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Broadway-style musical maintains integrity of traditional Christmas

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (BP)–The Gospel and the Great White Way are no strangers. From Godspell to Les Miserables, Broadway musicals have often borrowed the church’s message of grace and redemption.

At the same time, the Broadway musical is incredibly adept at glorifying the seamier side of life, so the church has been reluctant to borrow anything from Broadway.

But what if you could take all that was good about the Broadway musical and use it in the church to tell God’s story?

That’s a question Ed Kee kept asking as he watched Broadway musicals.

“I found myself constantly drawn into the story,” said Kee. “And the Broadway musicals often affected me more than the Christian ones. I kept thinking, ‘Why can’t we do this in the church?'”

Kee, who writes music for Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, saw that most church musicals were simply a modern variation of the cantata used by Bach. They might add a narrator, or a speaking part for someone in the choir, but they remained essentially a choir presentation with some story added.

As he prayed about a new way of expressing the Gospel through music, Kee started a serious study of the Broadway musical: how it was structured and scored. He found that the story and songs were seamless — the music carried the plot forward, and the lyrics were an integral part of telling the story.

Working with Jeff Atwood and John Lemonis, Kee developed the new musical, “One Bethlehem Night.” The style is a Broadway musical, the themes are biblical, and the whole thing is simple to produce.

Like a Broadway musical, the lyrics in “One Bethlehem Night” are conversational and casual. We learn that the Romans are schnooks and the stable stinks; that Mary is struggling to trust God with a plan she doesn’t understand, and that most people, just like today, could care less that a baby has been born in the manger next door. As one character suggests, “Maybe if he was going to grow up to be someone important, I’d pay more attention.”

There’s humor, as the women sing about doing all the household chores without the help of men, and there’s deeply poignant, lyrics that, like pure poetry, turn one vision into another. For instance, when Mary sings of Jesus following in his earthly father’s footsteps: “If you are a King, would God want to find you surrounded by wood with a hammer and nails in your hands?”

Even though there is a Broadway flavor, Kee says he purposefully designed the musical with no set changes — so that virtually any size church can do it. The vocal ranges are easy for the average singer, and the play can be done with as few as 14 cast members.

This musical can be combined with another growing trend in church music: the dinner theatre. Churches across the country are using dinner theatre to reach people who normally wouldn’t come to church.

Bill Salmon, minister of music at Parkway Baptist Church in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, said his church tried the dinner theater approach because they wanted to try something they’d never done before. He says it cost a little bit more to produce than the average church musical, but it proved successful for outreach, bringing in “lots of folks from the community.”

Any new style of musical is a welcome addition, says Tog Goodson, worship leader at Valley View Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He regularly experiments with musical styles in the church because he says it’s integral to an outreach ministry.

“First, we’re trying to show lost people that we’re relevant,” said Goodson. “We do that by building relationship, and any fresh style allows us to bring in neighbors who wouldn’t normally come to church. As we build their trust, they’ll begin to connect to other messages that also convey the Gospel.”

In addition, Goodson says moving beyond the cantata-styled musical will raise the bar for church musicians.

“For so long we’ve settled for average,” said Goodson. “It drives me wacky: musicians and singers not willing to practice and take their talents seriously. So we settle for average musicians, average Sunday school teachers, and I don’t think that’s what God intended at all.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: BROADWAY STYLE MUSICAL.

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  • Jon Walker