The medium of the Broadway musical allows stories from the epic to the introspective to reach a diverse audience of loyal theatergoers. Writers have drawn from fairy tales, novels, myths, true stories, plays, and the movies in their search for a suitable subject, so it is not surprising that the many genres and characters of the Bible should be among them.

Theological themes and biblical material feature in a variety of works: Fiddler on the Roof, Sister Act, Violet, Book of Mormon, Leap of Faith, and Caroline, or Change have explicitly religious settings integral to the plot. The central characters of Les Misérables have biblical references in their character-defining solos: Exodus 21:24 in “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and Isaiah 14:12–13 in “Stars.” The lyrically dense Hamilton incorporates several biblical allusions, such as the title of the song “Ten Duel Commandments,” while the song “One Last Time” quotes Micah 4:4 directly and Proverbs 16:18 is referenced in “Schuyler Defeated.”

None of these musicals, however, employ the Bible as a source material for plot, setting, or character. The musicals included here in brief case studies are noteworthy for their use of biblical material to form the basis of an entire work (or, in the case of The Apple Tree, a whole act). Each of the following adopts the plot and characters of the source material in dramatizing biblical episodes and has had a Broadway production, with the exception of Children of Eden, which had a production in London’s West End of similar significance, and The Prince of Egypt, a Broadway production of which is in preparation for 2019 and beyond, after a successful run at Theatreworks in California in 2017.

The Apple Tree

The Apple Tree is a play with three thematically linked acts, the first based on Mark Twain’s Diaries of Adam and Eve. It opened at the Shubert Theatre on 18 October 1966 and ran for 463 performances. In the first act, Adam and Eve experience tensions as a couple, with Adam barely tolerating Eve’s more complicated approach to life. These characteristics come from contemporaneous stereotypes rather than the biblical story or even Twain’s writing; Adam is unconcerned with matters such as decorating and gardening. The play follows their temptation, expulsion, and the stress of Abel’s murder until Eve dies and Adam tends her garden in her memory. Critics of the 2006 revival noted that the gender politics were dated even in 1966, but it remains a frequently licensed production for community theaters as it requires a limited cast and the three-act format is flexible. Adam and Eve are representatives of man and woman, and the content explores relationships rather than the divine or theological. It takes only the vaguest outline of the biblical story in Genesis 2–4, with most of the content an imagined domestic drama rather than a comment on or reinterpretation of biblical material.

Two by Two

Two by Two was an account of the Noah story with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Martin Charnin. It was based on The Flowering Peach by Clifford Odets and ran at the Imperial Theatre from 10 November 1970 for 343 performances. Overshadowed by the popularity of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar in the public consciousness, the show has not found the popularity of Rodgers’ other work. It was further hampered by a publicly acrimonious relationship between star Danny Kaye and the writers, leading to its reputation as an adlibbed star vehicle. The themes of intergenerational alienation, divorce, and global destruction were topical, but it could not compete with the new pop and rock musicals. Nor did it engage with the biblical source material from Genesis 6:9–7 or 8:22, using key plot points from the narrative as its outline but creating character and dramatic interest from original ideas. Its format was partly episodic, with steering problems and fictional singing rodents (the “gitka,” evidence of God’s presence) providing story songs.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Alan Doggett invited the young Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to write a cantata for a concert on 1 March 1968 at Colet Court prep school, where Doggett was head of music. Tim Rice suggested his favorite Bible character, Joseph. He felt that the story had potential in having no unequivocally saintly or irredeemably evil characters, authority figures ripe for comic exploitation, and a story full of twists and contrasts with a happy ending. The choir loved the work and added most of the list of colors to the description of Joseph’s coat. The parents were as enthusiastic as their children and demanded an encore. A repeat performance at Methodist Central Hall on 12 May attracted publicity, and critic Derek Jewell’s rave review led its educational publication by Novello and a commercial album recording, released by Decca in January 1969.

The next phase of development came with Frank Dunlop’s 1972 production of Bible One at the Edinburgh Festival, a pairing of medieval mystery plays and Joseph. A West End production of Joseph in 1991 was a smash hit. While Rice added amusing details, the plot follows closely the biblical story of Joseph (Genesis 37 and 39–47), reflecting his choice of this story as one that provided an exciting and engaging plot as well as the length of the source material. In fact, the plot condenses the two journeys to Egypt into one (42:1–26 and 43:145:24), omitting the return with Benjamin. The dramatic devices of concealed identity and the villains who become pitiable are taken directly from the text. Only “Close Every Door” goes beyond its biblical material in drawing a parallel between Joseph and Israel as wrongly persecuted but ultimately vindicated through divine promises–a feature the writers pointed to when accused of anti-Semitism in Jesus Christ Superstar.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice followed their first biblical musical with Jesus Christ Superstar, first as a concept album and then with subsequent productions in London’s West End and on Broadway. The title song was written first to explore the questions their character of Judas would ask if he returned from the dead in the twentieth century. They recorded it before developing the rest of the score with Murray Head singing Judas.

The Jesus of Superstar is not a charismatic showman but is struggling with the human aspect of facing death. Rice relied on The Life of Christ by Fulton J. Sheen for a Christian insight into the context of the story but was otherwise determined to base the plot on his own readings of the four Gospels. Jesus has a mission but struggles to fulfill it while Judas is trying to do his best for himself and the nation while seeing disastrous consequences on all sides. External pressures affect both Judas and Jesus, with three sets of villains. The Sadducees fear the Roman occupiers. Pilate (rather than his wife as in Matthew 27:19) relates a dream about meeting a mysterious Galilean, a pragmatic change to tradition prompted by the impracticality of hiring another actor. “King Herod’s Song” provides the only light relief in Act II, its ragtime tune a stark contrast to the mocking lyric. Much of the text sung by Jesus comes from the Gospels, while most of Judas’ text and character are invented.

The restrictions of recording determined the concise, sung-through character of the stage musical as the writers felt that listeners would not tolerate dialogue. The double album restricted the length to just under ninety minutes to maintain an acceptable sound quality. The release of the concept album was greeted with mixed reviews. In Italy, the playing of the album was banned on national radio, while Vatican radio endorsed it and helped it to be a significant hit in Italy. The greatest controversy was the emergence of an unfounded rumor that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were going to star.

The Broadway production depended on its reception by American audiences in October 1970. Radio appearances and favorable magazine features reflected enthusiasm and a willingness to take it seriously. A constant problem throughout 1971 was the need to take legal action to suppress dozens of unauthorized performances worldwide, including a successful case against Australian Loretto nuns who claimed they had first rights to Jesus. To combat this demand for a live performance, an official concert tour began in Pittsburgh on 12 July 1971.

Douglas Watt in the Daily News provided a rave review of the Broadway production, though critics’ opinions were mixed. There was concern about the possibly inflammatory casting of African American Ben Vereen as the betrayer of Jesus. The American Jewish Committee accused Rice of anti-Semitism, though Rice pointed to “Close Every Door” from Joseph as a positive representation of Israel, and maintains that their Jesus, not the Sadducees, chose his crucifixion. Superstar was compared somewhat unfavorably with Godspell by critics and closed after 711 performances, an investment-recouping success but not a major hit. Additional productions mounted in Los Angeles, Denmark, France, Sweden, Germany, and Australia would open by mid-1972, and a record-breaking production in London’s West End followed, running for eight years and 3,358 performances.

Godspell

Godspell creator John-Michael Tebelak, a senior directing student at Carnegie Mellon University, received an assignment to produce an original piece of theater, which gave him the opportunity to explore community and joy in the Gospels, features he found lacking in a local church.

Tebelak drew on a multiplicity of influences, including his parents’ vaudeville careers, the stylized theater of Jerzy Grotowski, and miracle plays. He was fascinated by the role of a director as a facilitator. He invited the actors to reflect on the impact of a day spent as a community with a figure like Jesus. Hymn texts were appropriated and reset as songs sung by the characters in their own moment of revelation. “Day by Day” is based on a prayer written by Richard, Bishop of Chichester (1197–1253). “Light of the World” comes directly from Matthew 5:13–16. Much of the dialogue also comes directly from the Gospel of Matthew, from the opening declarations of John the Baptist (3:11) to the parables that are narrated by Jesus as in the Gospel and performed by the actors.

The character of Jesus makes no claims of divinity but helps his followers to live in community. Act I allows the group to contemplate goodness and build togetherness. At intermission, the audience are invited to join the actors onstage for wine. Act II explores the challenges to community in the real world. Minor conflicts provide opportunities for Godspell’s Jesus to model resolution. The only sense of threat comes from outside; Judas introduces the concept of persecution and is the main indicator of external conflict. Having John the Baptist and Judas embodied by the same actor creates a powerful arc from proclamation to rejection. Jesus is more forgiving and passive than Judas wishes and kisses Judas in an inversion of the betrayal.

Jesus the clown and teacher appeals to the innocent but is also revolutionary. Tebelak envisioned the Shakespearean fool, one on the edge of respectable society who speaks truth. The actors employed mime, puppetry, and other original ways of acting out the stories. Many of the interpersonal conflicts that can arise in a group are played out through parables. Each group of actors and director may employ different props and movements but uses the biblical text as dialogue with few modifications. The notable change is that narration of these stories is shared between Jesus and the disciples; Jesus is a leader but invites the disciples to share in the storytelling. The miracles of Jesus are not included, but stage magic was a feature of the original production and the 2011 Broadway revival.

Tebelak opened the performance with several lengthy speeches from actors portraying different philosophers. The sound of the shofar interrupted their speeches and John the Baptist leads the company in singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” with the title (Isaiah 40:3) the only lyric. The actors donned clown-like clothes to denote their separation from society. The Eucharist episode in Godspell takes place without dialogue accompanied by “On the Willows,” a setting of the lament Psalm 137, as Jesus removes the makeup or accessories that mark out the group as separate from society.

The producers wanted to strengthen the piece with a new score and invited Stephen Schwartz to contribute. Schwartz integrated the salient points of the philosopher’s speeches into a sung opening, merging via counterpoint until the voices are unintelligible (these have varied over the years but the most recent version includes Galileo, Hegel, Jonathan Edwards, L. Ron Hubbard, and Marianne Williamson). Two original songs were added to Act I: “Learn Your Lessons Well” is a cautionary tale breaking up a lengthy stretch of parables and proverbs, and Jesus and Judas sing a duet “All for the Best,” with counterpoint and double meanings representing their friendship but underlying differences.

Further alterations occurred in Act II. The solemn verse that Jesus sings in “Turn Back, O Man” marks the shift in tone toward a greater sense of external opposition. Schwartz turned the lengthy speech condemning the Pharisees (Matthew 23:13–37) into “Alas for You,” inspired by Jesus’ outburst in the Temple in Matthew 21:12. The original crucifixion scene was entitled “Oh God, I’m Busted” but Schwartz found this ridiculous. The company sings “Long Live God,” the only potential allusion to a resurrection. A version of the song “Beautiful City” from the Godspell movie appears in productions licensed since 1991, when Schwartz rewrote the original during the Los Angeles Riots.

In 1974 Godspell’s performance rights were made available in South Africa, on the condition that both casts and audiences were racially integrated. By the time of the Broadway closing, it had been performed in prisons, at the White House, and for two popes.

Children of Eden

The musical draws parallels between the biblical archetypes and modern audiences. The departure of Adam and Eve from Eden is grounded in emotional choices. The conflict between brothers arises from competing visions of family, rather than choices between good and evil. When Cain kills Abel (who is protecting Adam rather than confronting Cain), Father (God) curses Cain and his descendants. A millennium later Noah’s youngest son, Japheth, intends to marry a servant called Yonah who bears the mark of Cain. Japheth sneaks her onto the ark, but they worry that the ongoing rain is due to their disobedience. When his brothers find Yonah, there is an altercation, but she prevents tragedy. Noah decides to marry the couple rather than punish them. He makes this decision without divine guidance as he no longer hears from Father—and both Noah and Father reflect on their decision to let their children make their own decisions. While the emotions and issues are intended to reflect the preoccupations of a modern audience, the recurring themes and, in some productions, having actors play multiple parts draw parallels between the motives of characters separated by generations. The plot outline is based on Genesis 1–9, although the interpersonal conflicts and emotional aspects are added. Children of Eden explores some of the more abstract ideas in the text such as the calling into being of creation (1:3–27) and the naming of the animals (2:19–20), which become the first songs performed by the whole chorus.

Producer Charles Lisanby and Stephen Schwartz began working on the Genesis project in 1983. They named it Family Tree and an early draft was performed as the 1986 summer production by the Youth Sing Praise camp in Illinois, which needed a religious-themed musical piece for performance. Schwartz sought the support of John Caird and the Royal Shakespeare Company to develop the musical in London before bringing it to Broadway. The RSC mounted a West End production in London in 1991 that ran for just four months in the vast Prince Edward Theatre, hampered by poor reviews and a poor season for London theater at the outbreak of the Gulf War. The Broadway production was postponed and the not-for-profit Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke, Virginia provided a suitable opportunity for rewrites, with added parts for children and a chorus of storytellers. This substantially altered version ran from 29 November to 22 December 1991. Following good reviews, Schwartz and Caird continued to work with community and college theater groups to develop the musical. In 1997 its reputation was sufficient to sustain a production at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey and led to a 1998 cast recording that further raised its profile with regional theaters. Music Theatre International (MTI) lists Children of Eden in its top twenty most frequently licensed productions worldwide. A Broadway production has yet to materialize due to the prohibitive cost of the larger-scale new version.

Prince of Egypt

A Broadway production is in development based on the animated film The Prince of Egypt. When approached by DreamWorks in 1994, Stephen Schwartz was reluctant to tackle another biblical theme. However, he found the Moses story compelling and drew on contemporary Arabic pop music to evoke a sense of place. Along with the national struggle depicted in Exodus, the musical depicts the personal struggle of Moses to discover his origins in contrast to an Egyptian palace upbringing; this fleshes out the main character by providing a level of introspection absent from the source material. In the Oscar-winning song “When You Believe,” he used a Hebrew excerpt from the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1, 11). The plot follows Exodus 1:815:21 with only a few details omitted and the plagues condensed into one song. Other aspects are simplified: Aaron’s role is not as central to the conflict with Pharaoh while Miriam is more active in keeping with her significance later in Exodus, and the daughter of Pharaoh who adopts Moses becomes the queen in the musical. Religious audiences praised the movie for its reverence for the biblical text and close adherence to traditions (such as the name of Moses’ mother, Yocheved), although it was banned in several Muslim countries where visual depictions of Moses are prohibited. Indeed, the only controversy arising from the stage adaptation has been an outcry against the “whitewashing” of the characters; a concert reading in Sag Harbor, New York was cancelled on 28 June 2016 with assurances from the creative team that the conversation about diversity would continue on the journey to Broadway.

Bibliography

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Kathleen H. Burt