By Jennifer Taylor
“Story” is a big idea right now. In 2009, author Donald Miller released A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, a memoir of the lessons he learned about “living a good story” while developing a movie script based on his life.
Ben Arment’s STORY conference includes not only traditional big-name personalities like Chuck Swindoll but also David McFadzean (creator of the TV show Home Improvement), Richard Walter (screenwriter and UCLA film professor), and novelist Andrew Klavan.
The International Storytelling Center draws thousands to its annual festival and works with the Library of Congress to collect information on storytelling traditions.
Since 1998, Danny Hamilton and Gary Richardson have used simple staging, original music, and the Gospel narratives to tell the story—of Jesus, his disciples, and his message for people today.
“Jesus is the Word, and his story never gets old,” Richardson says. “You can’t top it. We’ve just packaged it in a fresh way for today’s audience.”
This new approach is The Rock & The Rabbi, a musical telling the Gospel story through the eyes of Peter (the Rock) and focusing on his relationship with Jesus (the Rabbi). Richardson, who wrote the script, and Hamilton, who composed the music, now work full-time as performers and producers of the show, which has traveled the country since its premiere.
But the two friends, who met at Harborside Christian Church in Safety Harbor, Florida, where Hamilton then served on staff, expected to perform the show just once or twice.
“My friend Tommy Oaks once said someone should write a musical about Peter, whose story includes two miraculous catches of fish—one when he meets Jesus, and one at the end of Jesus’ ministry,” Richardson says. “Danny and I decided to give it a try.”
They kicked off the project with a weekend writing retreat; Richardson reread the Gospels and arranged the events chronologically, while Hamilton wrote several of the show’s signature songs, including “You Are the Christ.”
The duo intended to premiere the show as an Easter event at Harborside, but realized their choices in staging and scoring the production eliminated the need for a large choir and cast.
“It’s just a small ensemble of musicians and singers,” Hamilton says. “We all wear black, Gary tells the story, the men playing Peter and Jesus flesh out the narrative through song, and the band becomes the disciples or fishermen or crowd even as they play. It’s all done with lighting, music, and the spoken word.”
“After one show a man told me, ‘Your Jesus looked exactly right,’” Richardson remembers. “I said, ‘I’m not sure what you mean—we don’t have a cast member in costume as Jesus.’ And he said, ‘I used my imagination, and in my mind he looked just right.’”
Secrets of Success
Richardson believes this simple approach is key to the musical’s impact.
“Most shows involve lots of costume changes and special effects,” he says. “We couldn’t afford that when we launched, and really didn’t want to. Instead, we believe if we tell the story well, the audience will create a set in their minds we could never afford to build.”
Much of the actual set is simply the band, which ranges from bagpipes, fiddles, cello, and guitar, to a large percussion section.
“It’s an odd assortment, but it works,” Hamilton says. “We’re completely acoustic, but the instrumentation has evolved over time.”
The combination of skilled storytelling and acoustic music—what Richardson terms “Garrison Keillor meets MTV Unplugged”—creates an experience that appeals to audiences of every age.
“Having the band on stage was a newer thing when we started the show,” Hamilton says. “It’s more common now because it makes economic sense to have band members that double as characters. But we did it because it contributed to that ‘theater of the mind’ idea—that we’re storytellers, not actors.”
The team also believes their early decision to play mainstream theaters, instead of churches, has contributed to the growing success of the show.
“We felt God was leading us to share this outside the church walls,” Hamilton says. “So we book theaters and then invite local churches to attend.”
The show premiered at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida, and has played the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the Majestic Theatre in Dallas, Hard Rock Live in Orlando, The Lambs Theatre in New York City, and many more.
“One of our fans even bought The Plaza Theatre in Orlando so we could play there!” Richardson says.
“We’ve had the opportunity to play for some non-Christian audiences this way,” Hamilton adds. “And many of them, even if they don’t share our beliefs, have appreciated the way the story is crafted and told.”
Surprises for the Cast
This passionate fan base continues to surprise them.
“When we started the show, I expected to see an audience of baby boomers,” Richardson says. “And when I looked out, I saw plenty of people my age. But next to them were their parents, and on the other side were their kids. It’s a show that speaks to all generations.”
“Teenagers like the percussion while their grandparents like that it’s acoustic,” says Hamilton. “The same adult who may not enjoy contemporary music in church really likes it in this context.”
“We’re also amazed at how many times people have seen the show,” Richardson says. “We always have a ‘meet and greet’ after a performance, and without fail someone will say it’s their 10th or 15th show. People have a personal reaction to this story, and it’s something they want to experience again.”
The audience’s unfamiliarity with the biblical story also surprised the team.
“A typical audience knows about 65 percent,” Richardson says. “Even pastors are occasionally caught off guard by a scene or a line. We take everything directly from the Bible, so we’re not adding anything. But even people who have grown up in church may not have heard the complete story, or they may have missed the deeper meanings and fulfillment of prophecy.”
Hamilton and Richardson have collaborated on several other projects since the debut of The Rock & The Rabbi, including a sequel called The Witnesses, which begins at Pentecost and tells the story of the early church.
“Sometimes we perform The Rock one day and The Witnesses the next day, in the same venue,” Richardson says. “This is a great opportunity to reach some of the same audience with the bigger story.”
Like the original, The Witnesses features Richardson as the storyteller, Hamilton as the musical director, and a mix of acoustic music ranging from jazz to Latin to traditional gospel.
The team has also written a Christmas musical called One Child and is in rewrites for a July 2011 debut of a show about King David.
But they agree The Rock & The Rabbi will probably remain their best-known work.
“We never dreamed it would take off like this,” Hamilton says. “We wanted to create something for the stage to tell the Jesus story in a new way, and we feel so privileged to be part of it.”
“It’s the greatest story ever told,” Richardson says. “Telling it has been the honor of my life.”
Jennifer Taylor, one of Christian Standard’s contributing editors, lives in Nashville, Tennessee.