TheaterWeek
February 28, 1994
RELIGION ON BROADWAY
There's a return to faith on Broadway as actors seek spiritual solutions to real world problems.
BY SIMI HORWITZ
 
    "In our show, we have prayer time before each performance.  Three or four actors join me.  We hold hands and each day someone offers a prayer.  We talk about anything that's on our hearts an recognize that our creative gifts are from the Lord, not from us."
--Jodi Benson
Crazy For You

    "As an actor, you're delving into the depth of your soul.  You're seeking self-knowledge and truth.  Hook or crook, you're thinking about God."
--Gregory Mitchell
Kiss of the Spider Woman
 

There's no shortage of religious sentiment being voiced by actors today.  Indeed, religious sentiment is surprisingly (maybe not so surprisingly) alive and well in the theater.  Just check out the bios in Playbill.  A fair number of performers are now routinely punctuating their resume of professional credits by thanking Mom, Dad, a significant other . . . and God.

And consider the wave of thankful, teary outbursts at the Tonys in recent years.  Last year, Tony-Award winner Anthony Crivello--Kiss of the Spider Woman--made a point of thanking God in his acceptance speech;  he also acknowledges God's presence in his life in the Playbill bio.

"And these are not just 'Thank God, I got here,'" observes Isabelle Stevenson, president of the American Theater Wing, a sponsor of the Tony Award ceremonies.  "References to God are a lot more meaningful now."

Of course, the questions remain:  Is there, in fact, a new eruption of backstage religion today?  Or are actors feeling freer to voice convictions that have always existed?  Or both?  The answer depends on whom you're speaking to.  Longtime theater observers tend to think a new openness is bringing an old-time religion to the surface.

Says Actors' Equity spokesman Dick Moore:  "More than forty-five years ago, Helen Hayes, a  devout Catholic, was performing on Broadway when she got pregnant.  The show was forced to close.  The producers and Hayes went to arbitration over this.  The resolution?  The child was declared an act of God.

"As far back as I can remember, Catholics have crossed themselves before going on the stage.  Religion is not new in the theater,"  Stevenson agrees.  "The nature of the actor's life is so precarious and so often tied in with luck.  And a belief in luck is really not that removed from a belief in faith and then a belief in God.  What's new is that actors are talking about their religious feelings openly.  And why not?  Everyone i talking about everything else openly."

Stevenson also points to the role that therapy and 12-step programs--the Alcoholics Anonymous model--play in all this.  Some actors do have drug and booze problems.  In therapy, they're encouraged to engage in public confessions; the 12-step programs also promote the acknowledgment of a higher power.  Although the majority of actors are not going to AA meetings or other sessions like them, the mood is out there.  There's a spillover effect, Stevenson and the others suggest.

Louis Botto, a senior editor at Playbill, points to the influence of black actors on the scene.  Their presence began to be felt strongly in the late '70s.

"I first became aware of references to God in the bios from performers appearing in Sophisticated Ladies and Dreamgirls," he says.  "Many of these actors come from Gospel backgrounds, and praising God is part of the culture.

"Some of the black shows also had prayer circles prior to curtain.  It was the first I had ever heard of them,"  he continues, suggesting that these traditions helped serve as an impetus to white actors who might have had religious impulses, but previously kept them private.

Adds Crazy For You's Jodi Benson:  "Ben Harney, who starred in Dreamgirls, used to lead large Bible study classes between shows on Wednesdays.  Many people in the business attended:  working and non-working performers as well as producers, writers, and directors."

As for those prayer circles Botto refers to--they are now a fairly common backstage phenomenon.  Gregory Hines and Tommy Tune hold them regularly.  Prayer sessions run the gamut.  Usually they consist of several moments of hand-holding silence.  Others are more openly religious with one or more actor offering a non-denominational prayer.  And some have open references to God or even Christ.  The latter may attract only a handful of actors.

Gregory Mitchell (Kiss of the Spider Woman) insists that one third of all the Broadway shows he's been in over the last ten years have had prayer circles of one sort or another.

"These prayer circles were almost part of the show," he recalls.  "We were cued for them.  The stage manager would yell out, 'Circle up!'  These would have different slants depending on who was leading them.  Generally, we'd call upon God to protect us, create harmony among us and help us become His vessels so that our work would change and affect people for the better."

Although all of the actors I interviewed agree that there are more opportunities to voice their religious beliefs and that openness is the name of the game, they also insist that there are additional factors that have contributed to a religious resurgence:  violence, stress, and, most central, AIDS.

"We're no longer taking life for granted, especially when cast members start dying from AIDS,"  says Yancey Arias (Miss Saigon).  "So you start thinking about God.  And if your friends die of AIDS, it's comforting to think that they're not suffering anymore and that they're with God.

Comments Michelle Artigas (Cats):  "AIDS is one of the reasons actors are returning to more traditional lifestyles.  Monogamy and family have become more important again.  And with that, there's a return to roots and religion."

Most of the Broadway actors I talked with are in their thirties.  David "Dudu" Fisher (Jean Valjean in Les Miz) is 42.  Some, like Fisher and Benson, are leads.  Others are featured players (i.e. Arias).  Still others are members of the ensemble.

The majority of those who say they are religious are not regular church/synogogue-goers.  Fisher, an Orthodox Jew--indeed, a cantor who does not perform on the Sabbath--is an exception.  So is Jodi Benson, a born-again Christian, although she is hesitant to use the term because of the bad press it's received.  "The image of some ministers has been a problem," she says.  "So I try to avoid labels.  I don't think they're useful.  But I'm not uncomfortable explaining who I am or what I believe in."

Benson attends Bible study classes before Wednesday matinees and church services on Sunday mornings.  She also has an ongoing contract with Sparrow Recordings, a Nashville-based Christian recording company.

Many of the actors I spoke to were raised in traditional religious homes.  A few are continuing--or returning to--the traditions they grew up with.  But the majority, it seems, are coupling their religious roots with some new, at times trendy, elements.  A number talked about "personal relationships with God (or Jesus)" and their "spirituality."

Indeed, spirituality as opposed to Christianity or organized religion of any kind was the most repeated theme; although spirituality, too, seems to embody a host of definitions.  Raymond (Kiss of the Spider Woman) Rodriguez's spirituality conveys pantheistic elements:  "I don't have to go to church to talk with God.  I can find God on the beach, in the Mountains, in the sky," says Rodriguez, a lapsed Catholic.  "I believe in a higher power--there's a reason for our being here and there's something after life--but I'm more spiritual than religious."

Artigas, however, appears to be a born-again Christian.  She talks about "living the life Jesus would have wanted," and "the search for a church that really offers Christ's teachings."  But she, like many of the others, prefers the term "spiritual" to describe her religious convictions, and then remarks, "I'm a Bible-believing Christian."

New Age viewpoints are also all over the place.  Depending whom you speak to, that term either means you're largely in control of your destiny; and/or you're not in control of your destiny, but that's okay, too, because whatever happens or doesn't happen was meant (or not meant) to be.

"My getting into theater is an act of God," says Rodriguez.  "When I was a kid, I was a football player.  But when I broke my leg, I had to drop out.  And that led me to the theater.  Playing football was not meant to be.  Same with casting.  Even if I do my best--I have to do my best--and don't get cast, then it wasn't meant to be.  And even if it seems like a terrible thing now, later it might appear differently.  Other doors might have opened as a result.  I don't believe in randomness.  I'm an optimist."

Norm Lewis (Tommy), an actor who has his roots in the Black Southern Baptist Church, says, "If you are spiritually focused, doors will open."

Adds Artigas, "I believe Cats was an answer to my prayers."

The concept of "destiny" or "what was meant to be"--whether it's God-driven or person-driven--is obviously an emotionally-charged idea in the iffy world of the theater where unemployment is a way of life for the majority and talent is only one factor in landing a job.  Most actors concur that belief in some guiding force is comforting.

"I don't know how I could get through life, especially in this business, without my belief in God who guides me," says Benson.  "How could I deal with all the rejection if I believed I was fully in control?  If I didn't believe in God, then the only thing I'd end up feeling is inadequate--that I wasn't enough."

"For those who are not working, there's got to be a belief that they'll get through it," observes Rose McGuire (Cyrano).  "Nothing will do it like prayer."

A number of the actors maintain that the nature of acting in and of itself is a quasi-reliigous experience.  Several go so far as to say they are serving God and/or a spiritual purpose by working in the theater.

Rodriguez asserts that acting is a God-given vocation:  "To be an actor, to tell stories, transmit a message that makes people smile or cry.  If the story is about love, forgiveness, or that hate doesn't work, it creates a chain reaction throughout the audience.  That's spiritual!"

"The bottom line for me is that when I leave the show at the end of the performance I hope I have brought the audience closer to God," says Benson.  "if I've given them peace and joy, then I have.  When people say 'You jump off the stage and into my heart,' I know it's a gift from God, even if the audience doesn't see it that way.  My ministry is to share my love of God through my talents.  I'm singing for the Lord!"

As a born-again Christian, Benson (and Artigas) face special conflicts as actresses.  Neither woman will appear in productions that require them to be nude or to use foul language.  Both talk about the necessity for the material to have "redemptive" qualities.

"It's important for me to feel that I'm part of a production that's lifegiving," says Benson.  "My agent knows how I feel about this and I've had no problems, except once.  I took a TV role before I realized that it has no redemptive qualities and I backed out of it.  The producer said I'd never work again.  Later, that same producer offered me another job!"

Artigas admits that she debated whether her role in Cats was too sexual.  "I decided it wasn't.  I'm playing an animal.  It's a family show.  Through the theater I'm doing God's work."

It's hard to pin down precisely how widespread this religious phenomenon is.  Equity does not ask its members for their religious affiliations and no formal surveys have been conducted.  The most clearly drawn evidence to suggest that there is a religious resurgence is the theater--and that it has a new texture--is based on what actors say and how strikingly open they are about it.  Nobody shied away from talking about their religious beliefs on the grounds that they were too private.  No one dismissed religion or even made the slightest tongue-in-cheek remark like:  "Prayer can't hurt," or "Nothing else has helped."  Perhaps that's the kind of comment a director, producer, or writer might make--none of whom thanks God in his or her bio.

"Don't kid yourself," quips Equity's Moore.  "On opening night, they're the first to pray!"

There may be up to five--sometimes more--allusions to God among the actors' bios appearing in Playbill.  And most of the actors concur that those cited in Playbill represent only the tip of the iceberg.

"The majority of actors do not include their religious feelings in their bios," asserts McGuire.  "We are limited in the number of words we're allowed and we're told to refrain from too many thank yous or religious allusions.  And many people are still not comfortable admitting religious feeling, especially men.

"I can tell you that in Cyrano," adds Mcguire, "there's more of a spiritual consciousness than any cast I've ever been in.  God comes into our conversations every day."  (There are only three references to God in the bios.)

The same phenomenon is reflected in Kiss of the Spider Woman's cast.  In Playbill only three actors thank God.  Yet according to Mitchell, "There are at least nine actors in the show who are seriously religious:  Five or six will say they're Christian.  Two or three would call themselves spiritual."

Ditto for Miss Saigon, according to Arias, who insists "There is a lot of Christian family feeling backstage.  That doesn't mean we always talk about religion."  He pauses.  "Sometimes we do.  One subject that comes up repeatedly is the church's relationship to homosexuals."  (In the Saigon program, four actors acknowledge God).

Playbill itself includes a disclaimer in every program:  "We can not be held responsible for what actors say about anything," comments Botto.  "And, yes, we have received some letters of complaint from audience members who insist upon the separation of church and state in everything--including theater."

In the case of some companies--The National Actors Theater and Lincoln Center Theaters, for example--there's no way of using Playbill to judge how widespread religious feeling may be among the actors.  Using the British playbill bios as a model, the latter theaters allow their actors "to include only professional credits in our program," asserts Susan Chicoine, a Lincoln Center spokeswoman.  "We have large casts and are a non-profit theater.  Extra space in Playbill costs money."  Gary Springer, a spokesman for the National Actors Theater, echoes the sentiment.  "No, we've never had any conflict with an actor over this issue."

None of this means that actors appearing at Lincoln Center or the National Actors Theater are devoid of religious sentiment.  When I recently interviewed Brian Bedford, who played the title role in NAT's Timon of Athens, he talked about the giving of his gift in a religious context.  He likened it to an act of charity inspired by God.

And backstage religion is not limited to the Broadway scene, either.  One actress maintains that she has participated in prayer circles at the St. Louis Rep, Goodspeed, and the Henry Fonda Theater, among other regional theaters.  And in England, to this day, there are theater chaplains.

When I ask if actors are in fact more likely to be drawn to religious movements than the population at large, I get a range of answers.

Benson says absolutely not.  Artigas, on the other hand, believes that actors might be:  "They're more open-minded."

McGuire contends that "actors are more analytical than the population at large.  They're always dissecting their characters.  It's in the actors' makeup to need answers and look for them.  So it's not surprising that many have turned to religion."

An apparent non-believer, Melissa Errico (Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady) suggests that the upsurge of behind-the-scenes religion reflects, in part, the actors' love of theatricality and ritual.

"When I was in the touring company of Les Miz, one night someone in the cast said he was a Buddhist and started lighting candles.  The next night somebody else said he was a Buddhist and started lighting candles.  Then everyone was lighting candles.  No, there is no religious activity going on backstage in My Fair Lady.  As far as I know nobody in that cast is a freak."  Errico laughs uncomfortably and makes a self-effacing remark, acknowledging her blunt insensitivity.

She has not exactly been guilty of political incorrectness, but she's not exactly PC either.  This is a potentially grey area on both sides of the fence.  At times everyone feels, it appears, a little un-PC; although on the surface, there seems to be a live-and-let-live attitude all around.

But one musical comedy actress who does not want to be identified says she finds the religious trend "frightening" and the prayer circles turn her off--even if these are only shared moments of silence.  "And if someone like Gregory Hines or Tommy Tune is leading one, you have to be a participant if you're in the show.  It's like wearing those red AIDS awareness ribbons.  There's pressure to do so."

On the other hand, some religious actors are aware of being at odds with a theater world that is largely secular.  For the most part, religious shows aren't exactly hot properties and some have a positively anti-religious sensibility.  Of course, theater and religion were tightly entwined in ancient and medieval times, but more recently the theater has satirized religion and used it to denote hypocrisy.  McGuire admits that in some theatrical circles, voicing genuine religious feeling is not acceptable.  Artigas observes that she sometimes feels like "the odd man out," even in a cast with five actors acknowledging God in their Playbill bios.  Benson, however, doesn't care whether or not she's the only believer in the cast and shares her faith comfortably.  "I've rarely had a problem with that," she says.

On the emotionally charged topic of AIDS, many religious actors find themselves in a religious--if not political--bind.

All acknowledge the paradoxical position they're in:  How do they account for AIDS?  More to the point, how do they reconcile AIDS with their belief in a rational, if not benign, God/driving force?  And if they believe all events are "meant to be" does that also mean they believe there is ultimately perfect justice in the world, even if it's not immediately apparent?

"No, I don't think everything is just and fair," admits Rodriguez.  "And sometimes it's hard to reconcile tragedies, like AIDS, with my idea of a good guiding force.  I don't have the answer."

Says Benson:  "I don't know why God has allowed AIDS to occur.  But I do not think it's a punishment for unacceptable lifestyles, since people get AIDS through transfusions and babies are born with it.  It would be presumptuous for me to talk about God's judgment.  I do believe, however, that a faith in God is comforting and, through prayer, God's peace can come to those with AIDS."

Others are less ambivalent.

Notes Lewis:  "I believe that God has allowed AIDS to occur so that people will start thinking about promiscuity.  Unwanted pregnancies and herpes weren't enough to stop indiscriminate sex.  AIDS has done it.  AIDS has also helped bring back monogamy--caring for one person.  And it has brought people together to fight the disease," he continues.  "It has also opened the doors of understanding among people who may have very different lifestyles."

Les Miz's Fisher, an Orthodox Jew, remarks, "I believe AIDS is God-sent.  It's a punishment.  It's His way of telling us to get out of Sodom and Gomorrah and start behaving.  I know a lot of people will not be happy with what I've just said, but I stand by my position."

The Israeli-born Fisher is in fact a striking anomaly on Broadway.  He prays three times a day, wearing tallith (religious prayer shawls), kisses the mezuzah hanging on his dressing room door before each performance, and he does not work on the Sabbath.

It's the latter point that makes him especially unusual.  He is the first Broadway performer to be allowed to take off Friday nights and Saturday matinees--from a moneymaking standpoint, two of the most significant performances of the week.

Producer Richard Alexander has no regrets.  "Dudu is Jean Valjean.  I'd say he's got star quality, but that's not it either.  He's a walking soul and everyone in the cast feels that."

Alexander, who is Roman Catholic, is not sure that Fisher's demands could have been met in an earlier period.  "I certainly didn't plan my actions to coincide with the times.  But I think we're all so much more evolved now.  People are more in touch with their feelings.  And there's a serious belief in angels."

Fisher's story is all the more extraordinary because he had never worked as an actor until he appeared in the Israeli production of Les Miz.  He is a Yeshiva trained Orthodox cantor.

"I had never heard of Victor Hugh," Fisher recounts.  "But when I saw Les Miz in London, I felt this was the part for me.  Jean is a deeply religious man.  He believes God.  There is religion on every page of this play.  I believe God was pushing me towards this show."

Fisher admits the intensity of his religious convictions are not likely to be shared by other Jewish actors, although he hopes he has sat an example.  As a result of his presence, he suggests, a number of Jewish actors in Les Miz--who certainly didn't make a point of their Jewishness--have started thinking about it.

"I think they feel a new pride.  During Hanukka, I lit menorah candles backstage and served latkas to the whole cast.  Everybody now says 'Shabbat Sholem' or 'Gut Shabbos' to me.  And on the dressing room door, beneath the understudy's name, the stage manager, who is not Jewish, put up the sign, 'Shabbos Goy!'"  That term refers to a Christian who performs tasks on the Sabbath on behalf of a religious Jew who cannot perform them for himself.

Adds producer Alexander:  "My meeting Dudu has been a transformative experience for me.  I now want to go to Israel.  For Hanukkah, I bought Dud a silver dredyl from Tiffany's."

 
 

 

 
The Spiritual Theater