Friday, June 6, 2008

The Moving Power Of Faith and Music

By Christina Talcott

What's the best way to document the rise of the evangelical Christian megachurch? For Michael Friedman, the answer was clear: a musical.

Of course, that's what you'd expect from a guy who makes his living writing musicals. Starting Wednesday, audiences can judge for themselves when Friedman's show, "This Beautiful City," has its world premiere at the Studio Theatre.

The latest project by the New York theater group the Civilians is the product of dozens of interviews with people with diverse opinions about the evangelical church movement. Friedman, along with troupe founder Steve Cosson and fellow writer Jim Lewis, spent almost nine months in Colorado Springs, Colo., which in the past two decades has been transformed into a home for more than 100 Christian organizations, including the 10,000-plus-member New Life Church, which figures prominently in the show.

Sound like a stretch? "Music is a big part of the evangelical churches and exists there very naturally, which is quite wonderful," Friedman says. "But I also believe that music allows different emotional responses and different ways into the lives of the people speaking."

While Cosson and Lewis worked on the script, Friedman was tasked with writing the score. Friedman, who says he comes from "many generations of nonbelievers," wasn't prepared for the power of the music he heard at some churches. "It's incredible. The bands are unbelievable, the lights and the sound and just the size of some of the bands. It's like going to an amazing rock concert."

As for his lyrics, many of them "are based directly on interview material," which Friedman calls "a nice way to get inside a character's head." After all, the show is about people in Colorado Springs, from preachers to nonbelievers, and explores issues as specific as evangelicals' influence on the nearby U.S. Air Force Academy and as general as the separation of church and state.

Friedman and the Civilians were in Colorado Springs when New Life founder Ted Haggard left the church in 2006 after a nationally publicized sex and drugs scandal.

Although the show addresses that incident and includes characters who have broken from their faith, Friedman says "This Beautiful City" is more about "the connections that people who aren't in evangelical churches can make to people who are and what that means. Once you have made that connection, what have you learned? And, more importantly, what do you leave behind?"

This Beautiful City Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. Wednesday-June 29. $39 to $57. This Beautiful City Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. Wednesday-June 29. $39 to $57.