Musicals as Christian biography: The lives of saints

Last week I wrote about MacKillop, the musical celebrating the life of Australian nun and founder of the Order of St Joseph, Mary MacKillop. It got me thinking about musicals and plays about Christians of the past and historical figures generally.

In the course of research on that piece I began to realise that MacKillop is far from the first saint or Christian leader whose life is presented in musical theatre form. Some others whose lives who’ve been immortalised include: Francis of Assisi, whose life has been presented in musical form across the Phillipines numerous times in the last fifteen years (synopsis); Mother Teresa, in Mother Teresa: A Musical, by Peter Churchill, which traces her life from her childhood in Albania to her work in Calcutta. The text includes a setting of her prayer “Make me worthy, Lord, to serve my fellow people.” Finally, a musical about the late Pope John Paul II titled “Non Abbiate Paura” (“Don’t Be Afraid”) (via CNN), which touches on the late pontif’s childhood, his early adult life living under Nazi-occupied Poland, his priesthood, and his nearly 27-year papacy has been presented in Italy in the last year. I have an inkling that there’s a Billy Graham Musical but if anyone knows of others please share in the comments.

In a discussion  of  “Non Abbiate Paura,” the musical’s author, Father Giuseppe Spedicato, said John Paul II was a fan of the theater, that he had acted in plays in his youth and written more than one play. It seems that he feels the need to reinforce the spiritual “rightness” of presenting the late pontif’s life in the theatrical form. But it is interesting to note that not all the musicals are reinforced to have such lofty spiritual intent.

The New York Times describes the Mother Teresa: the musical as follows:

The frail figure in white fringed with blue glides toward the ragged man on crutches whose hands are bandaged against some dire malady, leprosy perhaps. ”Yes, you can dance,” she whispers.

The crutches are discarded, the spotlights flash red and blue, the music booms. Stiffly at first, like a marionette on strings, the man does indeed dance, shaking his loincloth to the rhythm. A miracle!

Welcome to ”Mother Teresa — the Musical.’

This description doesn’t exactly fill me with a sense of wonder at the musical’s deep emotional impact.

Responding to the lives of those Christians before us and their lives, whether in biography or musical form can be a source or encouragement and exhortation. But I wonder, is the purpose of the musical form encouragement and edification, or is it predominantly entertainment?  If it is entertainment, is it also necessarily public sensationalism? Am I unfair in suggesting that edification and the musical theatre are mutually exclusive?

I am aiming to be nuanced here and these questions may not necessarily reflect that desire. I just wonder about the artistic intent of these theatrical productions and how we artistically treat the lives of Christians past.

Image: Sydney Morning Herald


  • Anna M. Blanch is a regular contributor to Transpositions. She is Australian by birth, and inclination, Anna grew up surrounded by the Australian bush, a large extended family, bush poetry, and sport. Anna is currently writing her PhD in Theology and Literature. She finds photography, enjoying her environment and its fruits, and being in community bring her joy.

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  1. says: Wes

    Thanks for making us aware of these musicals, Anna, and in answer to your questions, I definitely think that musical theatre can edify as well as entertain. You could take as one example the recent The Boys in the Photograph, which deals with civil strife in Northern Ireland, but there are a host of other great examples. (

    I am curious, why did you have the inclination that musical theatre needs to entertain rather than edify?

  2. says: Anna

    Is that what i said? it isn’t so much that *I* think it need to entertain rather than edify but i think the form has developed in that way. That being said, i was part of many purportedly edifying musicals during the course of my own schooldays including “Joseph and the Technicolour dreamcoat,” which at the age of 6 i absolutely adored. I love musicals, they speak to something in me, so don’t mistake me for being negative about them generally either.

    Thanks for the link – that’s a great example of something a little bit less about Catholic Saints or leaders.

  3. says: Wes

    Sorry for the misunderstanding, and I am glad to hear that you do not think that edification and the musical theatre are mutually exclusive. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is another great example!

  4. says: Anna

    yep, i like Joseph – it caught my imagination early, but if we are talking Jesus Christ Superstar on the other hand, it pretty much epitomizes my point about sensationalism. (that and the way it handles its source text is just plain rude!)

    Besides if i did think entertainment and edification were mutually exclusive it would make my entire PhD project moot and we can’t have that can we? 😉

    Maybe we should start thinking about whether there are other examples of musicals which fall into the “good” art category – that’s how i describe the edification/entertainment/aesthetic excellence thing.

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