On Tuesday, moviegoers can see a unique look at Jesus’ life during a special cinematic performance of “Easter Mysteries,” broadcast to select theaters by Fathom Events. John O’Boyle’s oratorio tells the gospel story through the eyes of Christ’s disciples. It’s unique in that it’s a stage show performed live for an audience, but filmed for the cinema. Like most oratorios, the story is almost completely told through song, with characters in costume but minimal set dressing and props. I’ve seen “Easter Mysteries,” and I’ll be writing more about it on Sunday as part of my Lent project, but I can say that it’s one of the more human and moving passion stories I’ve seen.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with the project’s producer, Ron Simons. Simons is a fellow Detroit native whose credits include the films “Blue Caprice” and “Night Catches Us” and the current Broadway play “Hughie,” starring Forrest Whitaker.
In 2012, Simons was in Florida when he met O’Boyle, who hoped to speak with him about a musical he was writing that he thought would be a good fit for the big screen. He didn’t realize they shared a common passion.
“I knew John as a producer, but I had no idea he had any capacity for writing music,” Simons said. “We sat and talked, and he said he was writing something for his church that he thought would be good for a movie. He didn’t know that I was a Christian. I listened, got excited, and the next thing you know, we were off to the races.”
Unlike “Godspell” or “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Easter Mysteries” doesn’t try to reinvent the gospel story. But Christ is more of a peripheral character; the film focuses on the disciples, particularly Peter’s denial of Christ. Simons said O’Boyle’s writing honors gospel orthodoxy while also allowing the characters to become more accessible.
“It was very important to me and John that while the quality must be honored, the message must also be protected. While we didn’t want to take too much poetic license, we did want to bring warmth and humor to the characters,” Simons said. “The characters here have real human foible and flaws. In other passion plays, everyone is lifted high, like they’re on a cloud, and they lose their humanness. John wanted them to be very human, very accessible. And it’s also very funny; I can’t remember the last time I saw a Bible story be funny.”
A friend recommended that Simons and O’Boyle sync up with Fathom Events, which regularly conducts one-night screenings of stage productions, beloved films and special events. Director Daniel Goldstein — who helmed the recent Broadway revival of “Godspell” — was brought on board, and the cast includes Broadway veterans Wallace Smith (Jesus), Kevin Earley (Peter) and Erin Davie (Mary Magdalene). The cast and crew quickly got to work preparing the production for the stage — and, simultaneously, the screen.
“It was challenging not just from a budget standpoint, but also because it’s a hybrid. It’s not just like a movie, where you have multiple locations and scheduled days for certain actors to be on set, but we still had to make sure we got the shots right and everything. But it’s also a very theatrical production. We did a lot of rehearsing before we filmed,” said Simons. “I’ve never seen a project beyond opera that was like this, where it’s acted out on stage, but filmed for audiences like this. We made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I told John this was a blessed play because everything went right in the end.”
Much of the musical’s heart comes through its songs, with Peter mourning his guilt, Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus at the tomb and two disciples excitedly recounting their experience with the risen savior. Simons says music was the most effective way to take the familiar gospel story and make it resonate with audiences.
Surprisingly, there are ton of Good Friday movies but very few true Easter ones. Some, like “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” ignore the resurrection altogether, while other movies, like “The Passion of the Christ,” tack it onto the final five minutes, like the stinger in a Marvel movie. “Easter Mysteries” is unique in that the crucifixion actually takes place relatively early, with the resurrection serving as a pivot point on which the whole production turns. Simons said that was by design.
“The crucifixion is a very somber moment in this film; we wanted that loss to be profound. But the resurrection carries with it a great hope, and we wanted that to be in there as well. I want people to leave feeling joyous,” he said. “One of the things I told John was that the way we were telling the story feels inspiring. For me, it was the story tells how people were affected by Christ, and that really helps people take away from the story. I walked away from this feeling like I knew more about Christ and that I needed to be present more for my fellow man.”
Simons said that, as a Christian, there was a little trepidation in producing a musical based on the gospels.
“It was very daunting, actually. I thought of my grandma, who grew up Baptist and converted to Catholicism, and what she would think,” he said. “It helped that we had a panel of faith leaders who saw the production and provided feedback. Across the board, they were very positive with their remarks.” (An interfaith panel will be shown following the production).
“Easter Mysteries” is being released in a year filled with gospel stories, with “Risen” and “The Young Messiah” already released, and Fox’s televised passion play coming Sunday. The recent resurgence of the Broadway musical could make “Easter Mysteries” stand out. Simons says he hopes the production’s quality leads people of faith to take similar creative risks.
“Our faith-based stories too often have the same look and feel, and it feels like we as Christians often get second, third or fourth-tier quality,” he said. “But I think this is coming at a good time.”
“Easter Mysteries” will play for one night only, March 22, at 7 p.m. in select theaters nationwide. Visit Fathom Events for more information. And come back Sunday for my thoughts.