May 31, 2017

Faith as a Basis for Broadway Success

In the 1970's, several different Broadway shows, specifically "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" placed the central story of Christianity's Gospel as center-stage in the commercial musical theater.  As might be expected, at the time, some conservative Christian groups objected to these plays.  In their view, to enact the word of God in a commercial theater rather than a sacred house of worship was to profane it.  Nevertheless, both shows were successful (if not overwhelmingly, certainly enough to be commercial successes for their time).  Ironically, many churches later embraced these shows as a way of spreading the gospel, especially among younger Christians.

Both of those shows were also some of the first professional works of then-twentysomething songwriters whose work would subsequently loom quite large in the theater world, including Stephen Schwartz ("Pippin," "Wicked") who wrote most of "Godspell's" music and some of its lyrics; and the British team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber (who went on create "Evita," and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" among others) who created the "Jesus Christ Superstar" score.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" also gave rise to a celebrity singer from Hawaii which until that time was better known for Don Ho in the music world.  Her name was Yvonne Elliman, and her vocal interpretation of the song "I Don't Know How to Love Him" sung by the Biblical character of Mary Magdalene made her a global superstar.  She subsequently had a platinum single from the hit soundtrack of the 1977 film "Saturday Night Fever", specifically "If I Can't Have You", which was written by Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb (better known as the Bee Gees), which helped usher in the disco era to American music.  She would follow that with Billboard-chart hits including a cover of "Hello Stranger" to name a few of her hits during the 1970's.  A clip from her broadway song "I Don't Know How to Love Him" can be listened to below.




Just why these religiously-inspired shows hit so big at a time when young Baby Boomers were rejecting religion (organized or otherwise) en-masse was most likely due to the catchy music, and familiar stories that were set in more modern times.  Of course, the shows followed a longtime theater pattern of depicting cathartic stories of loss and redemption that are really core to virtually every successful Broadway show, and have been at the heart of comedy/tragedy upon which theater has continued since ancient Greek times.

As noted, these were Baby Boomer re-interpretations of old religious teachings that were force-fed to them by their parents.  As already noted, another, subsequent West End/Broadway show also produced by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber with a rather similar religious inspiration known as "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" would follow the same basic format, although "Joseph" had very little dialogue, and virtually the entire script was set to music.  Also, the duo followed a different path to get "Joseph" produced by persuading some friends to record the songs, and then the album took off, which subsequently triggered the stage production (which was where they first began with it).

"Godspell", "Jesus Christ Superstar, and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" also helped pave the way for more modern variations of religiously-inspired shows, including the smash hit "The Book of Mormon", which parodies some of unique tenets of Mormonism.  The basis for that show, the lyrics, and music were written by Trey Parker, Matt Stone (best known for their collaboration on the television cartoon hit "South Park") and Robert Lopez.  "The Book of Mormon" follows two young Mormon missionaries as they attempt to share their scriptures with the inhabitants of a remote Ugandan village. The earnest young men are challenged by a lack of interest of the locals, who are preoccupied with more pressing troubles such as AIDS, famine, and oppression from the local warlord.

To be sure, although earlier stage productions stayed marginally truer to the original Biblical teachings set to catchy, modern music, given the popularity of "The Book of Mormon", it would seem difficult for any musical based upon a religious theme to succeed today without a sense of satire embodied by "The Book of Mormon".  Of course, times change and so do public sensibilities.

At the 2011 Tony Awards, Book of Mormon had a performance, which can be seen below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/PHEqCXY2B-w:



Still, while "The Book of Mormon" focuses on the Mormon faith, there is plenty of fodder for Evangelical, born-again Christianity, which perhaps moreso than any other faith tradition in the U.S., practices hypocrisy of "do as we say, not as we do" by many followers, whose support of slavery, the death penalty, gay marriage bans, denial of Constitutional rights to non-Evangelical Christians, and divorce are all at odds with actual Biblical teachings.  What the next faith-based Broadway hit will be remains to be seen, but there are certainly plenty of role models to base them on.

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