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By | The Salt Lake Tribune

Stage to screen » The much-loved, and sometimes reviled, 1970s LDS show gets a movie adaptation.

When composer Lex de Azevedo was writing the songs for “Saturday’s Warrior” in the early 1970s, he wasn’t sure a stage musical with Mormon themes would go anywhere.

“There was no LDS culture outside the church,” de Azevedo said recently. “When we wrote it, I thought we’d be lucky if Ricks College [now Brigham Young University-Idaho] performed it.”

Instead, “Saturday’s Warrior” — the story of a Mormon family, in this world and the pre-existence — has become a much-loved staple for theater groups catering to LDS audiences and ushered in a wave of pop culture with Mormon themes.

“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I was born because of “Saturday’s Warrior,” ‘ or ‘I had people sing “Circle of Love” at my wedding.’ ” de Azevedo said.

For years after “Saturday’s Warrior” had its stage debut in 1974, though, de Azevedo resisted efforts to turn the play he and lyricist Doug Stewart wrote into a movie.

“I didn’t think it could be done any better than a stage play,” de Azevedo said.

Last year, though, de Azevedo changed his mind — and now amovie version of “Saturday’s Warrior” is set to open in Utah markets April 1, in time for LDS General Conference weekend.

The trick for de Azevedo and the movie’s director, Michael Buster, is to turn the fantasy of a stage musical into something slightly more down-to-earth for a modern movie audience.

“The original ‘Saturday’s Warrior’ was pretty black-and-white,” de Azevedo said. Buster added, “a lot of us live in a very gray world.”

The initial “Saturday’s Warrior” centered on the Flinders family, a Mormon couple with seven children. When the audience first meets the Flinders kids, there are eight of them — all together in the pre-existence, waiting for their turn on Earth. The youngest, Emily, worries their parents will tire of having children before she is born. The oldest, Jimmy, promises he will make sure, somehow, that Emily comes to Earth.

Elsewhere in the pre-existence, Jimmy’s sister Julie falls in love with Tod — and they vow to find each other on Earth and get married. The catch is that, once on Earth, no one retains any memory of their time before.

As a human teen-ager in the 1970s, Jimmy falls prey to peer pressure from teens advocating zero-population growth and legalized abortion — just as Mom becomes pregnant with the baby that will become Emily. Julie promises to wait for her boyfriend, LDS missionary Wally Kestler, but dumps him when she becomes engaged to another man, Peter. Wally makes a convert of a spiritual wanderer, who turns out to be Tod.

In adapting the play to film, Buster, who co-wrote the script with Heather Ravarino, said “the biggest challenge was honoring what came before,” while also acknowledging that “for a modern audience, it needed updating.”

De Azevedo wrote three new songs for the movie, while he and Buster cut some of the broad slapstick humor and worked to make the music emerge more organically.

One new song, “Blink of an Eye,” establishes the fantasy tone with a robed Heavenly Host (singer Alex Boye) in the pre-existence — in reality, the Union Pacific depot in Ogden — overseeing the departures of those about to be born.

The earthbound story is set in the early 1970s, and reimagines the Flinders clan as a musical act, reminiscent of The Partridge Family. Jimmy (played by newcomer Kenny Holland) is called away to pursue his dream as frontman for a rock band, Warrior, which hits the charts with its protest song “Zero Population” (one of the play’s original songs).

The zero-population growth movement “was a big issue” in the ’70s, de Azevedo said, though mostly forgotten today. But he still wanted it as part of “Saturday’s Warrior.” “It’s like prohibition’s no longer an issue,” he said, “but how many movies do you see about prohibition?”

Another enduring argument about “Saturday’s Warrior” is over what some — such as the LDS blog Mormon Matters in 2008 — have called the play’s “folk doctrine” that devoted Latter-day Saints have mistaken for the real thing.