Narratives from the Old and the New Testaments have long been set to music in a variety of forms, using either individual stories or larger sections (such as the Passion). Adaptations have been directly from the Bible or by way of a literary intermediary: Handel’s Samson provides an example, from Judges by way of Milton’s Samson Agonistes, and that musical work is performed both as an opera and as an oratorio. Even directly biblical musical works are usually selective, as with Handel’s Messiah. A great deal of the Bible has been covered in works as divergent as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Verdi’s Nabucco or Strauss’s Salome. More recently Genesis, Exodus, and the Gospels in particular have provided biblical themes for musicals that have enjoyed great success on the Broadway or West End stages and on screen, with a florescence in the early 1970s. Placing the biblical themes into a modern context (at least musically) may serve to disseminate the material in purely narrative terms or, by providing an implicit distancing, may raise more substantial questions.

The Musical.

The musical, which began its development around the start of the twentieth century, typically takes the form of a coherent stage drama (rather than a revue) with spoken dialogue and integrated songs (the form is sometimes known as the “book musical”). Musicals may be transferred to or conceived as film, a difference of medium that can be significant in terms of reception, and the role of the commercial recording must also be kept in mind. The stage production of one relevant example, Jesus Christ Superstar, was preceded by the issue of a single song and then a concept album. Film musicals may also include animation, in which the human actors are involved only acoustically (the voice of God can be problematic). Even the general definition of a musical is, however, not completely secure, since some of the best known modern stage and film musicals—popular stage productions using contemporary music styles—with biblical themes have through-composed scores and are indeed sometimes designated as (rock) operas.

Although not strictly musicals as such, plays and films with biblical themes may occasionally include songs (as did, indeed, medieval mystery plays on occasion). The theater group the Reduced Shakespeare Company includes in its repertoire of rapid satires a single-show presentation of The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), which includes some witty songs. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), the film parody of the Gospels, includes as a startling gloss on the crucifixion the song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” which has become part of popular culture. Alternatively, individual songs from nonbiblical musicals may express comments on the Bible, as does the cynical “It Ain’t Necessarily So” in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935).

The Popular Bible.

Adaptations of biblical material, including musicals, for a lay audience are part of what may be termed the popular Bible, that is, vernacular presentations of the scriptural text, selected, embellished, and often containing material supposed to be, but not actually in the Bible. In the world of the musical, for example, Joseph’s titular colored coat in the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which is usually an important production detail, although familiar from the Authorized Version, rests on an inaccurate translation of the Hebrew k’tonet passim, “ornamented tunic,” and is no longer there in modern translations of Genesis.

Pop Cantatas and School Musicals.

Biblical stories with songs in contemporary styles, often designed for children, referred to as “pop cantatas,” are of some importance, especially since at least one example of the school musical—on Joseph—made its way eventually to stage and film with enormous success. Biblical pieces intended primarily, if not exclusively, for performances by or with children in schools, youth groups, or churches, usually with limited accompaniment, sometimes just piano, are too numerous to list comprehensively. The Nativity play, normally based upon Luke, with interpolated carols or specially written songs, is a familiar phenomenon even for very young children, and in Jewish tradition the Purim-shpil again often involves children in its presentation, sometimes with music, of the story of Esther and occasionally of other tales; one of these has also been developed into a musical. In the broader context of biblical musicals for children, however, it is worth mentioning Benjamin Britten, whose tale of Noah and the ark, Noye’s Fludde (1958), sets the medieval Chester Play to music in which children can participate (and play), including an engaging Kyrie as the animals enter the ark; there is also congregational participation in a hymn.

Plays for children with immediately accessible and appealing music are clearly a useful religious pedagogic device, and for both Testaments there is a predictable emphasis on favorite stories: Noah, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions, the Nativity. The setting by Herbert Chappell (b. 1934) of Vachel Lindsay’s poem The Daniel Jazz (1963), albeit at some distance from its biblical source, always invited audience participation (roaring lions, the injunction to “Bite Daniel, bite him …”). That short pop cantata is sometimes performed together with the work of the prolific composer Michael Hurd (1928–2006), who in the general format of a tale told through a set of songs uses—in Swingin’ Samson (1973) for example—styles like barbershop or the square dance. Other Old Testament themes covered in this way by Hurd are Adam in Eden (1981) and the popular Jonah-Man Jazz (1966). A Christmas story, A New Nowell (1986), and a separate retelling of a parable, The Prodigal (1989/1991), represent the New Testament. Noah’s ark was wittily treated in Joseph Horovitz’s Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo (1970) in a variety of modern musical styles, with lyrics by Michael Flanders, and there are a good many more on Noah, Jonah, and David and Jonathan. Doris Carey’s Daughters of Judah (2014) is a “dramatic musical” based on biblical women (including Ruth and the Samaritana). The Gospel story is treated in Sheila Wilson’s Resurrection Rock (2000) and in Nick Perrin’s The Gospel Show (2011), with the Christmas narrative from Luke in June J. McInerny and Linda Uzelac’s, We Three Kings (1999 and 2014), and the Epiphany as A Little Operetta for Children by Edward Thomas Payne (1995). There are several collections of similar materials by other writers, and also some rather longer pieces (described as being in “Broadway style” and arranged either as stage musicals or for choral production) by the Web-based Christian Theatre Publications; explicitly celebratory, examples treat the story of Esther and, less usually, selections from Acts. As material offered to, rather than performed by, children, we might also note, finally, such works as the (overly) sentimental animated TV film The Littlest Angel (1969), which grafts a short story with songs onto that of the Nativity.

The most celebrated school production remains, however, the prototype Joseph by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, first performed in 1968 in a version lasting less than half an hour. It is of interest that the 1999 film used the school context as a framework.

Old Testament Themes.

The Apple Tree (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, 1966) was a stage production in three parts, the first concerned with Adam and Eve, though at some considerable distance from the Bible. It is an adaptation of Mark Twain’s spoof diaries of Adam (1893) and Eve (1905), in which Adam finds his new companion massively irritating, but in which they both conclude, even after the snake tempts Eve, that everything, even death, is worthwhile for love. The so-called romantic interpretation of Adam’s fall is seen too in Stephen Schwartz’s and John Caird’s Children of Eden, a two-act work looking first at Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel and, secondly, at Noah; it developed from an early version in 1986 (originally called Family Tree) to a full musical in 1997. Similarly indirect in source was the musical comedy Two by Two (1970) by Richard Rodgers (1902–1979) and Martin Charnin, dealing with Noah, but based on the 1954 play The Flowering Peach by Clifford Odets and rather in the tradition of the medieval mystery plays in its approach to Noah’s general predicament.

Of particular importance is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (b. 1948) and lyrics by Tim Rice (b. 1944), which grew from a school production to a full-length spectacular performed all over the world (it reached the West End in 1972 and Broadway in 1982) and frequently recorded, transferring well to film in 1999, directed by David Mallet. It tells the Genesis story of Joseph in a through-composed score using a wide variety of pastiche styles for individual numbers, including country-and-western, calypso, vaudeville, French nightclub, and memorably, in the transformation of Pharaoh (the King) into Elvis Presley, rock and roll. The work is striking in that much of it adheres fairly closely to the Authorized Version of Genesis, while retaining its modern distance not just by means of musical and verbal allusions (Pharaoh is all shook up) but by regular self-conscious references to the source. The musical is framed by a narrator who tells us that the setting is “not long after the Bible began” and that we can read it all “in Chapter 39 of Genesis.” The narrator tells Joseph that he will survive because it is in the book, and Joseph consults it himself for the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream. Mrs. Potiphar’s terse invitation to Joseph cites Genesis 39:7, but Potiphar himself has become a pyramid entrepreneur, and there is some simplification, in that the first visit of the brothers and the hostage plot are omitted. The colored coat may not bear textual criticism, but the fact that Joseph’s Pharaoh was not Rameses may be forgiven when Rice rhymes his name with “get down on your knees.” Joseph’s treatment in prison in the biblical Genesis is not especially harsh, though it is usually shown that way in adaptations; however, his song expressing the idea that his people have been promised a land of their own is more appropriate to Moses. The work stands within a long tradition of (especially dramatic) treatments of what is in the first instance a compelling story, with its interwoven themes of fraternal conflict, sexual tension, and power. The musical mixes text, tradition, and invention as popular versions have done since the Middle Ages. It may be noted that another Joseph musical, the DreamWorks animation Joseph, King of Dreams (Daniel Pelfrey and John Bucchino, 2000), issued direct to video, is also close to the Bible in showing Joseph as initially arrogant, which does echo Genesis 37:2 and Joseph’s attitude to his brothers, although this is unusual in adaptations.

The theme of Moses and the Exodus, with the equally powerful story of liberation from slavery, has also been the subject of musicals, as in The Ten Commandments: The Musical (2004) by Patrick Leonard (b. 1955) and Maribeth Derry, a broadly based narrative work with a large number of songs, based on a French original, Les dix commandements, by Élie Chouraqui, produced in Paris in 2000. The American musical, staged in Hollywood, then issued as a DVD (2006), stresses the conflict between Moses and his Egyptian “brother.” Matching this is another animation from DreamWorks Studios, The Prince of Egypt (1998), based not only on the Bible but also the rather different representation of the same material in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film epic The Ten Commandments. The score is by Hans Zimmer with songs by Stephen Schwartz (b. 1948), one of which (“When You Believe”) achieved separate popularity outside its immediate context. The depiction of Moses caused it to be banned in some Islamic countries. Further animated cartoon musicals have been produced for U.S. television, including Noah and the Flood in 1962 and It’s a Brand New World (1977) on Noah and on Samson.

A full-scale adult musical from the book of Esther was developed from the Purim-shpil for the Yiddish theater. The Megile of Itzik Manger, or The Megilah, with music by Dov Seltzer (b. 1932), links the Esther story with contemporary history (Haman as Hitler). It was based largely on the Megile-lider of the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger (1901–1969) and was performed in 1965 in Israel and America and has had regular revivals (usually in Yiddish with surtitles or subtitles).

New Testament Themes.

Two important musicals of the Gospel narrative, the first through-composed and the second in more traditional format, appeared at roughly the same time. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice developed their rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar starting in 1969 as a single with the title number, then as an album, which gained it advance publicity and indeed a predictable notoriety, which continued for some time. It was produced on Broadway in 1971 and, like Joseph, is well established in the musical repertoire on the world stage with frequent revivals, sometimes in modern dress. The songs are again in various styles, including a vaudeville taunting of Christ in “King Herod’s Song.” Christ’s own doubts and reluctance to accept his fate (once literally rising to a scream in the music), the questioning of it all by Judas, who wonders anachronistically about the time and place in history chosen for the events, and the love interest of Mary Magdalene are all legitimate theological explorations of the Passion narrative. The film version, directed by Norman Jewison in 1973, uses the ploy of a musical-beingperformed, this time in the desert in Palestine, underlining the modernity of the theme.

Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, with a libretto by John-Michael Tebelak, first performed off-Broadway in 1971, is closer to the revue, showing elements from the later life of Christ acted out by circus performers or clowns (Jesus wears a Superman T-shirt). The music is also memorable, and the concept of an explicitly modern performance within a performance both offers some distancing from the Gospel and also demands an intimacy in the theater, which some critics considered was lost in the otherwise spectacular film directed by David Greene in 1973, which had scenes all over New York so that the Bible text was relocated in time and in place.

A less questioning celebratory treatment of Matthew’s narrative, finally, is Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, which was staged in 1976. It has the form of a revival meeting with extremely vigorous gospel-style group music composed by the gospel performer and arranger Alex Bradford (1927–1978). Again, some of the numbers have been recorded separately by different artists (e.g., “Are You Ready for a Miracle”).



Selected Primary Sources (by composer; scores, recordings, and DVDs are available for many)

  • Bradford, Alex. Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (1976).
  • Chappell, Herbert. The Daniel Jazz (1966).
  • Horovitz, Joseph. Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo (1970).
  • Hurd, Michael John. Jonah-Man Jazz (1966); Swingin’ Samson (1973); Adam in Eden (1981); A New Nowell (1986); The Prodigal (1989/1991).
  • Leonard, Patrick. The Ten Commandments: The Musical (2004).
  • Lloyd Webber, Andrew. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1968; film 1999); Jesus Christ Superstar (1969; film 1973).
  • Rogers, Richard. Two by Two (1970).
  • Schwartz, Stephen. Godspell (1971; film 1973); Children of Eden (1986/1997); The Prince of Egypt (film 1998).
  • Seltzer, Dov. The Megile of Itzik Manger (The Megilah) (1965).

Further Reading

  • Braun, Michael, with Richard Eckford and Peter Stimpson. Jesus Christ Superstar: The Authorised Version. London: Pan, 1972. Gives a good idea of immediate reactions to the work.
  • Christian Theatre Publications (website). Offers descriptions and details of various examples of the company’s productions.
  • de Giere, Carol. The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical. Bethel, Conn.: Scene 1 Publishing, 2014. A history of the production, with an introduction by Stephen Schwartz.
  • Forristal, Desmond. “Stage and Screen.” The Furrow 24 (1973): 549–552. A useful representative review, contrasting stage and film versions of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.
  • Hischak, Thomas. The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. An indispensable reference work with a guide to available formats for individual musicals (CD, DVD).
  • Reduced Shakespeare Company (website). Contains details of the group’s Bible abridgement.
  • Snelson, John. Andrew Lloyd Webber. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. About one of the most important composers.
  • Tyler, Clark. Singin’ in the Reign: A Collection of Original Musical Plays Created for the Purpose of Teaching Biblical Lessons. … Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse, 2011. A discussion of the pedagogic use of musical playlets in schools, with seven representative examples.

Brian Murdoch