“The 12” Utterly Ascends

the 12Critic Jon Landau in 1974 upon seeing a certain New Jersey singer/songwriter for the first time:

“I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

This past Sunday I was at the small Stage Theater at the Center for the Performing Arts here in Denver where a world premiere was taking place.

I saw Christian Rock Musical future, and its name is “The 12”

It has been a generation since Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar brought the Good News to Broadway, then our VCRs and eventually every high school gymnasium and community theater. It would be hard for me to overstate the huge impact spiritually and emotionally those two productions had on me over the decades as early disciple, then youth volunteer, associate pastor and then spiritual shepherd of congregations. For many of us they were formative and inspirational in far greater proportion than their imperfect manifestations would ever suggest. They simply have had no peers.

Schwartz’s Godspell had “Day by Day” and “All Good Gifts” and has enjoyed numerous revivals. While wonderfully inventive throughout the resurrection/reprise/curtain call with Jesus off the chain link fence always borders on the saccharine and even made me uncomfortable as a junior high student. (Schwartz later made similar other-worldly meets worldly affairs equally comical, urgent, and sweet in Wicked.)

“Superstar” has aged a little better in my opinion, trading pop music for complex rock opera. Tragedy seems less beholden to current culture somehow. There is no attempt at portraying resurrection (other than in a tacky version I saw in Boise years back); a tough, but reasonable, artistic decision. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”  was the only song radio could latch onto, but there is much brilliance in Lloyd Webber’s score and Tim Rice’s smart and even revelatory lyrics.  After Star Wars Episode IV, Shawshank Redemption, and Back to the Future I suppose I have watched Norman Jewison’s clever interpretation of this opera more than any other film. We are overdue an updated telling.

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“The 12” doesn’t have the luxury of relying on any drama outside the upper room in these catalyzing 2 days between crucifixion and resurrection. No soldiers, arrests, healings…The action is limited to chairs and tables and an almost endlessly inventive interaction between angry and forlorn disciples (including the 2 Marys). This is a musical with much theology on its mind and profound things to say on many fronts about the central mystery and affirmation of our Christian faith. It is amazing that this ambitious and remarkably cerebral musical works at all.

And boy does it work. Robert Schenkkan (raised Presbyterian! No wonder he can get all abstract about his faith) tells a story that moves from grief, shock and denial through incipient rebellion and mere wishful thinking before finally arriving at an affirmation that is the most subtle and artistic explication of resurrection I have seen portrayed. In a culture where black and white evangelical thought seems to dominate religious dialogue and adults are readily embarrassed by faith too often interpreted for elementary students “The 12” made me proud to be a thinking believer.

And a number of the songs just kill. The band (locals all) was incredible. Rock music is for protest and proclamation, and does these better than any other type of music. Neil Berg has written contemporary acoustic, folk rock, and arena rock tunes that have much in common with post modern musicals like Rent and Once in their emotional transparency and creative deconstructions beyond standard pop-rock structures.

The company put us on notice we were in a new category of musical with the almost overwhelmingly dissonant and angularly powerful opening “Walk Away” and revealed deep emotional chops in “Do You Remember.”  Then Mary Magdalene sang “I Did” with its judgment toward cowardly disciples who ran away while she stayed. Her own righteous indignation turned to empowerment (delivered with almost unbelievable soul) let me know we were in the realm of truly great re-imagining of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Superstar was as much about Judas as Jesus. The 12 belongs to Thomas (who actually played Judas in Superstar on Broadway recently…he is that good), a patron saint for an age utterly predisposed toward doubt. It is his story arc that defines the drama, and a creative, daring and difficult transition in him becomes the play’s hinge for affirming resurrection in the final quarter; the only moment that dances perilously close to melodrama. It is a resurrection unlike any movie you have been quietly disappointed by; an affirmation both understated and yet utterly necessary.

I happen to know from experience that it is the most difficult of topics to preach on (without keeping fingers crossed behind your back or merely parroting affirmations from generations past). I still can’t believe “The 12” had the faith to put it out there in all its ambiguity as well as centrality. By the time they all rocked out on “Rise Up” I was in the zone of New Disciple.

And you won’t see it for a while. The premiere ends this week. I doubt I can even get a recording of anything approaching what we heard and witnessed. My hope is that the show did well enough this month to get taken up elsewhere. And that after opening in a larger market I hope it becomes a new standard to take family, friends, and congregations to. Just remember: “The 12” and see it when it finally comes around, because we are ready for a new face of Christian Musical Theater.

The production here wasn’t perfect. Many words were lost in a wonderfully full, but sometimes too loud mix. As a musical in development I can hardly wait to see if a couple less compelling numbers get replaced. I hope the writers explore further the utterly simple and acoustic feel of “Sweet Dream” as well as more duets between guitar and violin that made the upper room a performance space as well as a stage for the drama, further inviting us into the event.

And it’s easy to give highest praise for something yet imperfect. Especially in matters of faith the role of interpretation and taking a chance to make the story utterly personal and newly relevant matters immensely. Sure there are a few minor ways, if you ask me, that you could change The 12 to be more in line with Don Shrumm’s personal theology and tastes

it would be a different musical then, but it can’t get much better.

Bravo, bravo!