(RNS) — Sixteen-year-old Anna Miriam Brown didn’t know how to play piano in 2017, but she knew God was calling her to write a musical.
The homeschooled daughter of evangelical missionaries, Brown was sitting in a bus recovering from heat stroke on a mission trip in Kenya when a friend played her the hit “Hamilton” album. Brown thought musicals were cheesy but was stirred by the rap-infused songs about the ambitious Founding Father.
“I was praying and talking to God, and I felt like God spoke to me and told me that my way of sharing the faith I’d found wasn’t going to be through traveling or telling people the old-fashioned way,” Brown told Religion News Service. “It was going to be through music, and through the way this ‘Hamilton’ musical had impacted me.”
On May 5, “His Story” — a new musical about the life of Jesus with book, music and lyrics by Brown — will begin previews just north of Dallas in a “tent village” designed and built for the show’s open-ended run. Audiences of up to 1,300 will sit in plush, velvet seats surrounding the stage in the main tent, which is rigged with heating and air conditioning.
The show was made possible through an unexpected alliance of Broadway veterans and evangelical celebrities. Bruce Lazarus (who produced “Say Goodnight Gracie,” nominated for best play at the 2003 Tony Awards) and Jeff Calhoun (who was nominated for best director at the 2012 Tony Awards for “Newsies”) joined producers Willie and Korie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame.
The entire process has felt “blessed,” according to Calhoun.
“Normally it takes, like, seven years to put a musical together; we put this together in, like, 14 months, and we raised 7.5 million dollars in a very short period of time,” Lazarus agreed.
Brown never envisioned her musical onstage. She wrote the album by improvising melodies and lyrics over chords her sister taught her to play on a children’s keyboard, aiming to reach other Gen Zers who are anxious about life’s meaning and purpose. In 2019, she and a team of hired professionals released a concept album for the show. Brown figured that would be the end of it.
But then the album landed on Lazarus’ desk.
At first, he was skeptical. “I thought, ‘oh, 17-year-old girl writes sweet little musical about Jesus, how nice.’” But, he said, by the time he reached the third song on the album, he was weeping.
Lazarus, who described himself as a “product of the 12 steps” whose life changed after he made “conscious contact with God,” met with Brown in New York City and secured the rights to do the show worldwide. Soon, he teamed up with Calhoun, who was also hooked on the album.
“Coming out of the pandemic, it gave me time to look at my career in the rearview mirror. I was going to an insecure or dark place,” said Calhoun, who was raised Lutheran but now considers the theater his church. “This show fulfills many voids. I felt confident I could turn it into a beautiful piece of art for the stage, but also it was healing for me, too, being around this material. It’s been healing for me, both professionally and personally.”
As director, Calhoun brought both a vision for the show’s fluid, artistic staging and his connection to the Robertsons, whom he’d collaborated with for a “Duck Dynasty” musical in 2015. Korie Robertson, who is a producer for the show alongside her husband Willie, told RNS she was drawn to the show for its professional quality and commitment to Scripture.
“If you know God’s word and know the Bible, you hear the words woven throughout the songs. You know the stories and you see them in a whole new light,” she told RNS. The Robertsons’ family-oriented, Christ-centered vision helped ground the production, according to Lazarus, and they were key to raising funds and recruiting investors.
“His Story” was never aimed for the Broadway stage. Lazarus told RNS that while the show can be appreciated by nonreligious viewers, he didn’t want to take the chance of “plopping it on Broadway” because “New York critics can be a little unsympathetic to spiritual matters.”
According to Henry Bial, chair of the theatre and dance department at the University of Kansas and author of the 2015 book “Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage,” although some Bible-inspired musicals make it big (think “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell”), they’re “aberrations.”
“Typically, Broadway and ‘the musical’ is a secular space,” he said.
In search of a Christian audience, Lazarus chose to settle the show near Dallas at a new food and entertainment venue called the Grandscape. He hopes it will become a local fixture that attracts annual pilgrimages, like Sight and Sound theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Branson, Missouri.
Beneath a towering Ferris wheel, a series of tents host a lobby, theater, restrooms and backstage area. “It has sort of organic feelings of revival meetings, without having to say anything,” observed Calhoun.
The theater tent features a planetarium-like 360-degree projection, stage elevator and turn tables. But though high-tech, the set and costumes are simple, suggesting the show’s events could take place anywhere.
The musical has few lines, unless you count the ones spoken or rapped during the musical numbers. Brown’s lyrics are packed with contemporary phrases — “Who is this Messiah that everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout?” Jesus’ mother croons in the second number — and, according to Bial, the show’s key conceptual influence is hard to miss. “It has serious ‘Hamilton’ vibes,” he said.
“The hip-hop genre and the use of spoken word allows for a lot more story content than you get in a typical musical,” added Bial, whose observations are based on the original concept album. He noted that while “Jesus Christ Superstar’s” two-hour, 15-minute rock opera only captures the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, “His Story” starts at creation and includes Jesus’ birth, ministry and death, all in roughly the same amount of time. This allows for more character backstory, as seen in a musical number sung entirely by the leper healed by Jesus.
The show also hopes to avoid the heresies and hang-ups that plagued “Superstar,” which was protested by Christian and Jewish groups for depicting Jewish leaders as gargoyles, presenting Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ love interest and forgoing a resurrection.
“The story is unlike ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ which a lot of Christians tell me they don’t like because it’s told through the eyes of Judas, who’s basically saying to Jesus, ‘enough with this thinking you’re God, you’re ruining the movement here,’” Lazarus told RNS. “And then he dies, and that’s the end. It didn’t feel like it was authentic to them.”
Spoiler alert: “His Story” doesn’t skimp on the resurrection.
It can’t, however, resist adding a bit of romance to the gospel narrative. Mary Magdalene and Judas are entangled in a relationship, and, like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and many other adaptations before, the show casts Mary Magdalene as a prostitute.
Still, Bial said, “His Story” seems to present a more “sincere” approach to the gospels than “Superstar,” which was intentionally provocative in its use of rock music and centering of Judas. It was also counter-cultural with its then-groundbreaking multiracial casting.
“Part of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘Godspell,’ and frankly, ‘Hamilton’ was to retell its story with a conspicuously multiethnic cast to put a different set of bodies that’s younger and hipper and more contemporary and more multicultural than they were used to telling this story with,” said Bial.
But though crafted with Gen Z in mind, “His Story” isn’t going for a radical take on the gospel.
“We’re not doing a ‘woke’ Jesus, we’re just doing a piece of art, and we just hired the best people. And fortunately, our cast looks like the fabric of America,” said Calhoun.
Bial said the show’s promotion and creation outside of “mainline Broadway development” could be evidence of growing “separatism” in certain Christian cultures — it seems to be a show by and for evangelicals, he suggested, designed to reaffirm, rather than challenge, audience values.
But Calhoun and Lazarus insist the show, which has its opening night on May 18, will appeal to people of all faith backgrounds, as demonstrated already by the range of beliefs among the investors, cast, crew and leadership team, some of whom are drawn more to the show’s artistry than its message.
As for Brown, she still sees the show as a form of ministry, but one that’s more of an invitation than a sermon.
“I just really wanted to open the door for people to come and have their own personal experience with the story, and walk out with whatever they need. Whatever they lacked coming in, hopefully, they can find it in that story, like I did all those years ago.”