The Parable of Musical Theatre

Can musical theatre have anything to do with faith development?

Rafiki from The Lion King- photo courtesy of The Producer's Perspective
Rafiki from The Lion King- photo courtesy of The Producer’s Perspective

For some people, the term ‘musical’ recalls entertaining productions such as those created by Noel Coward, the Gershwins and Flo Ziegfeld: light hearted, fanciful, and designed to take people’s mind off the difficulties of the depression and war. They tended to be based on themes of love stories involving somewhat farcical human foibles, while the revues were full of colour, sparkle, beautiful women and handsome men.
With the advent of the late forties and fifties, however, musicals began to address social issues such as racism (Showboat and South Pacific), ethnic divisions in teen street gangs (West Side Story), community conflict (Oklahoma), and questions of redemption (Carousel). Later came explicitly religious themed shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Godspell, each in its own way examining questions of personal faith, life’s meaning and God’s call to a sacrificial life.
In the eighties, the musical spectacle made a new appearance in productions such as Les Miz.  Taken from Victor Hugo’s novel, it chronicles the struggle toward justice and freedom for the poor and working class. Jean Val Jean, the protagonist, has spent 19 years in jail for stealing bread to feed his sister and nephew. His encounter with a bishop turns his life in a godly direction and he becomes a successful businessman and town mayor. The good bishop is the pivot point, articulating God’s work of redemption for Val Jean, and through him touching the lives of others in need.
Phantom of the Opera picks up an old tale from the Paris opera house and uses it to examine the dynamics of obsession and love. Christine, the pure object of the Phantom’s manipulative desire to control her and the opera house, is also loved by Raoul, her childhood friend. The Phantom seeks to keep Christine for himself by killing Raoul. As a type of Christ character, her genuine kindness and compassion for the phantom frees him from his compulsion, allowing him to release her to marry her true love.

Wicked- photo courtesy of The Overture Center
Wicked- photo courtesy of The Overture Center

The Lion King was the first musical with an all black cast. This meant a black king and heroes, rather than the tragic, suffering and oppressed characters previously portrayed by black actors on Broadway. The story itself chronicles the growth of Simba, a lion cub, tutored by his father, the King, to become the heir to the throne. His uncle Scar kills the King and lets Simba believe that it was his fault. After running away, he leads a fun life with two sidekicks until his childhood friend, Nala, finds him and encourages him to return and take back his rightful place on the throne. He longs for his father’s direction and remembers that his father told him he would always be near him. With the support of Nala and his friends, and the knowledge that his father’s spirit is with him, he redeems the destruction wrought by Scar, restoring the well being of the land and those who live in it.
During the summer, Wicked came to Winnipeg.  It tells the story of the witches of Oz before Dorothy dropped in.  We learn where the witches came from, why Elphaba is green, why the slippers are so important to her, how the lion, the scarecrow and the tin man came to be, and who the wizard is.  The story unpacks the question of what evil really is, how it functions, and the role of love and friendship in fighting it. Is it possible for an insider to fight systemic evil or is an outsider needed to bring it down? What is the cost of living on the margins in order to conquer that evil?
Each of these musicals addresses the conflict of good and evil, touching us with the pain of suffering and sacrifice. If we are open to it, they function as a kind of parable, raising for us the question of how we are to live our lives and where we are to find the fortitude to stand against the destructive power of the enemy.
Bob Webster is a retired priest and musicals enthusiast.

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