Interview: John O’Boyle on the Easter Mysteries Musical

Posted on March 15, 2016 at 1:04 pm

Easter Mysteries is an original, musical theater production about Christ’s death and resurrection, seen through the lens of his disciples and followers.  It is the first Passion Play ever told from Peter’s perspective, with iconic biblical characters portrayed by an interracial cast.  It will be shown in theaters for a special one-night event on March 22, 2016.

Directed by Daniel Goldstein (2011 Broadway revival of Godspell) and brought to you from Tony Award®-winning producers and a veteran Broadway cast, this uplifting musical is a celebration that sheds a new light onto a historical story in human terms – ordinary people with hopes, dreams and fears, uncertain of what lies ahead. With music, libretto and lyrics by Tony Award®-winning producer, John O’Boyle, the breath-taking music is the connective tissue that builds bridges across a diversity of multiracial and religious expressions. This first-rate production offers audiences the chance to see, feel and hear real peoples’ experiences of this touchstone story of Western Civilization in a fresh and moving way.

Cinema audiences will also be treated to an exclusive interfaith panel discussion with prominent Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders discussing the production and its ability to affect interfaith relations. This thoughtful discussion will help bridge the interfaith gap and connect the beliefs of major religious communities in thought-provoking ways. Panelists include:

– Sister Sanaa Nadim, Muslim Student Association Chaplain, State University of New York at Stonybrook
– Evangelist Joyce L. Rodgers, Founder and CEO of Primary Purpose Ministries, Inc.
– The Most Reverend John J. O’Hara, Auxiliary Bishop of New York
– Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President, New York Board of Rabbis and co-host of “Religion on the Line” on WABC radio in NY
– Tony Suarez, Executive Vice President, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
– Fr. Brian McWeeney, Director of Interreligious and Ecumenical Affairs, Archdiocese of New York.

In an interview, Tony Award-winning Broadway producer John O’Boyle spoke about the special dynamic of a live performance and what the multi-ethnic cast brings to the story.

What was the first live theatrical performance you ever saw?

My mother took me to a live production of “Babes in Toyland” when I was 4 or 5.  I had a very fortunate upbringing in Evanston, Illinois in the 50’s in that we had creative dramatics as part of the curriculum in our elementary school from 3rd to 6th grade.  Plus our junior high in conjunction with Northwestern University mounted six shows a year for young people.  Of course this doesn’t exist anymore.

Why is it important that this story be told with the immediacy of a live performance?

There is a dynamic to a live performance that is different from a traditional movie.  Movies are usually shot out of sequence and not in front of an audience.  A live audience creates a spiritual dialogue with the cast, much like a congregation does with a celebrant.  Performing the work in sequence straight through in front of an audience allows the cast to build the emotional arcs in a very natural way.  I think this is one of the reasons that live performance on film is gaining popularity.

How do you want this event to bring about a deeper understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection?

In discussions with a wide variety of people about their understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection I have heard very personal comments.  This is true for active church goers as well as those no longer a member of any congregation.  I hope that I have told this familiar story in a fresh way that allows everyone to re-explore and deepen this experience.

What kind of research went into developing this project?

To start this project I reread the Gospels over and over.  Yet long before that, while studying at Lawrence University for a theater degree and Catholic University for an MFA in directing/playwriting, I became fascinated in religious drama and the medieval mystery and morality plays.  I was intrigued by the more modern attempts at Passion Plays including the Oberammergau Passion done every ten years and Tony Harrison’s Mystery Plays done at the National Theatre in London, which I saw.  All forms of Passions – music, film and novels – have always interested me.

What inspired you to create a musical theater re-telling of the Passion?

I would love to tell you I had a great vision, but like a lot of things that are unexpected and wonderful in my life, I simply stumbled into it.  I had a request from my church in Severna Park, Maryland to help them do something musically dramatic for Palm Sunday.  I ultimately analyzed the structure of Passions as the Stations of the Cross, and jumped in.

I wanted to de-iconize the disciples and make their faith journeys accessible.  Anchoring these people in the Judaism of their time, I tried to write a Passion that was not anti-Semitic.  That production, which ended right after the crucifixion, took on a life of its own and was repeated as a fund-raiser, invited to a large clergy conference, and then invited to and performed in an 11th century Norman church in Swansea, Wales.

Returning from Wales I wanted to write a second piece that tackled what happened after Jesus’ death — including the Ascension.  This second piece was not only performed at our church but also at the Episcopal Cathedral in Baltimore.

In 2013 these two one-acts, having been extensively rewritten, were fused together and became the Easter Mysteries performed at St. Clement’s in NYC during Holy Week.

How does the music help us understand the struggles and motivations of the characters?

Music helps the heart and soul transcend to places it could not go otherwise.  Music is a part of every worship service and it is at the center if some of our most moving art.  I hope it serves both purposes in this work.

What do you look for in casting a project like this one?

We wanted the cast to look like America so that everyone seeing it could see themselves in it.  We were blessed with an incredible level of talent and they have given truly exceptional performances.  It was wonderful to see how their widely diverse spiritual backgrounds unified into a very moving experience — for the actors and the audience.

What do you want families to talk about on the way home?

I would love for them to need to discuss their feelings surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection once they’ve seen and heard Easter Mysteries.  If people find they sense more deeply the love that surrounds us, I would be thrilled.  And I hope seeing the film inspires people to offer grace even to strangers around them.

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