Focusing on the life of Jesus through the eyes of his mother Mary, and other women of Scripture, Jeffrey Honoré, pastoral music director at Holy Apostles in New Berlin, spent the pandemic downtime writing and composing “Full of Grace: A Marian Musical,” which will be performed six times this month.
The full-scale musical is written in the style of “The Song of Mark” and consists of a 27-member children’s choir and 24-member adult choir, as well as small women’s and men’s ensembles. In all, approximately 100 parishioners will bring the musical to life.
While the world shut down and little was going on, including in our churches, Honoré referred to his time working on the musical as a “singular joy.”
“We have cast two Marys and two Elizabeths because of the talent that has come forward,” he said. “They are all Holy Apostles parishioners.”
Honoré serves as the composer, arranger, orchestrator and music director, with Elisa Necker serving as librettist and stage manager, and Phil Stepanski returning to his former role of stage manager.
Following the production of “The Song of Mark” in 2017, Necker said they wanted to do another musical but were unsuccessful in finding another one to do.
“We jokingly told Jeff that we’d decided he would have to write the next musical,” she said. “He responded by saying that he would write the music if someone else wrote the libretto. I thought he was probably joking, but this crazy little part of my brain said I could do it.”
With a Ph.D. in English, Necker said she has always focused on writing and telling other people’s stories, so it was a challenge she was willing to take, provided Honoré was serious.
“He said he is always serious, even when he’s joking,” she said. “I sent him an outline of a two-act show in a day or two. I was thinking about what story we could tell, knowing that Jesus’ story in ‘The Song of Mark’ was a hard act to follow, and then immediately thought we could tell Mary’s story.”
Necker’s ideas blossomed into songs for the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity and the Flight to Egypt, and finding Jesus in the temple.
“And then I began to think more about how telling the story of Mary could also involve telling the story of all the women of God: the women from the Old Testament, whose stories we seldom hear, and the women of the New Testament, who were such a part of Jesus’ ministry, even though we seldom mention it or see it depicted,” Necker added. “Once Jeff enthusiastically agreed to the idea, I started the process of writing the words.”
Necker wrote the entire script using footnotes from Scripture, historical research, books, articles, movies and documentaries. Following several edits over four years, she and Honoré prepared the musical for production.
One of the most significant challenges of the production for Stepanski is staging a full-length musical in the parish sanctuary with parish volunteers, trying to make it work in a non-traditional theatre space.
“That poses multiple challenges, including lighting, sound balance, options for the set. We had a lot of moments where we had to try things in the space multiple different ways to see what looked the best visually, and also was simple for moving people in and out,” said Stepanski. “We are also working with performers with a wide range of experience. Most have been singers for a long time but have limited experience with acting.”
With rehearsals taking place since early January, Honoré said he hopes audience members will experience an “encounter with God.”
“This is another opportunity for God’s word and presence to be felt and experienced in telling the story — The Story — the Christ story, the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he said.
Stepanski agreed, adding the story is the essential piece. He frequently explains to the performers that their most important role is to tell the story.
“That’s what makes this opportunity so unique and so special. We could put on a choral concert, and it would be a meaningful experience for the audience. But we are taking it so much further. We get to not only hear the words and the melodies but see how those words are affecting the performers,” he said. “What was it like to live in Nazareth? What was it like to have the Angel of the Lord appear to you; how did it make you feel? How was Mary affected by Jesus’ work as an adult? As he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane? As she witnessed his Crucifixion, then celebrated his resurrection? We have all heard the stories, but this experience will allow the audience to see, hear and feel, right along with the characters in the show, a story told through the perspective of Mary.”
The two-act musical is touching the hearts of cast members and the production team, explained Honoré. As with “The Song of Mark,” cast members develop a new appreciation for Scripture and now Mary and her connection to modern life.
“Jesus’ message is stronger, more powerful, impactful, meaningful and different because it comes from the view of women and their faith throughout scripture,” he said.
Stepanski said that in addition to telling the story, a challenge for the cast is internalizing what is happening around them on the stage. He encourages them to put themselves into the shoes of the character they are playing and feel how they felt at that time in history.
“It becomes so much more real that way, for both the cast and the audience. In one scene where Mary is praying to her ancestors, and we hear stories of some women from the Old Testament, the performers get the chance to not only become these characters but also pray over Mary, which I encourage them to do at the moment,” he said. “This experience lets the cast connect with each other as performers; it is magnified so much more as we tell the stories that are the basis for our faith as Catholics.”
While the primary focus is to get the show produced, Honoré said there is talk of taking the show on the road. He and Necker are contemplating several ideas.
“We haven’t talked, but Elisa and I may offer it to a publisher in some form, or at the least, find a way to offer it to the wider Church,” he said. “Hopefully, creating an ‘original cast recording’ will offer folks a chance to revisit the work being done now.”
All are welcome to “Full of Grace: A Marian Musical”
There are no tickets or admission costs, but donations will be accepted.
Holy Apostles Catholic Church
16000 W. National Ave., New Berlin
March 11, 12, 18 and 19 at 7 p.m.
March 13 and 20 at 2:30 p.m.