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'Playing God' examines the Bible on Broadway

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

LAWRENCE — As perhaps the most influential written work of all time, replete with drama, the Bible has been an irresistible source of material for the Broadway stage.

University of Kansas Department of Theatre Professor Henry Bial’s latest book, “Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage” (University of Michigan Press, 2015), surveys the 100-plus shows that have been based on the Good Book, assessing why some flopped while others packed them in, becoming standards and influencing the state of the art.

Bial said he was interested in exploring “how the most secular, explicitly commercial venue in American theater and the most sacred text can coexist.”

While Bial calls “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” the “the big three” of biblical Broadway, he traces the phenomenon back to the “biblical fan fiction” of “Ben-Hur” in 1899. Staging that melodramatic spectacle, including the famous chariot-race scene with live horses, required technical innovation, while representing Jesus as a beam of light and not an actor overcame potential theological objections from the public even as it advanced stagecraft.

Biblical adaptations continued at a pace of about one a year ever since. Bial undertook research on the phenomenon with the help of graduate students, poring over industry journals and newspaper reviews to arrive at a definitive list.

“There were a lot of judgment calls,” Bial said. “There were a lot more plays that were religiously influenced than straight adaptations from the Bible. For instance, I didn’t include Thornton Wilder’s ‘Skin of Our Teeth,’ even though it’s loosely based on Adam and Eve. I do include Neil Simon’s ‘God’s Favorite,’ which is an allegorical version of the Book of Job.”

The book covers some productions that are largely forgotten today but were influential in their time. Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.,” a 1958 adaptation of Job, and Clifford Odets’ 1954 “The Flowering Peach,” the tale of Noah and the Ark, are two such plays.

“‘The Flowering Peach’ showed that Broadway audiences and critics could find universal meaning in the story of an ironic yet faithful Jewish family ten years before ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” Bial writes. “Walker’s ‘Book of Job’ and MacLeish’s ‘J.B.’ showed that ‘the legitimate aids of the theatre’ could engage the thorniest of theological dilemmas.”

The two big New Testament musicals of the 1970s were similarly influential, Bial writes: “'Jesus Christ Superstar’ heralded the way for a wave of megamusicals that transformed Broadway as an industry, while at the same time ‘Godspell’ demonstrated that small, intimate musicals that drew on the aesthetics of downtown theater also had a place in Times Square.”

Sacred texts continue to provide fodder for the stage, and Bial considers the recent hit show “The Book of Mormon” in “Playing God,” even though it’s not based on the Bible.

Nor, despite its many adaptations, does Bial think the Bible is played out as source material.

“I suppose there is a Book of Ruth musical out there,” he said.

Photos, from top: "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," via Tulane University, Wikicommons. At right, Henry Bial, via KU Marketing Communications. Bottom right, "Jesus Christ Superstar," Theater Basel, by Sandra Thon, Wikicommons.