Alyssa Wilda remembers the day, more than a decade ago, that her grandfather and aunt invited her to see them perform in “The Song of Mark,” by Marty Haugen at St. Mary Parish in Hales Corners. Mesmerized, she absorbed the stories of Jesus put to music, humming the songs on her way to school.
“The music brought the Gospel of Mark to life for me in a way that resonated throughout my childhood and into adulthood,” she said. “My brother and I have been known to break into a few of the songs on various road trips over the years.”
Since that performance, Wilda, a member of Holy Apostles Parish in New Berlin, had hoped to be part of this musical one day. After she convinced Jeffrey Honoré, Pastoral Music Director, to take on the musical, she got her wish and is serving as the show’s Music Director. Next week, more than 100 parishioners will bring Mark’s Gospel to life for three performances at the parish.
A year ago, parishioners Wilda, Honoré, Stage Director, Phil Stepanski and Elisa Neckar, Production Manager, met to solidify responsibilities and work out their common goals and dreams. At that time, they pre-cast the major role of Jesus, who carries the musical from beginning to end.
“We kicked off the show with auditions last June, had a retreat sing-through in September, and officially started rehearsals in January. Everyone came excited, eager and well-prepared to that first January meeting,” Wilda said. “I have been told by many that they work on the music at home, on walks with their dogs, while doing dishes or on their drives to and from work. I continue to be amazed and humbled by the talent and dedication of our participants.”
A sense of the inevitable weaves through the gospel of Mark and it is evident too in “The Song of Mark,” but there is much more going on than anticipation over coming events. The beautiful tapestry of the earliest recorded Gospel tells the story of Jesus, the Human One, who ate and drank and walked among us as a healer, teacher and mender of lost and broken souls.
This gospel story, reclaims a memory that is the gift of true hope that Jesus provides the downtrodden and forsaken, the strength of God made perfect in human weakness. Through Jesus, he gives the nameless a voice.
“I hope the audience will be challenged to think of Jesus in his human form, to see the wonders and feel the power and inspiration those around him at that time felt. The music and acting is joyful, heartbreaking, thought-provoking and soul stirring,” Wilda said. “I hope the young people in the crowd feel touched by the words and music in the way I was all those years ago. The children’s choir is remarkable and will surely touch the hearts of many with their innocence, enthusiasm and angelic voices.”
While some may think of “The Song of Mark,” as resembling or rivaling Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the similarities end with the retelling of the story of Christ from scripture.
“Music and acting wise, there are theatrical elements, humor, pathos and the additions of what some of our biblical characters may have been thinking, and responding in ways we would respond as well,” said Honoré, who is serving as the Pit Orchestra Director. “The music is very much like much of Marty Haugen’s music with some adjusting on the composer’s part to help keep the momentum and storyline moving, it is quite well done.”
According to Honoré, after the pre-organization, dreaming, setting responsibilities and organizing a schedule, the experience and expanse of the project far surpassed his imagination or expectations.
“Everyone, and with the addition of Elisa, our Production Manager, is working to present the very best versions of themselves in the Christ story. We pray that the production will touch hearts and help followers of Christ hear and see the story in a new manner and move them to their own personal next level of discipleship,” he explained. “It is quite a job to see and experience the spirit, energy and life happening at so many times of the week these past months.”
While Neckar has no theatre background, she has extensive experience running volunteer and non-profit events, such as the annual parish rummage sale and the New Berlin area, Girl Scout Day Camp.
“I focus a lot on the nuts and bolts of how the show will happen. It basically comes down to handling our communications, supplies, volunteers and anything else we might need, making sure Alyssa and Phil have everything they need, and keep the production moving forward on a practical level,” she explained. “Being part of the show has been a great experience for me. It’s been a chance to try something new and that’s been reinvigorating for me personally. I’ve also learned a lot and it’s been a joy working with everyone in the show. The support of our parish staff, especially Jeff and our pastor, Fr. Don (Thimm) has been phenomenal. And I have so much respect for my co-directors, working closely with them has been a wonderful experience.”
For Stage Director, Phil Stepanski, staging a monumental production, such as “The Song of Mark,” was possible because of great teamwork. As his directorial debut, Stepanski is excited for audiences to see the production with its minimal set design, theatrical lighting and period costumes.
“You’ll see us bring the Jordan River to life as Jesus is baptized, the miracle of the loaves and fish as Jesus feeds the 5,000, and Jesus calming the storm,” he explained. “We will be processing up and down the aisles of the church waving palm branches and singing Hosanna as Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. You’ll see him break bread with the 12 Apostles at the Last Supper, die on the cross during the Crucifixion, and see the empty tomb with the stone rolled away on Easter Sunday.”
The greatest challenge for staging the musical is the space needed for the production. This is the first major production offered by Holy Apostles Parish and staged in the sanctuary.
“We had a completely blank slate to start with and endless support from Fr. Don as well as all of the parish and building staff, which was equally amazing and intimidating,” said Stepanski.
From the type of set, to borrowing or making the set pieces and lighting, the project seemed daunting at first. Thankfully, once they began planning, all the pieces fell into place, including the challenge of working around busy parish, school and volunteer schedules.
“We have been rehearsing only once or twice per week since January, and even as we approach performance time, our rehearsals are limited due to performer and space limitations as we begin to celebrate the season of Lent,” said Stepanski. “Everyone involved is still fully committed to their jobs, schools, families and other parish ministries and our still taking extra time to commit to their project. It is amazing to see the excitement and level of commitment from all that are involved.”
The production includes nearly 20 adult soloists, 40 adult chorus members and 18 children’s chorus members. Additionally, there is a full group of 12 Apostles for the Last Supper scene, as well as instrumentalists, ushers, stagehands, lighting and props handlers and “kid wranglers,” explained Stepanski.
“My hope is that the audience can gain a greater appreciation for Jesus’ story by seeing this production. Hearing the story is one thing, but seeing it is something all the more powerful. I hope that the audience can be truly moved to see the panicked Apostles as their ship is sinking and see their awe as Jesus calms the storm,” he said. “We hear the narrative of the Last Supper each week when we attend the Eucharist, but it is something more powerful to see Jesus bless the bread and the cup and pass it among his Apostles. To see him take his final breath on the cross, to see the excitement and fear of the women as they approach the tomb only to findthat the stone has been rolled away.”
While “The Song of Mark,” staff and cast hope the audience gleans a new understanding of the life of Jesus and experience a renewal in faith, working on the production these past months has been transformative for each member.
“My involvement in this production has been a life-enriching experience,” said Wilda, adding, “Not long before rehearsals began, my husband and I discovered we were expecting our first child. As many mothers-to-be experience, I was quite ill and very concerned I could not persevere through the first rehearsals. Through the power of prayer through music and the coming together of such a wonderful community, I often felt renewed and energized after each rehearsal. I believe in the healing power of God and Jesus Christ now more than ever. It has been a lot of rehearsal and planning time, but seeing how this show is touching others involved as it did when I first saw it reminds me to continue to have strength and patience; rooting all we do with ‘The Song of Mark’ in prayerful reflection of Jesus’s sacrifice for us has been essential throughout this process.”
For Honoré, before embarking on the production, he reread the Gospel of Mark to see where Haugen was going and what he was doing to the scripture material.
“Then, working with the musicians, our retreat day in the fall, and now rehearsals of all sorts, I am being touched by the manner and skill our parishioners are sharing with one another as we move this group to a performance,” he said. “There have been great smiles upon my face and a few tears of joy slowing falling down the cheek. I always knew we had dedicated and talented folk here. This has helped me see God working in others in new ways. The growth of individuals, too, has been a blessing to witness.”