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New musical for a new theater

As audiences witness "Savior of the World," the inaugural production for the new Conference Center Theater this Christmas season, they will be seeing the creative fruit of a team of writers and composers commissioned by the Church for the work.

Produced under the direction of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, the two-act musical drama premieres Nov. 28 and runs through Dec. 30. With the new theater comprising nearly 900 seats, the entire run was sold out within a week when tickets went on sale Oct. 24. Within hours, the theater box office had received 11,000 calls. However, a limited number of stand-by tickets will be released a half-hour before each performance.

The creators of the production view their work as being done in behalf of the Church and so have expressed the preference that they remain anonymous.

The cast of 65 Church members includes 10 families with parents, brothers and sisters participating together. Cast members, selected from some 500 people who auditioned, comprise a broad mix of theatrical backgrounds, including professionals and those who engage in theater as a hobby.

What has resulted from their work is a two-act drama of about two hours with an intermission. The play begins with the cast inviting the audience to join in the singing of Christmas carols. The first act then tells the story of the birth of Christ, including the account of Zacharias and Elisabeth learning that they are to give birth to John, who would prepare the way for the Messiah; the betrothal of Joseph and Mary and the revelation to them that she would be the mother of the Messiah; the announcement to the shepherds, their privilege to witness the Christ child just after His birth and their sense of urgency to spread the news to others. The second act tells the story of the death and resurrection of the Savior.

The only representation of the Christ is as an infant at birth; the story is played out through the eyes of those who knew Him or were impacted by His birth, death and resurrection. Integrated into the drama are the accounts and prophecies of Old Testament, New Testament and Book of Mormon figures.

The action is played out on a single set consisting of a colonnade with the characters emerging from its several arched entrances such that the viewer can imagine it as the setting for whatever scene is taking place at the moment: the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the appearance of the heavenly host to the shepherds, the scene following the birth of Jesus, etc.

Live music is provided by the Orchestra at Temple Square, positioned in a traditional orchestra pit in front of and beneath the stage. A recording has been made of the music, and it will be on sale through Church distribution centers. (For information, please call 800-537-5951 or 801-240-3800.)

The writers and composers of the play were among those who submitted 354 proposals for music and scripts in answer to a 1998 invitation to writers and composers. Rather than one work being selected, the writers were chosen from the body of those who sent in submissions.

Living in New York; Chicago, Ill.; Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah; and Mesa, Ariz.; the team of six writers collaborated and accomplished much of their work via e-mail and weekly telephone conferences.

Though the idea of having a committee write the play might have seemed like a "recipe for disaster" to some, the aim was to apply the principle of a council working under priesthood leadership, one writer said.

"The committee worked together," a writer said, "with very much a sense of revising and improving until no one could tell just which lines were written by whom. But everything came together to make the script better and better for what the needs were."

The writer added: "Part of what made it different was the task of telling the story out of the scriptures. It could have been told by touching on the scriptural story and elaborating on it with some exterior plot, which is commonly done. But the tack we took was to get into the scripture story itself, open that up and be faithful to it." At the same time, in places where the scriptural account leaves room for extrapolation or elaboration, the team did the necessary research and "dramatically expounded upon the text," he added.

The writers said the work they did was in a spirit of consecrating their time and talents and giving them to the Lord and the Church.

All the writers interviewed agreed that today's technology made it possible to undertake the work in the manner in which it was done. With the writers living in far-flung cities, portions of the scripts were passed around via e-mail for revision, such that the task really was a synergistic process with the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

This, the director said, has resulted in a production aimed at spreading the gospel as much as making an artistic statement. That purpose has carried over among cast members, with whom rehearsals often end with impromptu testimony meetings as actors share spiritual experiences that come to them as they play out their roles associated with the drama of the Savior of the world.

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