From Leap of Faith to Jesus Christ Superstar, Religion, Faith and Musicals Are a Smashing Mix

By Jared Eberlein
09 Apr 2012

Raúl Esparza as a corrupt preacher in the world premiere of Leap of Faith in Los Angeles.
photo by Craig Schwartz

If we know that these stories of religion will elicit heated debate — and might make for a very quiet cab ride home, if you and your spouse don't come to the same conclusions — why do we go?

"Theatre offers a way to look at religion from a safe remove from our own feelings about it," Slater observes. "It's sometimes easier to criticize the foibles of religion when the laugh is at the expense of characters on a stage rather than ourselves. Likewise, it's sometimes easier to feel the draw of religious exaltation through a character's eyes rather than risk it ourselves."

Sister Act and Leap of Faith composer Alan Menken says, "All of these [musicals] really come down to an impulse to discover our commonality as people and our inner voice as people. Faith is a very big tent in which to explore that topic." And while Menken admits to being on the cynical side as far as "organized religion," he says, "I am not cynical about spirituality and the sacredness of life and whatever God might mean to any of us."

Movies, novels and plays are often used as source material for musicals, but one of the most popular inspirations is a longtime best-seller in the public domain: The Good Book. Menken, his collaborators and colleagues in the industry have returned to it — one way or another, New Testament or Old — time and again. "There's certainly very little in the world people are more familiar with than the Bible," Menken says. And while an omnipotent deity plays a role in each protagonist's life, "Every musical that uses religion puts it in to perspective much more about a human dilemma — a human story — something we can all relate to."

Many musical authors have focused on the "human" elements of these sacred stories.

Lyricist Tim Rice says of his and Menken's King David, "It's a fantastic story. But it's a basic, tragic story of a gifted man [King Saul], who was completely upstaged by an even more gifted man, i.e. David."

Laurie Beechman and Bill Hutton in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on Broadway (1982).
Photo by Martha Swope

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the earliest collaboration between Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, according to Rice "seems to strike a chord with audiences, wherever it is." This may be partly due to the toe-tapping pastiche/pop score that the songwriters use, but at the core of the experience is the Old Testament tale of a wronged brother who rises from adversity.

Songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (no strangers to writing about faith and tradition in Fiddler on the Roof) had their way with Garden of Eden residents Adam and Eve, in 1966's The Apple Tree, in which Eve asked the most basic of human, existential questions: "How'd I come?/Where'm I from?/What's my ultimate aim?"

In 1970's Two By Two, writers Richard Rodgers, Martin Charnin and Peter Stone explored the tale of Noah and his family, underlining universal family conflicts amid the supernatural elements. (Danny Kaye was the star.)

Stephen Schwartz's Children of Eden, often cited as the composer's personal favorite of his scores, explores the origin of "tough love," as God (called "Father" in the play) banishes Adam and Eve from the garden for disobedience. Adam and Eve must do the same with their son, Cain, for murdering his brother, Abel. In the second act, Noah must decide whether or not to bring his son Japheth on the ark, because of whom he's chosen to marry. Poignantly, Schwartz's "Eve" closes the first act, speaking for all parents who ache from loving with discipline: "Children of Eden, try not to blame us. We were just human — to error prone."

Read about the Broadway history of Two By Two, The Apple Tree and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in the Playbill Vault.