When you hear the words “church play,” you might not think “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Mission Impossible” or “Tainted Love.” But those and 12 other pop and rock songs are included in the St. Thomas More Newman Center’s musical “Upon this ROCK.”
The musical, written by 11 college-age parishioners of the Newman Center, is the story of the biblical Acts of the Apostles. Angels toy with lightsabers, a piñata is offered as a sacrifice, and decisions are made by playing paper-rock-scissors. The heart of the play is the apostles’ early evangelizing and the transformation and imprisonment of Paul.
The tradition of student-organized plays at Newman Center began about four years ago, when a group of students put on “Godspell.”
“They did an excellent job,” said Christy Hicks, campus minister for the Newman Center. “So we decided, ‘Well, maybe we should do this next year.’”
Jen McGuire, the show’s director and an MU student, said students eventually decided to take their ambitions a bit further.
“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we wrote our own musical?’” she said.
Last year, students wrote and performed “We Remember,” a musical comedy about the Catholic Mass. For this year’s play, the writers began planning in early October and finished writing in January.
Acts is a collection of stories about the apostles after Jesus’ crucifixion and ascension into heaven.
“It was one of the least known books of the Bible. It was about the beginning of the church,” said Wes Stratman, one of the show’s writers and an actor playing Paul. “We had to go back and reread it. I read it all the way through, twice. And I reread parts of it countless times.”
Writing a musical meant the writers also had to choose music. They decided to use the theme “Upon this ROCK,” so the play features rock music and alludes to the apostle Peter’s nickname and the church’s one foundation, Stratman said.
They settled on 18 songs representing a variety of rock music, including pop-rock songs such as “Takin’ Care of Business” and Christian rock such as “Awaken.” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by the British rock band Queen, was included because “it captured the hopelessness of prisoners,” Stratman said. He said this fits into Paul’s arrest for evangelizing.
Casting began in November. There are 20 actors in the show, as well as crew and extras. All involved in the show are between 18 and 27 years old and are graduate and undergraduate students from MU, Stephens College or Columbia College.
Proceeds will go to help churches affected by the two hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast. The students adopted the Newman Center at Tulane University, which was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in St. Charles, La., which was hit by both hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The donations make the performance that much more significant to the students.
“It’s not like all other musicals,” McGuire said. “It’s not like something the MU theater would do. It is a spiritual ministry.”