Musical Brings Saints Together across Oceans and Time
Rehearsal can be tricky when those involved in the production are separated by the Atlantic Ocean.
From August 4 through 13, members of the South Jordan Utah Glenmoor Stake will join with Saints from the United Kingdom at the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City, Utah, to perform Faith, the Musical, which portrays the story of the approximately 500 men, women, and children of the Willie handcart company who set out from Iowa City in June 1856, responding to a prophet’s call to “come to Zion.”
The two groups rehearsed 7,000 miles (11,265 km) apart for four months, communicating by telephone, e-mail, and Internet video software.
Despite the distance, the members involved in the musical have been unified as they’ve learned about the pioneers’ sacrifices and made their own.
Much of the musical’s text has been taken from the journals of the Oakey family. The journals tell of the family’s trials and triumphs as they left England, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, traveled across the midwestern plains, and pulled a handcart through icy rivers to reach the Salt Lake Valley.
Early in the morning of November 9, 1856, the remaining 430 or so survivors prepared to enter the Salt Lake Valley at last. Commentary by Paul Lyman recorded, “Sadly, Rhoda R. Oakey, age 11, died as everyone prepared to go into Salt Lake City. Her mother, Ann Collett Oakey, age 43, had stayed up all night nursing [Rhoda’s] father, Thomas Oakey, age 42. When Ann called the children she discovered Rhoda’s lifeless body. Rhoda had walked the entire distance, only to die one hill away from the Valley.”
Rhoda’s was the final of the 67 Willie handcart company deaths—one-sixth of the company’s members died along the way. The Saints had faced exhaustion, hunger, disease, and exposure, but the legacy of the handcart companies is not one of suffering, but of faith.
Faith in the Musical
Performing Faith, the Musical at the Conference Center Theater has been four years in the making, said Jay Clark, producer of the event and a direct descendant of a member of the Willie handcart company.
Only one or two stake productions are performed in the Conference Center Theater each year, so getting the production to Salt Lake took some work and a lot of faith, said Ben Lowater, Cheltenham England Stake president, who plays the part of main character Thomas Oakey.
“We were never sure if we would be able to bring [the musical] to Salt Lake,” he said. “But we’ve been able to do that, and that’s what has given us a testimony of hope.”
It was Martin Lock, a member of the Cheltenham stake, who established contact with the Glenmoor stake in Utah in 2007. In 1967 Brother Lock, not yet a member of the Church, met a young missionary while playing basketball. The missionary made a big impression on him, and they kept in touch for the next four decades. That missionary was Dennis Johnson, the president of the Glenmoor stake in 2007.
David R. Markham, director and composer of the musical, said this is the first time a group of people from another nation has been brought to the Conference Center Theater. “I think the uniqueness is [we’re] this big ocean apart, but we’re all on the same wavelength,” he said.
Other members of the cast and choir agreed that preparing for the musical increased their own faith.
Amy Feldman, a member of the choir and cast from the Glenmoor stake, said she learned about the pioneers’ determination and sacrifices by acting the part of a member of the handcart company in the musical. “It’s helped me understand how I can be strong and how I can lead others,” she said.
Blake Earl is a member of the Glenmoor stake who coordinated much of the interaction between the British and American Saints. “I think the biggest blessings have been the appreciation for the pioneers and the unification that has occurred between us [and the members in England] as we’ve worked on a common purpose, even seven hours apart,” Brother Earl said.
Because of his experiences preparing for the musical, cast member Oliver Wiggins-Hay, age 10, who plays the part of Reuben Oakey, decided to be baptized. He is now a member of the Cheltenham England Stake.
Oliver’s mother, Deborah Wiggins-Hay, was baptized in 2007. But when Oliver turned eight years old, he was unsure what he believed, and he resolved to wait until he was 18 to decide.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to be in this musical, which is all about faith and a belief in God, I really want to make sure that I know I have … faith in God,’” he said. “I felt this warm feeling, almost like butterflies in your stomach, but it was happy, and it was warm, and it was very strong.”
Oliver was baptized on Sunday, July 17, 2011.
Sister Wiggins-Hay, who plays Ma Oakey, said the musical also touched her heart. “It taught me more about the Church and the history and the people who gave so much to actually build Zion,” she said. “It’s not a production. It’s something more than that. … It feels like a song of the heart. It feels like a hymn. It feels like praising.”
Faith of Our Fathers
Perhaps the most evident product of Faith, the Musical is the portrayal of the faith of the pioneers.
The scenes follow the Saints from their conversion in England to the docks in Liverpool, to Iowa City, and to Zion. The cast members—most of them members from England—depict scenes of baptism, dancing, tribulation, triumph, heartache, and rejoicing.
According to Brother Markham, the creative process of capturing the story of the faith of the early pioneers has taken more than 1,000 hours—“one hour for every mile those wonderful Saints pushed and pulled their handcarts,” he said.
In one scene President Lowater, playing the part of Thomas Oakey, carries his daughter’s body into the Salt Lake Valley.
“I think only by [acting out] their experiences . . . living in their shoes, and experiencing some of the emotions that they felt . . . do you … really get a kind of the feeling that they must have felt,” he said. “So my appreciation for their dedication, their commitment, the consecration of their lives to the gospel has changed dramatically.”
Fiona Gilmour is a member of Scotland’s Paisley Stake and plays Queen Victoria in the musical. “It’s just amazing to be part of something that’s a part of history,” she said. “You’ve seen the stories, you’ve heard the stories in classes and in church, and you never think you’ll experience something like this.”
Producer Jay Clark emphasized that, as with all Church theater, Faith, the Musical is a faith-promoting event that will strengthen the faith of those who attend.
“We’re not just putting on a show,” he said. “By sharing the story of those Saints in England and the faith it took for them to travel across the plains, we can build the kingdom of God on earth.”
Brother Earl explained, “It’s not all about the final event. It’s the process we go through.”
That process is something the cast and choir are already in the middle of, and it’s something they hope the audience will also be able to experience and learn from.
Sister Feldman said that although she has had to sacrifice time, it has been a testimony-building experience for her and her four oldest children—Emily, 13, Rachel, 11, Jack, 10, and Sarah, 7—to perform in the musical.
“I hope it makes us, as Saints in the latter days, be stronger and hold onto that iron rod longer so that we are not failing those pioneers that led the way for us,” she said.
Brother Markham said his ultimate hope is that those who hear the music will be inspired to accomplish the Lord’s designs for them.
“I am aware that numerous Utah members trace their ancestry to the British Isles and Europe and feel confident that a very special spirit will embrace the Conference Center Theater,” he said.
Brother Lock said Faith, the Musical will stir people’s souls and increase their testimonies.
“The audience … will feel like they’re in the show through the music and the scenes that are portrayed before them,” he said. “They will see the deprivation of the Saints and the hardships they went through. They will feel like pioneers.”
This 90-minute, faith-building musical experience will be available at the Conference Center Little Theater in Salt Lake City, Utah, in nine open performances from August 4 through 13, 2011.