Story and Photo by Maggie Harney.
The sanctuary of Asbury Memorial Methodist Church is cavernous, but in the presence of Reverend Billy Hester and Ray Ellis, Asbury’s Minister of Music, it’s full of laughter. With bright wooden walls, enormous windows and plenty of light, one gets the inexplicable feeling that this space is one that’s used to the happy sounds of people.
But even so, a musical telling of Peter Pan (a show that generally flies its actors across the stage in harnesses) seems like a tall order for the open air church that has very little in the way of traditional theatre trappings. Still, it’s on Asbury’s agenda for their “God on Broadway” series, so when I ask Billy and Ray what their plan is for making Peter and the Lost Boys lighter than air, their happy laughs fill the room.
“We’re going to be doing metaphorical flying,” chuckles Billy. “Sherri and I and Ray and his husband go to New York once a year, and we saw ‘Finding Neverland,’ a play about J.M. Barrie, the writer of Peter Pan. In that production, there are actors in black and they pick up the characters. We can’t fly Peter Pan, but we can do that.”
Now in its 11th year, “God on Broadway” is a month-long production that turns Asbury’s regular Sunday services into an event filled with show tunes and theatre story lines. Inspired by Reverend Billy’s years on Broadway, and Ray’s love for God, song and dance, the adaptations have become something the entire congregation plans for, and unashamedly waits for, for most of the the year. It’s even now something other churches across the U.S. have asked for permission to copy, and people have been known to plan their Savannah vacations around.
In the past they’ve performed sections of big hits like “Les Misérables” and indie favorites like “Avenue Q,” and this year the bill is just as full for October. Savannah magazine was invited to sit in the pews for a chat, and perhaps a preview, of what “theology meets theatre” is all about.
Both Billy and Ray grew up in strong religious communities, and both had an early love for the theatre, so making “God on Broadway” a seamless part of Asbury’s pastoral tradition was all about making the right connections between story and lesson.
“Ministers in their sermons will often talk about books and plays and songs,” notes Billy. “Why do we talk about it? Why don’t we do it and get people to experience it? It was like a no-brainer, that it would be more interesting to someone than just talking about it.”
In a world that’s obsessed with cellphones and instant gratification, it’s too easy to call “God on Broadway” a knee-jerk reaction to the Facebook generation. Yet by incorporating famous songs and dance numbers into the the regular service, this is something that appeals to Millennials and Generation X as much as it does Baby Boomers. Still, Billy and Ray agree it’s not an age thing, but a human thing.
“People aren’t going to go away remembering the scriptures,” notes Ray. “But they are going away remembering these show tunes, and the songs stay in their head and give them a way to look at the world differently.”
Combining the talents of both pros and novices, dancers from Gretchen Greene studio and performers of all ages, “God on Broadway” is really a matter of heart, allowing people to connect in a new way. This lends itself to bringing the congregation to the forefront of the service, and making it about the human experience.
“One of the most powerful ones that I’ve experienced was the first time we did ‘Chorus Line,'” remembers Ray. “The actors were up on stage, and it’s not your typical audition–the director wants to get to knows these people. Billy planned the service, with five or six normal congregates just being themselves on stage, so they got to share their stories. One was a husband and wife couple and this guy had never shared before, and he just let it all out. Another one came out. Most people knew he was gay but his family didn’t. It was just so incredibly powerful and real.”
Adds Billy, “In that show the director is not seen. You just hear the voice. I didn’t preach that Sunday, I was just a voice in the balcony and they were the sermon. It was all about their stories.”
Finding The Connections
So is “God on Broadway” about picking the right musical or picking the right Bible lesson? Billy and Ray think the happy spot is somewhere in the middle.
“The same issues that are in the Bible–love and hate, courage, fear, transformation–all of that’s totally universal and relevant for today, and it’s what all these plays are about,” remarks Billy. “It’s just a matter of matching up and having a little fun. We don’t like it to be boring because we’re talking about exciting stuff. We get their attention here.”
The program also lends itself to some situations that seem tricky, and along the way justifies Billy and Ray in their conviction that musicals and scripture belong together.
“We had the funniest thing happen, recounts Billy. “I had a woman want her child baptized on ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ Sunday. When we thought about what we were trying to say, that God loves Jekylls and Hydes, and there’s this transformation of moving from the dark to the light, it seemed to be a pretty good idea to have a baptism at the end of the service. So two of her kids come up. The first little boy was named Hank, and I put my hand in the water and I looked down at the bulletin to see his full name and it says ‘Henry Edward.’ Henry Edward? I said to myself, it’s Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde. This is meant to be!”
The Next Step
“God on Broadway” now fills the church to the absolute brim–“standing room only,” reports Ray– and the men have their sights set on next year. The diversity and the talent of Savannah may have the makings of a theatre town, and there’s one musical in particular that the entire country has been talking about all year. Will it be on next year’s agenda?
“’Hamilton!’” exclaims Billy. “It’s hard to believe that kids are learning history this way, memorizing these words. We’ll get to ‘Hamilton’ one day.”
Jokes Ray, “It needs to be on Broadway a little longer so we can get a ticket, and we’ll need some rappers.”
Regardless whether Lin Manuel Miranda’s words show up on the altar stage of Asbury, one thing’s for certain: It’s not about one play in particular, but about the good that it does for the congregation, and the people searching for a new experience at church.
“When you build relationships, you see that life is short,” says Billy. “It is filled with pain, and everyone is struggling so why make it harder for people? Make haste to be kind. Do what you can to love. When you come together with all of this diversity, you realize that we’re all similar, and we all have these basic needs. That’s probably in one of these shows.”
“If not, it will be now!” exclaims Ray.
The Sound of Music was rescheduled to Nov. 13, 2016. For more information about this year’s musical numbers, times, and dates, click here.