Musicals as Christian biography: The lives of saints
Last week I wrote about MacKillop, the musical celebrating the life of Australian nun and founder of the Order of St Joseph, Mary MacKillop. It got me thinking about musicals and plays about Christians of the past and historical figures generally.
In the course of research on that piece I began to realise that MacKillop is far from the first saint or Christian leader whose life is presented in musical theatre form. Some others whose lives who’ve been immortalised include: Francis of Assisi, whose life has been presented in musical form across the Phillipines numerous times in the last fifteen years (synopsis); Mother Teresa, in Mother Teresa: A Musical, by Peter Churchill, which traces her life from her childhood in Albania to her work in Calcutta. The text includes a setting of her prayer “Make me worthy, Lord, to serve my fellow people.” Finally, a musical about the late Pope John Paul II titled “Non Abbiate Paura” (“Don’t Be Afraid”) (via CNN), which touches on the late pontif’s childhood, his early adult life living under Nazi-occupied Poland, his priesthood, and his nearly 27-year papacy has been presented in Italy in the last year. I have an inkling that there’s a Billy Graham Musical but if anyone knows of others please share in the comments.
In a discussion of “Non Abbiate Paura,” the musical’s author, Father Giuseppe Spedicato, said John Paul II was a fan of the theater, that he had acted in plays in his youth and written more than one play. It seems that he feels the need to reinforce the spiritual “rightness” of presenting the late pontif’s life in the theatrical form. But it is interesting to note that not all the musicals are reinforced to have such lofty spiritual intent.
The New York Times describes the Mother Teresa: the musical as follows:
The frail figure in white fringed with blue glides toward the ragged man on crutches whose hands are bandaged against some dire malady, leprosy perhaps. ”Yes, you can dance,” she whispers.
The crutches are discarded, the spotlights flash red and blue, the music booms. Stiffly at first, like a marionette on strings, the man does indeed dance, shaking his loincloth to the rhythm. A miracle!
Welcome to ”Mother Teresa — the Musical.’
This description doesn’t exactly fill me with a sense of wonder at the musical’s deep emotional impact.
Responding to the lives of those Christians before us and their lives, whether in biography or musical form can be a source or encouragement and exhortation. But I wonder, is the purpose of the musical form encouragement and edification, or is it predominantly entertainment? If it is entertainment, is it also necessarily public sensationalism? Am I unfair in suggesting that edification and the musical theatre are mutually exclusive?
I am aiming to be nuanced here and these questions may not necessarily reflect that desire. I just wonder about the artistic intent of these theatrical productions and how we artistically treat the lives of Christians past.
Image: Sydney Morning Herald