Night of Miracles… Joy Comes in the Morning… Friends… It’s Cool in the Furnace… Celebrate Life… and the list could go on. Hopefully, you’re acquainted with or have experienced first-hand some or all of these now-classic musicals written by giants of church music. In my personal experience, the musical, or cantata, played a major role in my development as a church musician, writer, and then publisher.
In the modern church music world, I define a musical as a work that incorporates drama or dramatic/character narrative and a cantata as a work that simply has narration to tie the songs together (not a classic Bach cantata or oratorio). But unlike the Broadway musical where each song should develop the characters or advance the plot, I don’t think church musical songs necessarily need to adhere strictly to that form. For the purposes of this post, I call both musicals and cantatas “musicals.”
Like many, I have either performed in or conducted countless church musicals through the years, with those experiences being among my most enjoyable and rewarding music worship ones. But in the last decade, there’s no question the church musical genre has somewhat waned for a number of reasons: changing worship styles and fewer choirs, shrinking budgets, busier schedules, and I think a cultural shift of wanting more for less (less rehearsal and less hassle, that is). In my opinion, that’s a real shame given the tremendous benefits presenting a musical offers.
Before you stop reading because you think I’m only writing about the hour-long, fully staged dramatic musical, stay with me! This post concerns any sort of musical or cantata performed in the church, from 12 minutes to 60 minutes in length, whether using fully costumed characters, people in t-shirts and jeans, or no individual characters at all.
Using music with drama and/or narration to depict religious subjects reaches back to ancient Biblical times. The modern-day church musical has its roots in the 1950s with John W. Peterson’s works, such as Night of Miracles (1958). Peterson was the first to bring a contemporary, almost Broadway sound and sensibility to the pulpit, and the public loved it. I had the honor and privilege of working with Mr. Peterson on his final musical, and when I asked, he told me his early musicals sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies in their first few months of release – unheard of by today’s standards but clear evidence that Peterson tapped into a real thirst for musicals within the context of worship.
Good News (1968) by Bob Oldenburg, was another early musical milestone, along with the aforementioned watershed Celebrate Life – A Pulpit Musical Drama (1972) by Ragan Courtney and Buryl Red. These writers were the pioneers who dared to blaze new trails, not only bringing more contemporary sounds into the sanctuary of their day, but also the musical drama connected with it. All we church musical writers of today stand on their shoulders and owe a great debt of gratitude to these visionaries.
I remember a few years ago having a conversation with a minister of music who said he doesn’t do musicals with his choir anymore. “Too much work,” he said. I was stunned (and think I heard the sound of the late, great Buryl Red spinning in his grave). If difficulty was a deciding factor in our artistic endeavors, I’m afraid our world would be bereft of artistic achievement. Besides, musicals really aren’t that hard to prepare and present if chosen carefully for your choir.
But as I say, like it or not, our world has changed in this area. So are preparing musicals still worth it in our age of the Internet, social media, reality television and other modern pursuits that can steal away our rehearsal time? Of course, my answer is a resounding YES!
Here are my top ten reasons for doing a musical once, twice, or even three times in your church this year and in years to come. They’re based not only on my personal experience through the years, but on what I’ve heard from countless directors and choir members over the last three decades:
- The event factor. Since musicals aren’t performed on a regular basis, whenever they are performed, they’re an event. And events, if they’re promoted correctly, generally bring out more people to see them than a regular worship service. They can build excitement and a real positive buzz in a church and community.
- Dramatic impact. There’s no question we live now more than ever in a fast-paced, visual world. Drama – especially when connected with music – offers a way to tell a story that can leave an indelible impact on its listeners. The gospel story is dramatic in and of itself and offers unlimited possibilities to be told in dramatic ways.
- Greater depth. A musical offers a longer time for the choir to present a message in the context of a worship service, therefore offering more time to plumb the depths of any given subject musically and dramatically than a weekly three-minute anthem affords. Not that the weekly anthem isn’t potentially deeply impactful. Of course it can be. But a musical is, in essence, eight to ten anthems organically woven with drama and narrative, so the potential impact is exponentially increased.
- Growth. Musicals offer the opportunity for choirs (and individuals) to grow in a number of ways: musically, numerically, and spiritually. Musicals tend to offer healthy musical challenges the choir might not experience otherwise. They occasionally attract non-choir members who want to try out the choir on a short-term basis, and sometimes these people become regular choir members. And since musicals can offer a greater depth of exploration of a subject, they provide deeper spiritual understanding of the subject in question, which can engender additional personal and corporate devotional time inside and outside regular rehearsal time.
- Outreach. The unchurched – seekers who don’t attend your church or any other – often attend a musical. These folks are sometimes attracted to a musical simply because they want to see their friend who sells insurance play the part of John the Baptist (akin to one of the main draws of community theatre). Or maybe they come simply because they’re invited. But a one-time special-event musical is a great excuse to invite those friends and family members who don’t attend church regularly. Even those who are regular churchgoers but not members of your church often attend, and that’s great, too, of course.
- Bonding. An event tends to rally a choir and focus its rehearsals for the period leading up to the presentation. If there are a few extra rehearsals to pull the musical together, these offer an opportunity for greater bonding between director and choir and among choir members. If there’s a church-wide fellowship event or reception following the presentation, these events can promote even more bonding and unity among the choir and entire church.
- Wider involvement. A musical offers areas for people not usually associated with a church’s music program to use their gifts at least short-term with the choir: designing, building, and painting sets; lighting and audio/visual enhancements; costumes; and more.
- Attracting more men and younger members. There’s no question that many choirs today are lacking in men and younger members. Musicals often require men to participate in speaking roles such as Jesus and the disciples, and with a little creative and gentle arm-twisting, the resourceful director can use a musical to recruit new men to the choir. The dramatic medium often appeals to the twenty- and thirty-something crowd – teenagers, too, for that matter… to say nothing of children’s musicals laying the foundation for a lifetime of choral singing.
- Dinner or dessert theatre. A whole article could be written on this form of church musical presentation, but here I’ll say I’ve done several dinner theatres at churches over the years, and every one of them was a big success – because people love the mixture of food and musicals, especially at Christmas. And they definitely bring in non-church people in addition to regular church members while offering all the above-mentioned benefits.
- Memories. Ask any church or choir member what anthem they sang on a particular Sunday a year ago and they’re likely to scratch their head and draw a blank. But ask them what musical they did when they were in high school, college, or last year in the adult choir and they’ll rattle off the title immediately. Again, I’m not saying the weekly anthem isn’t the choir’s bread and butter, but this is further evidence musicals are worth it.
Bottom line: musicals – when carefully chosen, prepared, and performed – can create a lasting and sometimes life-changing impact on those who experience them. All the hard work and prep time are worth it when you and your choir members experience “the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd”!