When Scripture Meets the Stage Happily: After Ever

Back in the 1970’s I served as co–director of Willowbrook Ministries, an innovative interreligious storefront ministry at Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, NJ. We used various educational, social justice and artistic techniques to address issues that were emerging in sprawling suburbia in the final decades of the 20th century. We developed a theatrical technique – ensemble improvisation - to move (mostly “troubled”) young people toward self–empowerment. Not just a therapeutic exercise, we also created quality, engaging theatre.

Our work resulted in three improvisational musical comedies that toured the greater metropolitan area and ended up in off–Broadway showcase runs. One of these shows was based on the obscure Book of Tobit, an allegorical tale written in the second century BCE and still used in some Jewish wedding services today.

Fast forward to 2019. Almost four years ago, I received a call from my co–collaborator at the time, Rev. Cliff Aerie — an ordained minister and a professional jazz musician (sax) — with whom I continued to work over the years and who now lives in St. Louis. Cliff wondered if we might reconfigure Tobit for today’s audience, using jazz as the primary musical genre and a similar improvisational technique that we used all those years ago to create our narrative. We organized a dozen creative friends in March 2020 for an initial brainstorm. Then Covid struck.

Disappointed but not deterred, we decided to pursue this anyway — on Zoom. With the assistance of a core group of eight and after approximately 200 Zoom calls, we created Happily After Ever, a full–length musical that is nearing completion. Cliff wrote the music and I worked with others on the book and lyrics.

Beginning as a labor of love, the show is now poised for a deft professional finishing touch to help realize our goal of a sustained New York City theatrical run. We have scheduled four “workshop performances” in October—in Montclair, NJ on October 7 and 8 and at the Palisades Presbyterian Church on October 27 and 28.

Seeking to connect this theatrical effort with other initiatives in both Montclair and Palisades, half the proceeds from ticket sales will go toward establishing community arts initiatives in the two communities that will host our October performances. Rev. Erin Moore, Pastor of the Palisades Church, is in discussion with community leaders about launching such an initiative in the spring. Stay tuned!

Loosely based on the ancient book of Tobit (with a contemporary twist or two), the Happily After Ever narrative features two young women who embark upon a journey of self–discovery and shatter oppressive social conventions along the way. The show addresses contemporary issues including women’s empowerment, LGBTQ justice and the refugee crisis. An eclectic, jazz– based musical score is filled with memorable melodies, making Happily After Ever an uplifting, hope–filled experience for these perilous times.

Bringing this show to this stage of development requires that we move well beyond the romantic notion of simply creating a new musical and enter into the hotly competitive world of commercial entertainment. We have engaged a professional company (eleven in the cast, five musicians, four directors), opened a bank account, built a website, www.happilyaftereverthemusical.com, and secured the services of internationally known fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas, which allows us to receive tax–deductible contributions.

There is a timelessness to the story we tell in Happily After Ever. The show opens with a storyteller (akin to the African Griot) who decrees, jembe in hand, “The call of the storyteller summons the community — across cultures, across generations — to inform or inspire, to challenge assumptions or reveal the truth. So, with our story. It is set in any place — and this place; in any time, for all time, but especially for this time.”

As the Griot proclaims, despite the show’s inspiration having been written centuries ago, Happily After Ever is an essential, uplifting theatre–going experience for today’s fragile world. Its core message is for every age, including our own, and is perhaps best expressed in the last verse of the show’s finale, as the entire company sings:

The road begins with dignity
For everyone you meet
Then add a touch of humor
And taste the potion sweet.
To make an ever better world
And see it all come true
Is the journey of a lifetime
And the road that we must choose.

I hope you can join us on October 27 or 28!