The musical comedy “Altar Boyz,” a satirical take on praise music, imagines a world in which Christian music embraced the boy band explosion of the late ’90s and early 2000s.
With its catchy-yet-campy pop music, themes of inclusion and the examination of the thorny question of whom God loves and whom he rejects, it’s a perfect fit for Pandora Productions.
Insider caught up with Cameron Conners, the actor playing the boy band’s lead singer Matthew, and Mark Stein, the co-producer and assistant director. We covered the topics of inclusion and respect, as well as using interfaith community connections to try to get the word out about the show.
“Altar Boys” was an off-Broadway hit. The musical comedy, with music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker and book by Kevin Del Aguila, ran for five years, with a total of 2,032 performances.
“I saw this musical comedy about 10 years ago in New York, and it kicked my butt,” said Stein. “I’ve acted previously and directed previously and acted up all the time. So as I saw this political era evolve, starting a couple of years ago, I thought this show is really important.”
Stein is Jewish by heritage and Buddhist by practice, and his feelings on religion are wrapped up with his feelings about this play.
“It’s irreverent, but not in a mean way,” he explained. “It’s all about inclusion, compassion, all the things Christianity is about and all religions are about but sometimes don’t live up to.”
Religious stories have been big in the musical community for decades, but there is often a debate on whether specific treatments are straight-faced, satirical or even mean-spirited.
For instance, it’s hard to listen to “Hasa Diga Eebowai” from “The Book of Mormon” without hearing a cutting, hard edge to its look at faith. But what about “Herod’s Song” in “Jesus Christ Superstar”? It’s definitely hard on Herod, but isn’t he the bad guy?
On the other side of the spectrum, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is so earnest, it could probably do a churches-only tour.
Conners feels “Altar Boys” is closer to the “Technicolor Dreamcoat” end of that spectrum.
“When I perform, I don’t set out to divide my audience,” said Conners. “If it’s humor that’s done in a clever way, that goes far enough to poke fun but doesn’t go far enough to offend everyone, I think that’s a delicate balance. And when it’s done well, it’s hilarious.”
Respect and disrespect isn’t just a matter of text. To put it another way, it’s not all in the book. Or the lyrics.
“In order for this show to work, the boys have to believe, they have to be respectful. Or the show doesn’t work,” said Stein.
Lyrics are always up to performer interpretation, and words can mean lots of things — it’s what actors call subtext.
A line from the show’s opening number, “We Are the Altar Boyz,” provides a perfect example: Now we don’t believe in hurting or hating/Cause that’s the kind of stuff that leads to Satan.
That can be a condemnation of hate speech in religion, or it can be an explanation of the dangers of wrath, one of the seven deadly sins.
One’s response to that line might be rooted in the tenets and doctrines of a person’s sect or religion. “Altar Boyz” includes several sects and two religions, which suggests its message about love and inclusion is sincere.
Stein used this interfaith message to reach out to local faith communities whose beliefs match up with those inclusive themes.
“We offered a promo code to probably 70 organizations in the city,” he said. “I went to all the groups I thought would embrace the show — the progressive groups like the Center for Interfaith Relations, Interfaith Paths to Peace, all the progressive churches I could reach. The Episcopalians have really embraced it, as well as the Unitarians.”
Pandora also is trying to jump-start discussions based around the play’s questions, and questions about the play, by hosting post-show parties.
“I think people are going to want to talk about it,” said Stein. “We’re doing two cast parties where we invite the audience to join us. Center for Interfaith Relations talked about having a talk after one of the shows, but I think people are going to want to talk to the actors and each other.”
Questions about representations of faith and religion in theater won’t be answered by Pandora’s “Altar Boyz.” Discussions, praise and outrage on the subject will continue long after the show’s four-week run ends. But you have to check out the show if you want to be well-versed on the issues pertinent to this chapter of that conversation.
“Altar Boyz” runs from Aug. 3-24 at the Henry Clay Theatre, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $25.