June 18, 2024 // Diocese

New Musical Brings Christ’s Eucharistic Love to the Stage

‘Behold God’s Love’ to Debut in South Bend as Part of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage

On Saturday, July 6, at O’Laughlin Auditorium on the campus of Saint Mary’s College, local artists will debut “Behold God’s Love: A Eucharistic Musical.” Sponsored by Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, the musical’s book, music, and lyrics were written by Carolyn Pirtle, Program Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, in honor of the National Eucharistic Congress.

The musical contains three acts through which scenes from salvation history unfold. In Act I, entitled “Root,” the giving of manna in the desert to is reenacted as a Jewish family celebrates Passover. “It’s the anticipation of the Eucharist,” Pirtle said. “Act I focuses on the Exodus story, and especially the gift of the manna in the desert, which for a Christian is a type or a prefigurement of the Eucharist. And the root is as essential to the life of the vine as the vine is. Without the root, you can’t have the vine. I wanted to remind the audience of that and to really highlight the continuity between Old and New Testament and early Church.”

There will be two performances – at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 6. The event is free but ticketed. For more information, and to reserve tickets, visit mcgrath.nd.edu/events.

Act II, “Vine,” depicts the Last Supper. “Within that context,” Pirtle told Today’s Catholic, “there are moments when an apostle will step out of the Last Supper scene, speak directly to the audience, and share a memory of another meal that they had with Jesus.” These meals include dining at the home of Zacchaeus, with Mary and Martha, and the feeding of the 5,000. As each meal is recalled, it comes to life before the audience.

Act III, “Branches,” features Paul within the Christian community at Corinth where he joins a group gathered in the home of Aquila and Priscilla for a domestic church celebration of the Lord’s Day (or Eucharist). After listening to questions regarding the Eucharist, Paul recounts the story of Jesus teaching in the Capernaum synagogue, as recorded in John’s Gospel, and then unpacks Jesus’ words with those gathered. In writing the scene, Pirtle said: “I was drawn to Corinth as a setting for Act III because it’s in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians where we get his version of the institution narrative: ‘I received from the Lord that which I now hand on to you that the Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread,’ etc. And so Paul gets to sing those words on stage as Jesus stands behind him as a visual representation of the mystery of in persona Christi (in the person of Christ).”

Sources of Inspiration

The title of the play was inspired by Brant Pitre’s book, “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper.”

“In the book, Pitre describes a ritual that took place during the Jewish feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles: The priests in the Temple would bring the Bread of the Presence out from the Holy Place; then, they would elevate it before the gathered people, proclaiming, ‘Behold, God’s love for you,’” Pirtle said. “This phrase anchors the final song in each act of the musical triptych. Again and again, the audience is invited to behold the love God has shown them throughout salvation history – first in the covenant with the people of Israel, then in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and now, in the age of the Church, when we receive God’s very life in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist.”

In writing the score, Pirtle was heavily influenced by Broadway musicals (such as “Les Misérables” and the works of Stephen Sondheim) and films from Disney’s “Renaissance” period (1989-99).

“Musical theatre really is a uniquely American idiom,” Pirtle said. “There’s something so joyous about it, and so many iconic songs that have been written for Broadway musicals or Disney films that have really stood the test of time. It’s a musical vocabulary that’s immediately recognizable and accessible to people, and that also helps tell the story of Scripture in a new and exciting way.”

Meet the Cast

Although it was originally attached to the National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis, due to difficulties in securing a venue, the decision was made to stage the production during the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage instead, premiering when pilgrims on the Marian Route will reach South Bend.

Finding the cast was not a quick process, especially when it came to finding enough men to fill the 14 male roles. But the Lord worked in wonderful ways, drawing together the right group of people to put on this play.

Several cast members play multiple roles, which was an intentional choice when casting the same actor to play Moses and Jesus – a choice meant to underscore the typology between the two.

“Robert-Michael Havard is our Moses and Jesus,” Pirtle said. “He was recommended to me by a friend of mine who is director of music at St. Monica Parish, Jessica Roberts, and she’s also in our cast, too; she’s our Priscilla.”

Pirtle saw Havard’s musical skills and temperament as well-suited to playing Jesus.

“Robert-Michael has recorded albums and sings all over the place,” Pirtle said. “He sings in Jessica’s choir, but he also has a budding career as a vocalist of contemporary Christian music and gospel music. … And he has this kind of warmth to his personality. He’s pretty soft-spoken as a person, but he also has this humor and joy that I imagine Jesus had Himself.”

Jen Havard, Robert-Michael’s mother, will be playing Mary.

“She has this maternal, earthy-mom sense, where she can see through the nonsense,” Pirtle said. “She’s a person of integrity, where she can carry that tenderness and that warmth, but also that strength and that confidence that is just utterly grounded. She knows who she is, and she just stands in who she is. I think that’s why we gravitated toward her for Mary. The fact that she’s actually Robert-Michael’s mother is just a bonus. It’s an awesome bonus, but they were both the right people for those roles.”

In addition to the Havard duo, a husband and wife will portray Cleopas and his wife in Act III, and a sibling pair will portray the Jewish children in Act I.

“And Paul is being played by a Holy Cross priest,” Pirtle shared. Holy Cross Father Gabriel Griggs will play both James and Paul.

“It’s amazing; it’s just these little things. … The layers of meaning of having the priest be the one singing the words of institution in a musical about the Eucharist. … That was nothing I ever could have planned in my life. That, I think, just speaks to the gratuity of grace. I didn’t set out to cast a priest in the role of Paul. Father Gabe was the right voice for Paul.”

Pirtle recalls when she first encountered Father Griggs at Mass: “This young priest walked out to celebrate the Mass, and he sang the greeting, and I thought, ‘Who are you, and how do I get you in my show?’”

Father Griggs’s recent experiences have uniquely enabled him to relate to Paul, he said.

“I was the rector of a dorm of about 270 young men for three years, a ministry that involved a lot of late nights, a lot of unexpected things coming up,” Father Griggs told Today’s Catholic. “It was kind of a little community, and I preached very regularly to that community: daily Masses as well as every other Sunday. And something that really clicked from that experience with Paul’s letters is thinking about how, when you really know a community because you’ve spent so much time with them, how much easier it is to preach to them, and how the way in which you preach changes. Because you’re preaching from your own personal example, and you’re also preaching from intimate knowledge of their concerns.”

Contemplating Scripture

Of the production, Father Griggs said: “I think that the musical style helps bring out
some of the very human moments in it, particularly elements of humor, and that’s something we don’t exactly see in any liturgical text. It’s a very formal kind of text. And it’s important to recognize that Jesus had a sense of humor. … Now, I’m not saying that that means we should be very casual with the liturgy,” he noted, before adding: “In my mind, yeah, Jesus had a sense of humor. Jesus also went to temple and practiced very high forms of liturgy. And it’s perfectly reasonable to have both.”

Case in point: The song during the feeding of the 5,000 has become affectionately renamed “the Muppet Song” by the cast, due to its tone of light-hearted whimsy. Pirtle finds that rather fitting.

“It’s a joyous, sort of exuberant, I mean – imagine that you’re there, right?” she said. “And all of a sudden there’s enough food for 5,000 people. That’s ridiculous, and amazing, and like, ‘What just happened?’ … I think having music that’s more lighthearted invites a sense of childlike whimsy and wonder that I hope audiences will be open to and delighted by.”

Watching the scenes come alive has brought unexpected nuances to Pirtle’s own experiences of Scripture. Seeing Peter Mueller portray Andrew, she said that “it’s almost prayerful, really. … Andrew narrates the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, because in John’s Gospel, he’s the one who brings the little boy to Jesus. Peter is just embodying Andrew so authentically and so completely. And it is just so moving to me. I forget that I’m the one who wrote the words and the music, and I’m able to kind of receive it as a gift because of the level of prayerfulness that he’s bringing to his performance. … It’s deeply moving to me. I’m really excited for people to see these people inhabit these characters that loom so large in our imagination, to put flesh and bones on these people who we only know in the spiritual sense. … It’s special to see these things in a different sort of incarnational way.”

“I think I recognized that the audience didn’t need me to interpret the Scriptures for them,” Pirtle said. “What they needed, and I think what I needed as much as anybody, was an opportunity to simply contemplate the Scriptures.”

Pirtle continued: “Based on how I’ve seen the Spirit operating throughout this whole process, from writing to workshop to revision and now casting and moving through the production, I’m hopeful that people will come away from this having had an encounter with the Scriptures that was perhaps unlike anything they’ve ever had before.”

There will be two performances – at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 6. The event is free but ticketed. For more information, and to reserve tickets, visit mcgrath.nd.edu/events.

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