Bede Wear on the phenomenon of the Modern Musical

As you set foot in a West End theatre the last thing you probably think about is church and yet of course in many ways going to the theatre is a religious experience. Perhaps the seats are more comfortable than the pews, you can have a gin and tonic midway through and there isn’t a collection (well given the cost of West End tickets these days that is a blessing) but the audience is gathered, as is a congregation to experience something out of the ordinary.


Many Christians might not instinctively think of a funeral service as being suitable to contain songs from musicals but in recent years precisely that has become commonplace. Whether it is a chorus of ‘You’ll never walk alone’ or ‘Memories’ these songs touch something deep within people and cause them to be able to release their emotions or deal with trauma and stress.

Indeed more and more people are relating their emotions through song and the way songs make them feel. The hit musical Blood Brothers is so popular in Northern towns in particular because the people going to see it can relate to living on the ‘never never’.

The Religious Musical

There are of course the more commonly recognised ‘religious musicals’, the musicals which in some cases may teach people all they know, say, about the wonderful story of Joseph. Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s genius was to create a short musical that would engage (and still does engage) the minds of young people and perhaps teach them something about God. Llyod-Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar is more controversial as it raises all sorts of questions for Christians about the role of Judas, Mary Magdalene and most centrally of all who Jesus was.

The musical may not be completely orthodox but in minds young and old it does raise questions about God and we the Church need to be there to explore those questions with people. No one can fail to be amused or disgusted by the image of Herod taunting Jesus with the words ‘walk across my swimming pool’.

There are of course lots of lesser known religious musicals which have never really captured the imagination. Amongst these must surely be Godspell whose one memorial song is based on the words of the famous hymns ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’. The music is so rousing it could easily be used in a Church.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Phenomenon

There can be few names that so thrill the lovers of the modern musical than Rodgers and Hammerstein. Throughout their working lives together they have given musical theatre some of her finest tunes and lyrics. And it is not all ‘girls in white dresses and crisp apple strudel’ there are many moments of deep spiritual understanding.

In Carousel for example Billy asks to be taken before the greatest judge of all to be judged for his life and as if sent to a type of purgatory is given an opportunity to see how his life has affected that of others. Even in the Sound of Music there are also moments to interest the theologian. This is not just because Rodgers and Hammerstein had a nun to advise the proceedings and to help with the writing of the Alleluia in act one but also at the centre of the script. Just before the Reverend Mother sings the aria ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ she turns to the young Maria and says to her ‘a bell is not a bell ‘til you ring it; love is not love ‘til you give it’.

This may sound as though it should be written on a box of chocolates you might buy in a theatre but it does have a deeper resonance for us. Is our Christianity not like that love? Do we not need to share something of our Christian faith with other people for it to be truly a shared faith, shared with our brothers and sisters? The young Maria is so keen to join the monastery that she has failed to understand how God calls us each to different places and vocations precisely so that we can share our faith. Just like ringing that bell.

Susan Boyle

When Susan Boyle sang ‘I dreamed a dream in days gone by’ from the musical Les Miserables she became an overnight sensation. Her rendition of the song touched people made them respond to her.

We mustn’t allow musicals and musical theatre to take the place of religion but we must learn to use them because they are often the way the people of our age express their feelings. Musicals may not be Palestrina, Mozart or Haydn but I challenge anyone not to tap a toe as the great songs from the shows are sung.

For whatever we may think musical theatre is here to stay. So the next time you curl up on the sofa to watch the Sound of Music do look out for the theology and don’t forget to sing along! ND