Jim Bennett: 'Not bad' isn't necessarily good

Published: Monday, Aug. 13 2012 11:32 a.m. MDT

What does it take to be on the cutting edge of family entertainment?

For me, that has never been a rhetorical question.

I spent five years as the executive producer of a small summer theater in Jackson, Wyo., and then another five as a producer and director at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts in Southern Utah.

My goal in both places was to produce shows that would attract family audiences and sell a whole lot of tickets, not necessarily in that order.

I learned that the challenge of being on the "cutting edge" of wholesome theater is that many people believe a show that's appropriate for the whole family can't have any edges.

Edges are sharp, and they offend people. Some, therefore, define decency in the media not by the presence of positive values, but rather by the absence of naughty bits, which means that what isn't in the story becomes more important than what is.

More often than not, that approach produces material that isn't objectionable, but it isn't much of anything else, either.

Take "Utah!" as an example. Not the state — the spectacular outdoor musical.

"Utah!" the musical was a massive original stage production produced by the Tuacahn Center for the Arts in the four summers from 1995 to 1998.

It was written to be family-friendly, but some took offense at the controversial historical events that were woven into the storyline — notably polygamy and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. So the show was revised three times before Tuacahn abandoned it altogether.

All that happened before my time. I came on board at Tuacahn as marketing and artistic director in 1999, when "Utah!" was receding in the rearview mirror. I had never seen the show and knew very little about it when Tuacahn management decided to bring it out of mothballs to launch its inaugural fall season in 2002.

They asked me to rewrite it.

The idea was to use the original story but to conveniently ignore the parts that would bother anybody.

The Mormon characters were polygamists, but I wasn't allowed to mention that. Mountain Meadows was off-limits, too. But that wasn't all.

"The Mormons can't be the bad guys," they told me emphatically. "And neither can the Indians." It seems members of both groups had been insulted by how previous iterations of "Utah!" had portrayed them.

Well, OK, that's fine.

Except no bad guys means no conflict. So what was the story going to be about? Should the Mormons and their Indian pals head off to the North Pole and meet Santa Claus?

After considerable haggling, they allowed me one Mormon bad guy who engineered a misunderstanding that was quickly and conveniently defused. I did it within a very narrow time frame, so polygamy and Mountain Meadows never had an opportunity to come up. I also added a goofy comedy love interest subplot, which I quite enjoyed, but it was filler more than anything else.

The show debuted, and if I offended anyone, it was because I had wasted their time.

The reviews were scathing — the Deseret News was particularly harsh — and ticket sales were less than stellar. It's no surprise that "Utah!" has remained dormant in the decade since.

So I'm still not sure what cutting edge family entertainment is, but I know from firsthand experience what it isn't.

Pablum is a waste of time. Good stories have to be about something, and for that something to matter, the story has to find an appropriate way to address the evil as well as the good.

That's probably why you shouldn't look for "Utah!" on Tuacahn's docket anytime soon.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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