Faith in the footlights: Religion gets a curtain call on Broadway

NEW YORK - Can it be? Has Broadway found religion?

According to one recent article, a bumper crop of faith-themed shows, like "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Godspell," "Book of Mormon" and "Sister Act," has transformed Broadway into a "highway to heaven."

So why the great awakening on the Great White Way?

"I think there is a "God moment" breaking out in the entertainment culture that's partly driven by a quest for profits in difficult economic times, but also by people's never-ending quest for transcendent meaning," said Tom Allen of Allied Faith and Family, a marketing agency that is trying to promote shows like "Sister Act" to Christians.

The Tony-nominated musical is emblematic of this religious revival: flashy and brash, yet earnestly spiritual.

The same can be said for the recently closed "Leap of Faith," which is contemplating a possible national tour.

Both musicals were adapted from 1992 movies and feature music by Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken.

Both also deal with themes of redemption and salvation.

"I think people are tired of hearing about selfish people feeling sorry for themselves," said Fred Applegate, who plays a pastor in "Sister Act" and who believes the uptick in religious productions underscores a need "for hope."

Allen concurred. "What's happening now is almost like our collective conscience prompting us to think again about what really matters," he said.

While not all recent offerings are necessarily reasons to shout "hallelujah," Allen said he feels that, overall, the spotlighting of spirituality is a net gain for religion, and hopes the faith community supports shows like "Sister Act."

Based on the screen comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg, "Sister Act" centers on an aspiring singer, Deloris (Raven-Symone), who is on the run from mobsters after she witnesses a murder and who must hide out in a cloistered convent.

Beyond Menken's roof-raising score, there's a lot to like about the production. The scenic design evokes a Catholic nostalgia -- from the confessional in the theater's lobby to the rose window that dominates many of the musical numbers. Though the set suggests a church interior, to avoid offending those who might deem the backdrop as inappropriate for rapping nuns in hip-hop habits, no mention is made of Mass.

"The creators of the show were very careful about that," said Applegate, who identifies himself as Catholic. "There is no altar, no tabernacle, none of the hallmarks of a sacred space, except stained glass."

Catholic theatergoers, however, may wish the same sensitivity and respect had been applied to the, at times, irreverent humor, including a reference to the Eucharist as "holy wafers" and a "moral high colonic," and Applegate invoking "the Father, the Son and the you know who."

"The show was not created by daily communicants," said Allen, who acknowledged its theological shortcomings. "But (their) hearts are definitely in the right place."

Rather than mocking them, "Sister Act" displays a sincere affection for the nuns and an appreciation of faith as a positive force in people's lives.

Equally miraculous for Broadway, is the show's sympathetic portrayal of the traditional-minded Mother Superior (Carolee Carmello), whose soulful "Here Within These Walls" provides a surprisingly heartfelt defense of contemplative life and counterbalances the more dissenting "The Life I Never Lived," sung by a young postulant.

Opinions may vary on the jumbo, glitter-ball, disco statue of Mary, but, as Allen points out, one person's gaudy may be another's glorifying.

"She's our Mother, whether people realize it or not. What better way to promote that fact to the culture than by lighting her up on a Broadway stage in all her beauty and celebrating her."

Ultimately, "Sister Act" affirms St. Augustine's maxim that, to sing is to "pray twice." But perhaps it is Augustine's perception that our hearts are restless until they rest in God that best summarizes the show's countercultural message.

"Don't get caught up in the attractions and allures of the world," Allen said, boiling it down. "The answers lie within and above."

This hunger for the divine is even more pronounced in "Leap of Faith," based on the comedy starring Steve Martin, about a charlatan preacher who pitches his revival tent in a small Kansas town. (Ironically, one of the authors is an atheist, and the show was partly financed by the Passionists.)

"Perhaps writers have realized that faith is dramatic ... and worthy of our thought and our time in theater," said Applegate.

Perhaps it's the way these shows present faith, not as something irrelevant and gloomy, but vibrant and full of what G. K. Chesterton called the "gigantic secret of Christianity": joy.

"It's nice to see people of faith portrayed as joyful, isn't it?" asked Applegate.

Can I hear an "Amen"?

DiCerto is a Catholic film critic and co-host of "Reel Faith" on NET TV, http://netny.net/reelfaith.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970