Not long ago, going to a church musical meant seeing the Bible come to life with shepherds worshipping at the Christmas manger or actors re-enacting the crucifixion and resurrection.
But that’s not always the case anymore, with some congregations growing tired of what’s available from Christian publishers and others looking for new approaches to outreach.
These days, church productions could easily feature good defeating evil in the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast,” redemption explained by a red-haired girl named Annie, or Tevye navigating the conflicts between his daughters’ desire for romance and his for “Tradition.”
“Some churches want to find something to get people in the door and they don’t want to beat them over the head with the Gospel,” observed Ed Kee, an award-winning Christian songwriter, arranger and producer of 20 musicals and more than 200 songs.
Kee, of Nashville, Tenn., has been watching changes in church programming for two decades and said he’s seen a trend away from the more traditional choir-based cantatas to Broadway-style theater productions.
“Evangelism is a one-on-one kind of thing and the first thing you have to do is establish a relationship,” Kee said. “Nobody gets saved by watching a musical like ?Annie.’ “
But people might come to church to watch it, which is one of the reasons Bridget Lyons gave for choosing the “Annie Jr.” version of the familiar story to do as a children’s production this summer at First Presbyterian Church in Hammond.
“We really wanted to open the church doors to everyone to come in and be in a Christian place,” explained Lyons, a senior at Southeastern Louisiana University majoring in vocal music performance.
She led the children in two weeks of workshops culminating in performances July 1 and 2.
“I chose ?Annie’ because I thought it would get more children interested and involved in the show,” Lyons said. “The themes in ?Annie’ are Christianlike. Good overcomes evil.”
Becki Bradford, who in recent years at First United Methodist Church of Hammond has led productions of “The Sound of Music” and “Oliver,” sees Broadway musicals as a ministry of opportunity.
Bradford said church-produced theater allows people to try something new, and she is careful about choosing plays with moral and biblically-appropriate themes.
“The premise of this is it’s a ministry where no one has to audition,” Bradford said. “I believe that’s what Jesus did with his disciples. They did not have to audition. He just said ?Come follow me.’ “
Her current production is “Fiddler on the Roof,” a musical she first did in New Orleans in 1981. First Methodist’s six-performance run began Friday night and will continue with performances at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Thursday and Friday in the sanctuary at 2200 Rue Denise in Hammond as well as at 2:30 p.m. Sunday and July 16.
Bradford said, “If your objective is to reach out into the community, how much better is it to have something that people will be interested in?”
Baton Rouge churches such as Broadmoor Baptist, University Methodist and Chapel on the Campus also treat the musicals as opportunities for involvement - especially for youth.
“It really helps build community among the kids here that are involved,” youth pastor Dave Oakley said.
Oakley is on staff at Broadmoor Baptist, where about 15 students performed a two-night dessert theater production of “Bye, Bye Birdie” in April.
Last year about 20 youth from University United Methodist Church took “Godspell,” with its clownlike singing savior, on the road, performing in several cities.
“ ?Godspell’ tells the story of Jesus, although in a nontraditional way,” youth minister Chris King explained.
“I have seen an increase in churches putting on productions like this,” said Carter Smith, who has been participating in University’s music and theater programs his entire life and who became the church’s music director this month.
“We were one of the first,” he said, noting the theater productions began because youth choir members wanted something to do in the summer and have involved both such secular productions as “Fiddler on the Roof” and sacred musicals as “Celebrate Life.” “Since the 1970s, we’ve put on a production every summer for 40 years now.”
Chapel on the Campus with its large Youth, Music and Drama group also has been performing Broadway-style musicals for many years, said Ken Drake, YMaD director.
The productions are good for the youth, who must participate in workshops and hone skills of dance, drama, visual arts or vocal training, he said. “Some of them are just beginning to discover their gifts, and we’re trying to help develop that and inspire that.”
Chapel productions have included “Les Miserables,” “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat” and in March “Beauty and the Beast.”
“We’ve done that particular genre, because there is not that great a number of Christian musicals being written,” Drake said.
Church musicals writer Kee agrees with that assessment, which is why, he said, he started his small company in 2001. Through Church Musicals Inc. he has published a number of musicals, including “The Gift,” a Christmas program loosely based on the secular, O. Henry short story, “The Gift of the Magi.”
“There are just not enough (musicals) from the Christian publishers and the reason is, it is kind of a niche market,” Kee said. “It is a lot of trouble to put on a big production when teaching the choir a few songs and finding a narrator is easier to do with a cantata.”
At the 135-member Jordan United Methodist Church of Scotlandville, director Anne Williams prefers to keep the church’s youths performing productions based on sacred themes and stories.
“We definitely don’t do secular, not that I’m against it,” Williams said, “but spiritual productions are something that keeps things focused.
“They need a foundation and something they can take part in and learn from,” Williams said. “They have to learn the Bible and learn it through dance, through production, the music, through the narration. They have to know it all.”
The youths of the church have performed, “He Hung His Head and Died,” the life of Christ told in narration, music and mime, several times including other churches and at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
The most recent production was in November at Jordan United Methodist, and Williams plans on another performance later this year.
The production is graphic when it comes to the crucifixion, Williams said. “This is not something to gloss over. He bled and died for us. This is why we have this.”
The Rev. Davis W. Clark, Jordan United Methodist’s pastor, said it moved him personally and spiritually.
“I could see the reality of what Jesus was dealing with,” Clark said. “I thought about, ?Wow! He did that for me!’”
Williams said she is thinking about a new project for Christmas that would be a visual rendition of the birth of Christ that will describe what Mary went through.
While there may be some disagreement between church music directors and youth ministers over using secular and/or sacred-themed musicals, Kee said the important thing is to tell a good story.
“Shows like ?The Lion King,’ which has been a pop phenomenon, prove the Disney adage that ?a story well told’ absolutely charms people,” Kee said. “If there is a trend, it is because people are seeing the value of a story that’s well told.”
And telling a good story, Kee said, is following Jesus’ example. “Jesus told parables. He drew people in with stories, and there was an illustration and a spiritual lesson to every parable he told.”
ON THE INTERNET: http://www.churchmusicals.com