Contemporary Musical Theatre and the Faith

By McLean Casey
Source: Getty Images

When people in the twenty-first century think of musical theatre, they rarely think of God, Catholicism, or faith. Contrary to popular belief; religion, the story of Jesus, and the idea of God himself are extremely prevalent in contemporary musical theatre today, and particularly in “Sacred musicals” that adapt stories from the Bible.

Many “Sacred musicals” retell the story of Jesus Christ. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar depicts Jesus in the later years of his ministry and up to his Crucifixion, and Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell depicts the whole of Jesus’ ministry: his baptism, his Sermon on the Mount, his many miracles, and, of course, his Crucifixion on the Cross.

Some of you might be thinking, is there a difference? They’re both musicals, they both walk through the life of Jesus, and they both end with him on the cross. Even so, there’s so much more.

In Jesus Christ Superstar, you are able to watch Jesus’s life from the perspective of Judas, who is depicted as a very close friend to Jesus who wanted the best for him. We get to see his conflict and his regret for betraying Jesus. As Catholics, we know that Judas took his one’s own life because He could not forgive himself for betraying Jesus.

On the other hand, in Godspell, Jesus and Judas’ relationship is completely different. At the start of the show, they are friends and joyful proclaimers of each other, but the relationship morphs into one of conflict and difference until Judas does what is written in the bible.

Those musicals are not the only Sacred musicals that exist, however. Many others tell other Biblical stories in more contemporary and accessible ways.

My personal favorite never made it to Broadway, Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden. Its first act depicts the story of  Adam and Eve, Cain, and Abel, and its second act depicts the story of Noah’s Ark. This musical is different from the Bible stories it depicts because it develops a side of God that we don’t normally think about.

In the first act, because Eve eats the apple, Adam must choose between staying in the Garden with Father and leaving it to be with his wife. He chooses the latter. In Act 2, Noah and his family prepare for the great flood about which Father warned them. Noah’s youngest son is supposed to choose a wife from the noble race of Seth, but he marries a servant girl from the tainted race of Cain, angering Father.

Toward the end of the show, Noah and Father sing “The Hardest Part of Love” together. The song expresses the sentiment that, for a parent, the hardest part of love is allowing their children to begin to make their own choices.

I love this depiction of God because, even amidst his vengeful depictions in the Old Testament, God will always love the human race and will always guide us from a distance, like our parents do when we go to college or move out of our childhood homes.

These three musicals give us perspectives on the infinite magnitude of God. Additionally, these musicals allow us as Christians and Catholics to talk about God, Jesus, and the Bible in mainstream society. And there are more “Sacred musicals” than those mentioned here. I implore you to go out and seek them out on your own!