Heather Christian Is Redefining the Musical | Playbill

Off-Broadway News Heather Christian Is Redefining the Musical

The composer on Terce: A Practical Breviary, which straddles musical, opera, classical music, and the Holy Spirit.

Heather Christian Maria Baranova

Composer Heather Christian doesn’t like to be boxed in by rules. Sure, she’s written musicals (including the Broadway-aimed A Wrinkle in Time). But lately, she’s been taking things in a more classical direction. Her previous show, the sold-out hit Oratorio for Living Things, had a choir of 18 singing straight through for 90 minutes about time and humanity’s relation to the universe. Her newest show, Terce: A Practical Breviary, has a choir of 38 singing about historical and modern womanhood. Both shows don’t have plot or characters. 

So are they musicals? Classical song cycles? Both? Christian wants to expand these definitions.

“I think musical theatre is capable of doing so much more than what I see it do,” says Christian over Zoom from her home in Beacon, New York. “I don't see much innovation, in terms of structure and how the medium is used. I see a lot of innovation with narrative. And I see a lot of innovation in the kinds of stories that are being told. But I'm not seeing a whole lot of innovation in terms of how music is used, how the voice is used, how, structurally, we're asking people to pay attention for a couple of hours.” 

Though her work is sometimes classical in form, they’re not traditional in sound. Christian tends to combine gospel, jazz, soul, and funk—she was born in New Orleans and grew up in Natchez, Mississippi. And though it’s not traditional musical theatre, Christian’s work has been bringing in musical devotees—Oratorio for Living Things was produced Off-Broadway at Ars Nova and won several Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards. The New York Times’ theatre critic Jesse Green wrote this of Terce, “When visiting the church of Heather Christian: I’m not sure what faith she’s selling, but I’m a sucker for the way it sounds.”

Though she doesn't box herself in with rules, Christian does consider herself “a form nerd” for music as a whole. “Any form that I find that hasn't been used to death, I latch my little talons into and want to try my hand at.”

Her newest show, Terce, is this form nerd's latest foray. It's a reimagining of an 11th century breviary mass (traditionally sung by nuns and monks in an abbey). There were usually eight masses in a day. Terce is inspired by the 9 AM mass, which was usually dedicated to the holy spirit. In Christian’s version, Terce is dedicated to the divine feminine. The show was extended to February 4, and it’s currently running in Brooklyn at The Space at Irondale (there’s also performances at 9 AM for early risers). The HERE Arts Center is also a producer on Terce, and it’s being presented as part of the PROTOTYPE festival of contemporary opera.

This is all part of a longtime passion project for Christian, to take aspects of organized religion and reinterpret them for a more secular context. “I am trying to find a way to understand mysticism and spirituality as a modern person who feels like there is a void where spirituality should live in me,” says Christian. “I want to believe something. I want to trust that there is some sort of reason that we're here.”

Rima Fand Maria Baranova

Christian was a cantor in her local church in Natchez, and she also worked as a musician with the Catholic Church until the age of 26. She admits that if she wasn’t so disillusioned by the church, she would probably be a nun. But she does appreciate the idea of the Holy Spirit and its humanist overtones, explaining: “We each have this God piece in us. We each have this creative, generative [being] who can make life inside themselves, who has a gas tank and can give other people part of that gas tank to help them.” And in her research, Christian discovered that in Hebrew and Greek, the Holy Spirit uses female pronouns.

In Terce, the show is performed in the round, with the band at the center (Christian performs in the show, playing the piano and singing with the choir). Around, there is domestic paraphernalia: a chandelier made of silverware, an egg beater on a wire, potted plants, at one point a performer vacuums while another one sings. And the show is through-sung, with a choir of 38 singing about the different facets of motherhood: our collective Earth mother, our blood mothers, and the mother in all of us (who is a nurturer, no matter our genders).

The text is inspired by traditional Latin masses, the writings of female mystics (Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Robin Wall Kimmerer), and Christian’s own imagination. It both invokes the divine (“the Holy Spirit is the creative life force, is the mother, is an undeniably female creator”) and the mundane (“Your mother will both nurture you and kick you out the house if you continue to leave such a mess inside it”). It speaks of the unrealistic expectations placed on women (“be the wife and be the virgin and the barren one”) but also the joys (“a dream you materialize in front of you, up out of you”).

Christian is determined to break audiences out of our modern-day stupor, and provide the kind of reverie and insight that can only come from deep contemplation. Christian, who tends to speak using evocative imagery, explains that “my job [is] to hang a lantern on the things that we could be paying more attention to in ourselves. To live more contemplative lives, more conscious lives. I do feel that our society, in particular, is reliant on distraction and substances to take us out of their consciousness."

At the very least, the sonic power of Christian’s music, and the 38 women singing it, is overwhelming. It feels like being enveloped in a cocoon (or ovum) of sound. And it also feels close to what religious ecstasy probably felt like to a Middle Aged saint.

Mel Hsu, Maya Sharpe, Mona Seyed-Boloforosh, Heather Christian, and Viva DeConcini Maria Baranova

Terce is part of a series that Christian is doing that focuses on each of the eight breviary masses (she released a previous one called Prime: A Practical Breviary, which was released in podcast form by Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons). And every mass is a meditation on a central question. In Terce’s case, it is “When will we be loud enough to be heard?”

Or as Christian explains it: “Aligning ourselves with the Divine Feminine can only get you so far, in a civilization that is inherently patriarchal and is very focused on ambition...Productivity takes precedence over compassion.”

Christian admits she is not immune to this; she's very productive. While performing in Terce, she is also in the midst of writing the Wrinkle in Time musical with playwright Lauren Yee (based on the Madeleine L’Engle novel). The first act had a reading last year at New York Stage and Film, with a cast that included Tony winner Katrina Lenk. Charlotte Jones Voiklis, L’Engle’s granddaughter, approached Christian about the project.

The Broadway-aimed project is more commercial than something like Terce. But “I'm being very weird still. It's still a choir of like 28 people, and it's still bananas!” says Christian, chuckling. In her version, the planets will literally sing. 

In the midst of all this work, Christian is using Terce to remind herself, and the audience, the importance of rest (she listens to meditation podcasts on her commute from Brooklyn to Beacon). “We have to give ourselves the grace to recover from the immense task of just living here, inside a society, before we can go out and enact great change,” she says, solemn and contemplative. “Enacting great changes, I don't think is my job. But enacting personal change, tiny little personal gear shifts on a micro level with each individual that shows up each night, I feel like that is my job.”

And with Christian underscoring it, what beautiful music to create little revolutions to.

Photos: Production Images of HERE's Terce: A Practical Breviary

Today’s Most Popular News:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting playbill.com with your ad blocker.
Thank you!