Jake Johnson is an assistant professor of musicology in the Wanda L. Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University. He recently answered some questions about his new book, Mormons, Musical Theater, and Belonging in America.


Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A lot of scholars are brilliant at deciphering how music works—its mechanics, its history and influence on other pieces of music, etc. I wanted with this book to shift the focus and ask what kind of work music does for a community. Musicals have always been a fascination for me, particularly how far-reaching they are despite their close association with New York City. I grew up in a small town in rural Oklahoma, far from New York (geographically and in other ways!), but the community and schools regularly put on musicals and growing up I of course watched them on VHS tape. I wondered if this was a similar experience for others. Years later I became fascinated by how significant musical theater seemed to be for the Mormon communities I knew and I wanted to better understand why—why, of all things, musicals? In writing this book, I discovered that this may be a story about Mormons, but it was also a story about America and what it means to claim a way of belonging here. So, although Mormons are the focus of this book for specific reasons, this community stands in for any number of other communities that have used or continue to use theater to chart a path of acceptance and belonging.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

There are a number of immediate influencers, including my dear faculty mentors at UCLA and the University of Chicago and my many scholarly interlocutors in between. But this project in particular is personal. I couldn’t have written this book without some challenging and beautiful moments with religion, work, and life that I have shared with my wife. Her fingerprints are all over this project.

 

Q: How did you conduct research for your book?

My process was both historical and ethnographic. I did a good deal of digging in archives at Brigham Young University and the LDS Church History Library, but most of my ideas for the book came from chatting over the years with every Mormon I knew. I wanted this book to be both a gift and a challenge to a community I knew well but didn’t feel I could or should speak on behalf of.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

The story was clear to me from the beginning, but the depth and theological significance of musical theater in Mormonism was a surprise. One aspect that I find the most fascinating is how every day and common many of our experiences with theatricality are. In Mormonism, this gets articulated most prominently in what I call the vicarious voice—or the practice of speaking on behalf of someone else. Pretending to be someone you are not is of course rife with falsity, but if we are being honest with ourselves, those experiences of pretend—of playing a role, reading a part, advocating for a child, reciting the Lord’s Prayer—are often what invite us into a world or experience more real than the one we typically inhabit. So, theater doesn’t only happen on a stage with footlights. We are deeply and often passionately implicated in pretend, and I think the Mormon example is a compelling representation of what probably is a common experience for most people.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

I hope my work glimpses for readers how significant musical theater is in the lives of everyday people and among a variety of communities. In reading this book, I suspect some will reflect on the place of theater in their own lives. I think it’s important to think hard about the work theatricality does for us, and why and in what moments of our lives we rely on theater’s pretense to access something we know to be more truthful but may be much harder to find on its own—like God, or community, or a sense of purpose in the world. My feeling is that most of us employ musical theater or its equivalent to invite ourselves into a world that might never exist materially but can be readily enjoyed vicariously. Of course, imagining a friendlier or more accepting or honest world is not the same thing as living in one. I hope this book is an invitation to see the work of theater for what it is but also to draw the best of our imaginings into the real world.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

                Musicals matter.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I’m a promiscuous reader. Right now, I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God, which is some of the most evocative and incandescent writing I’ve encountered. In the car, I am an NPR junkie. At home, my wife and I are almost always listening to Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson or Nina Simone and show tunes are usually streaming out of our daughters’ rooms. At work, I have a soft spot for Sondheim. Other more recent obsessions include The Good Place and Schitt’s Creek. I love anything by the Coen brothers, and for me there simply will never be enough Anthony Bourdain.

 

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