Making God a hit on Broadway

It’s an unusual trend in the theater right now, and the New York Times looks at one effort to get people who go to church to also to the theater:

Jesus is cracking jokes, sharing parables and dying for our sins in three Broadway musicals this spring, while another six shows feature religious themes that are woven through dialogue and lyrics.

But what many of these productions lack are ticket-buying multitudes who identify themselves as people of faith, a group rarely courted by Broadway producers offering the sort of focused advertising campaigns that turned movies like “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Blind Side” into unexpected hits.

Tom Allen is working to change that. A partner in Allied Faith & Family, a Hollywood marketing firm that aims to attract churchgoers to movies and now theater, Mr. Allen has spent the past 18 months breaking into the cloistered world of Broadway.

He has worked with “Memphis,” “Sister Act” and “Leap of Faith” to draw coverage from Christian news media and to create study guides for the shows — annotated with Bible passages — to leave at parish halls. He has suggested script changes to appeal to the devout. (His request that “goddamned” be cut from “Leap of Faith” was denied.) And he has displayed a preacher’s touch at postshow receptions with religious theatergoers, like a recent one at Sardi’s where he mingled among a dozen priests and ministers he brought to see “Leap of Faith,” about a con-man evangelist whose latest scheme leads to a change of heart.

“Broadway is having its first faith moment,” Mr. Allen said repeatedly to his guests, and many of them concurred. Never before, they said, had Judeo-Christian messages dominated the theater capital: overtly in “Leap of Faith,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Sister Act” and “Godspell,” and more subtly in shows with redemption themes like“Memphis,” “The Lion King,” “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” and even the profanity-laden “Book of Mormon.”

Yet selling Broadway to the flock remains a tall order. A crucial part of Mr. Allen’s mission — to persuade religious “influencers” to spread the word about shows — inevitably bumps up against concerns about PG-13 content. The new revival of “Superstar” includes an intense, quasi-romantic triangle among Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene, while “Sister Act” features sarcastic nuns and “Mormon,” about two young missionaries floundering in Uganda, has a song cursing God that is wildly hilarious or deeply offensive, depending on your point of view.

At Sardi’s Mr. Allen could not even win an unqualified endorsement for “Leap of Faith” from Marian West, a missionary with the Roman Catholic nonprofit group Heart’s Home USA, despite her affection for the show.

“The main character’s conversion as a man of faith seemed more about pleasing his new girlfriend,” Ms. West said, “and I wanted that conversion to go deeper.”

Mr. Allen replied, “That’s for the sequel.” A boyish-looking 49-year-old, he spent years on Catholic endeavors, like an Internet site for pastoral writings, before plunging into marketing through a chance meeting with Mel Gibson as Mr. Gibson was making “The Passion of the Christ.”

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