As the momentous 85th birthday of President Thomas S. Monson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approached in 2012, the church could think of no more appropriate way to celebrate than through the arts.
The celebration, titled “Golden Days: A Celebration of Life,” featured the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and guest artists’ renditions of some of the prophet’s favorite Broadway musical tunes, including “Memory,” “All I Ask of You,” “Bring Him Home” and “76 Trombones.”
Monson gave a standing ovation at the conclusion of each song.
Beyond his legacy as a beloved church leader whose focus was on serving and rescuing others, Monson, who died on Jan. 2 at his home, was known as a patron of the arts.
The prophet’s love of theater was “legendary,” according to a Daily Herald article honoring the prophet’s 90th birthday in August 2017, written by Genelle Pugmire.
“I am what my wife, Frances, calls a ‘show-a-holic,’” Monson said in an October 2008 general conference address. “I thoroughly enjoy many musicals.”
Monson’s appreciation for theater evidently began in his youth, when he participated in roadshows with his ward group and traveled throughout the surrounding area performing plays.
He also attended many theatrical works throughout his life, despite his busy schedule serving consistently in church leadership positions since his calling as a bishop at age 22.
“He usually leaves a play or musical having scrawled in the program a particularly insightful phrase or a statement that spoke to his heart,” author Heidi S. Swinton wrote in Monson’s personal biography, “To the Rescue.”
Wayne Chamberlain, a lifelong friend of Monson’s, attended several of these events with the beloved church leader, according to Pugmire’s article.
“He has attended the musical ‘Annie’ in 13 different languages,” Chamberlain told the Daily Herald. “He never misses ‘Scrooge’ at the Hale Centre Theatre in December. It is part of his Christmas celebration every year.”
It was also Monson’s Christmas tradition to read beloved literature each year including Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Henry Van Dyke’s “The Mansion.”
“I always must wipe my eyes when reading these inspired writings,” Monson said in his 2011 Christmas Devotional address. “They touch my inner soul and bring to me the Spirit of our Savior.”
Monson’s love for literature was manifest in his quoting of hymns, poems, plays and musicals in his speeches. Among the works he quoted are William Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” and Joseph Stein’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” to name a few.
For example, the prophet quoted from “The Music Man” in his conference talk “Finding Joy in the Journey.”
“Professor Harold Hill, one of the principal characters in the show, voices a caution that I share with you,” Monson said. “Says he, ‘You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you’ve collected a lot of empty yesterdays.’”
Monson’s appreciation for the arts also included a love of music. The prophet was “known to break into song at a variety of functions,” according to Swinton.
“When he addressed 86,000 people in a stadium celebration of the rededication of the Mexico City Temple, he serenaded the enormous crowd with his high school Spanish rendition of ‘El Rancho Grande,’” Swinton wrote in Monson’s biography. “The crowd erupted with cheers and applause.”
The beloved church leader’s appreciation for music was evident in his love of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
“If he is asked about the choir, his eyes light up,” Swinton noted. “He considers that ‘members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are the Lord’s emissaries in their singing and music.’”
Monson opted to supervise the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as he was dividing up responsibilities among members of the First Presidency, according to Swinton.
“You are going on a mission for the church,” Monson once told the choir, prior to its 2009 summer tour. “For every applause you hear, there will be applause in their hearts for the memory they will have of having heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing.”
Swinton recorded a memorable interaction Monson had with the choir, when he was invited to play something at the organ following an April 2009 retirement ceremony for choir members.
“He stared at the five keyboards of 61 keys each and the 32 organ pedals at his feet,” Swinton wrote. “When the choir urged him to play something, he obliged with one of the ‘renowned’ piano selections he learned as a child, ‘To a Birthday Party,’ from the John Thompson book ‘Teaching Little Fingers to Play.’”
Then when organist Linda Margetts showed him how to use the organ stops and asked if he would like to use one that would play the sound of the harp, Monson gave a witty response typical of the prophet.
“I’m not ready to play the harp. Someone up there might get ideas,” Monson quipped, according to Swinton.