On the opening night of this year’s Hill Cumorah Pageant, crowds gathered early, hoping that the storms predicted for the evening would pass.
Knowing it was the famed pageant’s penultimate year, participants were optimistic for miracles, weather related or otherwise.
The Hill Cumorah certainly isn’t a strange place for miracles to occur. It was the site from 1823-1827 where Joseph Smith met with the Angel Moroni before receiving the gold plates that contained the records that became the Book of Mormon. In 1937, missionaries in the region staged a play on the hillside. Lit by headlights and featuring scenes from the Book of Mormon, the pageant became an annual event.
For the last 82 years, participants in the Hill Cumorah Pageant and even pageant-goers could tell tale after tale of personal miracles, answered prayers and testimonies born and strengthened in that sacred place. The fact that the Hill Cumorah is such a sacred place is one of the reasons that the famed pageant will close in 2020 after 83 years.
But there was no weather miracle on opening night this year; the clouds did not part and go around the hill as they had many times in the past. Instead, right as Crawford Gates’ opening score cued the cast to line up for the pageant processional, where all 770 cast members file onto the stage heralded by trumpeting angels, the clouds opened into a downpour.
It takes either lightning or rain so bad it is a danger to the cast for the show to even be paused, much less canceled. In 82 years, it has been canceled fewer than a dozen times. However, this year the rain was so bad that pageant officials and directors did almost call the show.
Pageant President Neil Pitts later told the cast how close they had come to calling the cast from the stage, but that they heard people nearby begging them not to cancel. They had come so far, and it was their only night to be there, rain or star filled night.
Knowing the pageant performance nights are precious, the directors huddled around weather apps, saw the storm clearing into an on-and-off drizzle and kept the show going. The crowd of almost 5,200, featuring more than 1,500 youth on youth conference trips, was mostly prepared. A sea of umbrellas opened up, guests shrugged on rain ponchos, and the show went on.
It rained through almost the entire show, but opening night was not canceled. Few people left.
Perhaps, in the face of a torrential New York downpour, that was a miracle in and of itself.
The pageant is something of a theatrical miracle. The 2019 Hill Cumorah Pageant featured its largest cast ever at 770 participants, ranging in age from 6 months to 82 years. Almost none had theater experience. After receiving 3,600 applications for the 2019 show, pageant organizers altered the typical 50/50 split of experienced vs. new cast members this year to allow more people an opportunity to participate in the pageant. The 2019 cast was estimated at 75% new to the experience.
The entire cast, staff and crew volunteer their time to the pageant to the tune of an estimated 230,000 volunteer hours a year. Within hours of arriving to the hill, participants are cast into 1,200 roles in a well-oiled group casting process that production officials say happens nowhere else in theater.
The cast is supported by a volunteer staff of 150, most of whom work year-round on the production. After just six days of rigorous rehearsals, which are only stalled if there is lightning, the show opens.
Volunteers in the performance and on staff come to Western New York at their own expense from around the world. They do not come just to practice their sword-fighting skills and learn dances, or wear costumes and wigs in the hot, humid New York summer. For these people, the Hill Cumorah Pageant offers a time of spiritual renewal in the cradle of their faith.
In addition to rehearsals and performances, the cast also squeezes in more than 1,800 hours of volunteer service in the counties surrounding the Hill Cumorah. For the past two years, the cast spent down time between rehearsals working on various smaller service projects including making cards for residents of local retirement homes, creating happiness rocks to be spread in communities, weaving plastic sleeping mats for homeless shelters and working on portions of wigs for victims of childhood cancer through the Syracuse New York chapter of the Magic Yarn Project.
The pageant offers a spiritual balm to its visitors as well. At the base of the Hill Cumorah, visitors are greeted by cast members in costume, who spend two hours welcoming visitors and bearing testimony of the Book Mormon. Audience members enjoy taking pictures with cast members in costume portraying Nephi, King Noah, Abinadi, Alma, Samuel the Lamanite, Mormon, Moroni and Joseph Smith among others. Over the course of the pageant’s 2019 nine-day run, 42,000 people saw the show.
The pageant cast and crew set up almost 8,000 chairs this year in anticipation of larger crowds than in recent years.
“The long-standing pageant tradition may be ending soon, but the sites will stay forever,” said Mayor David Husk of Palmyra. “The residents and business of the Village of Palmyra will always welcome those visitors here to acknowledge the many historic sites in and around our area.”
Applications to participate in the 2020 pageant will open Aug. 15. The 2020 pageant dates are July 9-11 and 14-18. Cast members need to commit to being in New York from July 3-19. For pageant information, please visit www.hillcumorah.org. Look for pageant updates on Facebook under “Hill Cumorah Pageant.”