with contemporary choreography that’s excellently performed (Ben Rayment especially gives his all every second he’s on stage, giving a magnetic performance that fleshes out the ensemble). The music is fun and “Tale of a Lunatic” continues the long-standing tradition, dating back at least to “Zero Population", of villain songs in Mormon musicals being some of the catchiest songs in the show. Musically the show has a pretty contemporary sensibility (sharing some musical DNA with The Greatest Showman and a little with Hamilton), though I wish this contemporary sensibility had been woven more thoroughly throughout the musical, coloring the themes and other ideas that the show explores.
1820: The Musical has two major structural flaws that will likely prevent it from being the next Broadway smash that it aspires to be: 1) too broad of a scope, and 2) trying to force the life of Joseph Smith into a traditional love story arc. The first is true of many biopics and other media based on historical figures—the show zips from one event to the next, covering some 24 years in 100 minutes! The lives of Joseph and Emma were packed with important and significant events, many of which feature here, but rarely carry the emotional weight that they could if the scope had narrowed and deepened, focusing on the emotional connections and relationships between the various characters. The second flaw is common in retellings of Joseph and Emma’s life and story, but strikes me as difficult to actually map onto the historical record of Joseph and Emma’s relationship. Not that they didn’t love each other! But that that love was complicated and tumultuous and colored by all sorts of other emotions. That they remained in love while also feeling all these other emotions is its own sort of remarkable love story, but doesn’t quite fit into traditional romance tropes.
All that said, I loved the way the simple set design combined with the opening number being in Carthage Jail worked to cast the shadow of Carthage and the martyrdom over the entire show. I was especially struck by this during one of Joseph and Emma’s early scenes, with Joseph sitting in the window. The happiness and joy of their early love took on a melancholy and haunted tone because of the stage design. This also worked to give the show a sort of narrative propulsion akin to Greek tragedies, where we knew from the outset how this was going to end and the set served to ensure that the audience never forgot what was coming, casting some dread over the entirety of the production.
I also really loved the way the First Vision was portrayed, with a shiny cloth descending from above and encircling Joseph at the end, but without clear figures and with no words audibly spoken to Joseph. I wanted more of this unique sensibility (which is also present briefly throughout the musical—during “Objection!”, the translation sequence, the folklore-inspired “Tale of a Lunatic”, and the weird, wonderful poster) throughout the performance, but was glad for the snippets of it that came through.
I don’t know that 1820: The Musical will be the Broadway-hit that the creators hope it may be, but I am glad that it exists and that I got to see it. I hope that more folks can engage with the story of Joseph and Emma Smith and the Restoration in creative and imaginative ways, drawing on some of the work that is done here and elsewhere to continue to tell our people’s story. I haven’t quite found the version of that story that speaks to my soul, but I’ll keep looking and creating and work to support those that create their own.