You’ve got to have a dream

You’ve got To have a dream: the message of the musical

Ian Bradley
London: SCM Press, 2004, £16.99, Pbk, 245p., ISBN 033402949X

The Rev. Dr. Ian Bradley is Reader in Practical Theology at the University of St. Andrews and a Minister in the Church of Scotland. Like me, he is a Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast. Unlike me, he is an expert on the works of the Victorian duo. He is the editor of The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan (OUP, 1996), author of Oh Joy! Oh Rapture! The Enduring Phenomenon of Gilbert and Sullivan (OUP, 2005) and a Vice-President of the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society.

This book shows that he is also very knowledgeable about the musical theatre in general. In it he argues that many musicals provide spiritual and theological values, a philosophy of life and an encounter with God. The book has developed from his “Theology of the musical‘ module at St. Andrews University.

The day after the Hillsborough disaster, when many supporters of Liverpool Football Club were killed in Sheffield, the vicar of my church, himself a Liverpool supporter, asked us to sing ‘You’ll never walk alone‘, the song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel which had become the ‘anthem’ of Liverpool Football Club. Fond though I am of Rodgers and Hammerstein, I was disgusted. I felt that singing a secular song was demeaning worship.

I learned from this book that this song of hope is now found in several hymn books, sandwiched between ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ and ‘While shepherds watched‘ (its opening words being ‘When you walk through a storm‘.) I have an excellent recording of it by Liverpool Cathedral choir.

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s take on the life of Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar, has provoked angry reactions from Christians and atheists. When it opened on Broadway, the theatre was picketed by members of the National Secular Society with leaflets headed ‘Jesus Christ Supersham‘, and by an irate nun carrying a banner declaring, ‘I am a bride of Christ, not Mrs. Superstar”. Billy Graham denounced the musical as bordering on ‘blasphemy and sacrilege’ because of its failure to acknowledge or celebrate the divinity of Christ. Dr. Graham objected to the fact that it leaves out the Resurrection and rightly pointed out that if there is no Resurrection, there is no Christianity. However the Evangelical Bishop of Woolwich, David Sheppard, later Bishop of Liverpool, hailed ‘an utterly genuine attempt of two young men to enter into the story of the Cross‘.

Among the many other musicals discussed in the book are: Porgy and Bess; Brigadoon; South Pacific, from which the song ‘Bali Hai‘ gives the book its title; The Sound of Music; Guys and Dolls; Camelot; Fiddler on the Roof; Man of La Mancha; Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat; Godspell; Les Miserables; and Whistle Down the Wind.

Some examples are given of the inclusion of songs from the musicals in church services including the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, which, for ten successive Sundays during the autumn of 2001, based both its 8.00. am and 10.00 am services on specific musicals, and Crescent Heights Methodist Church, West Hollywood, California, which has a ‘sing along’ service using show songs rather than hymns. Since this was introduced the congregation has increased more than tenfold and a lady who stopped going to church thirty years ago says she has now found a spiritual home. St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, London, regularly invites a performer from a West End show to present a song and reflect on its message.

The book ends with ten messages that musicals might have for churches. Not all of them may be acceptable to everybody, but they are all worthy of consideration.

I found this a fascinating book but it has one serious fault: there is no index. Ian Bradley tells me that he wanted an index but the publisher did not. Clearly the Society of Indexers still has some missionary work to do.

Contributed by:  Ken Bakewell, MA, MCMI, FCLIP, who is Emeritus Professor of Information and Library Management at the Liverpool John Moores University and a CLIS Life Vice-President.