Even stage productions critical of religion don’t deny their enduring relevance. The re-occurring interrogations of faith and religion aren’t to disenchant people from belief. They exist to examine and renew it.
Theatre isn’t straying from faith. Theatre moves it forward.
Oedipus | In the Era Before Christ, religion dominated the stage of Athens, Greece. Tragedies were told of mortal characters, such as Oedipus, who gouged his eyes out as self-punishment for his prophesied patricide. Religion was the spotlight on humanity, their pride and mortality against higher powers.
Everyman | Transitioning into the After Christ period of medieval dramas, church festivals put on miracle plays to explore the lives of martyrs. Furthermore, morality plays like “Everyman” also depicted the complexity of salvation.
The Fiddler on the Roof | The 1964 “The Fiddler on the Roof,” examined the stability of faith while also commending it. A poor Jewish milkman, Tevye, in spite of his occasional complaints of his poverty, remains loyal to his faith. He confronts a spiritual crisis when a daughter elopes with a Christian and the government seizes his beloved village. By the end, faith doesn’t help the village survive, but it helps Tevye survive beyond the ghost of his former home.
Les Miserables | In the last few decades, Broadway musical theater exercised an era comfortable with risky subversive interpretations of faith. Musicals like “Les Miserables” and the parable-based “Godspell” are tame in their theme of redemption and embracing God.
Jesus Christ Superstar | Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” is a liberal adaptation of the New Testament. It has been scorned by religious groups for portraying Judas as a sympathetic tragic figure in his betrayal of Jesus. Lyricist Tim Rice’s arguably humanistic approach helped stoke the controversy. Time Magazine quoted him as saying, “We don’t see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place.” Jesus himself belts out an angst solo to the heavens, questioning his Heavenly father before his imminent crucifixion.
The Book of Mormon | Then 2011 was graced with “The Book of Mormon,” courtesy of “South Park” writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Two naïve Mormon missionaries set out to convert a vulnerable village in AIDS-ridden Uganda. When the “Book of Mormon” disinterests the villagers, missionary Elder Cunningham wins converts by fabricating stories colored with Boba Fett and frogs. Although the musical pokes fun at the kookiness of the tales that inspires faith, the creators describe the show as “an atheist’s love letter to religion.” Though famous for a Hakuna-Matata-inspired God-cursing song number, the show closes on “Tomorrow Is a Latter-Day,” a rousing affirmation to wield religion to create a better future. To the concerns of the creators, faith exists for better or worse. But without it, we wouldn’t have the “better” of it.