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Artistry:   A Story to Tell

Showing the Gospel

The Case for Music Theatre in the Local Church

(Greek) theatron (θέατρον)- “the seeing place”

Psalm 34:8 NIV
Taste and see that the LORD is good

Best Seat in the House

From my conductor’s chair in the orchestra pit, I have the best view in the house. Against a flaming red sky, a man portraying Jesus writhes on a wooden cross. Blood streams from His wounds as he struggles for breath. The crowd around the cross is populated by grieving believers and taunting unbelievers. The orchestra in the pit plays a powerful composition by Robert Sterling from his excellent musical play, “The Choice.” The tragic instrumental piece has been artfully constructed using fragments of songs sung during the first act. Using these motifs, the orchestra portrays the pain of Jesus, the irony of the actions of his executioners, the grief of His followers, the love of Jesus and the incredible promise of life inherent in His death. Only instrumental music can do all those things at once. Suddenly the music crashes to a stop with only a dissonant cluster of tones sustaining in the high strings and woodwinds.

The actor playing Jesus, delivers the last words of Jesus from the cross, takes a final breath and lowers his head in death. All creation reacts in horror with the crashing conclusion of the crucifixion music, with lightning and thunder, and with screams from the crowd. In silence that follows, broken only by the sobs of the women who loved him, the music changes to David T. Clydesdale’s marvelous anthem, “Behold the Lamb.” The lights dim as the crowd, now out of character and singing, is frozen in silhouette. Joseph of Arimethea and Simon of Cyrene take Jesus’ body down and place it in the lap of His weeping mother. Believers continue to mourn as men remove the body from the stage. All lights dim to a crimson red gel on the bloody cross with the bloodstained linen used to lower Jesus’ body still draped on the cross piece. The whole stage declares, visually, musically and emotionally, “Behold the Lamb!” End of Act One. This part of the gospel story has been shown by believers and seen by a live audience.

I want to present the case for music theatre in the local church.

First we must define music theatre pointing out the differences between this form and others more commonly used. Next we want to understand this form of storytelling and its relevance in contemporary culture. Finally we want to see the importance of “showing” the gospel.

Exhibit Number One: Music Theatre, the Artistic Form

Music theatre is story-driven; it does not feature the choir. The chorus of a musical play appears in character. They are part of the story, not just story-tellers. The chorus is only seen on stage when they are required by the story. In fact the story is the main thing, not the choir, the orchestra, the church, the actors, tradition or even the effects.

Music theatre is character-driven. In pageantry and illustrated sermons, ideas drive the presentation. In a Christmas pageant, you will see three wise men at the manger. In music theatre you will know the name of each wise man, the fears and expectations he brings to the manger and the effect his time with the Christchild has upon him. In an illustrated sermon, one theme is presented. Music theatre features a principle theme in the central characters and subplots driven by the secondary characters to bring out variations and applications of the main theme. For example, in my play, “The Promise of the Star,” Joseph was dealing with fear of failing God and Mary. The shepherds were dealing with the devastating losses of wife, mother and position. Melchior was a young king lifted up with the pride of his royalty. At the manger, in the transforming presence of Jesus, Joseph experiences the richness of God’s provision. The shepherd who has lost his dream of being a spiritual leader is commissioned by Melchior to lead his nation in the ways of the Messiah. Melchior does this because has now seen true royalty and has developed a healthy humility. My theme was the healing, transforming presence of Jesus. In a pageant you see actors in beautiful costumes representing the idea of the characters. In a musical play you meet actors portraying real people with real problems finding real solutions.

Music Theatre is musically integrated. In concerts with dramatic scenes, the action stops for the songs. In music theatre songs develop character, present exposition and advance the plot. Often characters, ideas and emotions have musical themes called motifs that appear and reappear to underscore the action of the play and emotions of the characters. In contrast, I saw one pageant using the wonderful song, “Broken and Spilled Out.” The beautifully lit scene presented Mary of Bethany (or was it the prostitute? the story did not make it clear) anointing Jesus’ feet with oil from an alabaster jar. On the side of the stage, another person with a handheld mic sang the song in front of a choir on risers. That is not music theatre. Years ago, we used the same song but in our play, Mary of Bethany sang it herself as she lovingly poured the perfume on Jesus. Before the second verse, Judas pushed her aside to protest this waste. Jesus rebuked Judas and commended Mary. Then she sang the second verse. Additionally, before Jesus died on the cross, the actress playing Mary of Bethany was heard singing that second verse again accompanied only by the sounds of mourning and scorn from the crowd. That’s music theatre! Because of the integration of music into the story, singing actors and acting singers are needed for music theatre.

Music Theatre is time-sensitive. Because music theatre is story-driven, the story unfolds in a certain passage of time. Characters cannot sing things they could not know in that time frame. Although flashbacks can be used, a musical play needs songs in the present tense. For example, years ago we used a song called “Arise, My Love” in the resurrection sequence. Our story was told by John on the Isle of Patmos, so the past tense nature of the song was within the time frame of what John would have known in the last years of his life. After a few years, we changed the story to a real-time script that did not use flashbacks. I had to drop a powerful, well-loved song because there was no one in the story who could sing the song in their time-frame. Some songs can be broken up and used as the story catches up to the information in the song. For instance, we used a song called, “Heartbeat.” The first two verses tell the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In act one, Mary and Peter sang this part of the song to people gathered in a house with Jesus. The last verse tells the resurrection story. We used it in the second act with Mary and Peter telling Thomas what happened at the tomb. As they finished the powerful song, Jesus appeared in the room to all of the disciples, including Thomas. It functioned as a second resurrection sequence and amounted to the use of the last verse and coda of the song as a reprise, one of the most powerful uses of music in music theatre.

Exhibit Number Two: Music Theatre Is Relevant

Leaders who doubt the cultural relevance of music theatre appear to be out of touch with a sizeable portion of American culture. Music theatre is the most vibrant art form on Broadway and in the local theatres in this country. I lived in the DC area where the competing high school theatre programs are honored for the excellence. They have their own “Tonys” called the “Cappies.” May the Lord make us aware of the prevalence of music theatre and open our hearts to the power of this form. It is keeping Broadway alive and it will tell the Jesus story (and any Christian-based story) in a culturally-effective way. It may be that church leaders are more aware of film, video and television story-telling than music theatre. It is the rare musical play that transfers well to the screen, “Fiddler on the Roof” being a notable exception. Why? because plays are meant to be done on stage with a live orchestra and live audience. The successful movies made from musical plays are the ones that create a “mental stage” or have a performance venue as part of the story.

Music theatre provides an outlet for the artists of the church. It takes a company (a group of united, dedicated, skillful individuals) to produce theatre. The entire creative community of the church can join in the process of “showing the gospel.” Looking outward to the culture we want to reach and looking inward to the people we want to disciple, music theatre is culturally .

Exhibit Number Three: Music Theatre Is “the Seeing Place”

In Christian leadership, we are learning the power of the use of images in worship, discipleship and evangelism. At the beginning of this article I described the power of the images at the close of Act One of a production of music theatre. While film is perhaps the most powerful way to tell a story, music theatre is the most powerful way to tell a story in a live setting. Most churches cannot make films but many churches can produce music theatre. We can transform our sanctuary, gym or fellowship hall into a “seeing place,” a place to show the gospel.

It is a mistake to assume that music theatre is the province of the large congregation. For five years I served a church with an almost unusable stage featuring a grand piano I was not allowed to move. (We called it Mary’s piano.) With a small choir and orchestra and the above mentioned stage, we presented two complete “cycles” of musical plays. (A “cycle” is a set of two related plays that tell the Jesus story with Christmas as part one and Easter as part two.) We used small casts of singing actors, minimal sets and the choir appeared as the Jerusalem church assembled in worship. We did not re-enact the crucifixion and resurrection but we “saw” them through the worship of the church as they celebrated communion. Music theatre does not require an army, just a company.

The most frequently offered compliment to our music theatre ministry over the last 29 years has been some version of, “It made it all so real!” There is nothing more unreal than musical theatre—people singing to each other with full orchestra accompaniment. How does it have this effect? Several reasons: (1) the story is told, (2) the story is felt as the characters reveal their inner thoughts through song, (3) the story is seen through stage-filling images, tightly focused spots and everything in between. Through music theatre an audience can really “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Scripts Available through the
If you would like to read any of my scripts, contact me at
Cycles for Larger Churches
Christmas Easter
The Coming of the King The Carpenter’s Crown
The Promise of the Star The Promise of the Son
Gift of the Father Gift of the Son
Cycles for Smaller Churches
Christmas Easter
Mystery in the Manger Crucible at the Cross
Bethlehem’s Star Calvary’s Crown
Christmas Play (modern story)
The Best Christmas Ever
Easter Plays
John’s Story
Hammer of Justice

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

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