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New onstage in Rome: a singing Pope John Paul II

Two priests have written a musical about the late pontiff that they hope would burnish his image. It covers the highs and lows of his life, with a little dancing along the way.

June 21, 2010|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • The premiere of "Non Abbiate Paura" ("Don't Be Afraid") at the Teatro Italia in Rome. The musical was written by two priests.
The premiere of "Non Abbiate Paura" ("Don't Be Afraid")… (Guido Montani / European…)

Reporting from Rome — A pope, let's face it, has certain built-in limitations as a main character in a musical (see: Celibacy, rule of). If for only that reason, Andrew Lloyd Webber probably has little to fear from the latest musical to open in Rome: a three-hour marathon about the life of the late John Paul II.

But "Non Abbiate Paura" ("Be Not Afraid"), which recently had a two-night run before a longer return in the fall, does offer a passion and reverence for its subject that the opening night audience clearly appreciated.

You might expect as much from a play by two Roman Catholic priests, Giuseppe Spedicato and Biagio Mandorino, who took their title from an exhortation by Jesus that John Paul frequently repeated.

The timing is auspicious, with the legacy of John Paul, perhaps the most significant and beloved pontiff of the last century, taking something of a battering in recent months, even as the Vatican considers sainthood for him, which seems almost certain.

The widening of the Catholic sex abuse scandal to Germany, Italy and elsewhere has exposed more cases of misconduct that occurred under John Paul's watch, often without significant consequences for the abusive priests or their supervising bishops.

Even more damaging has been the case of Father Marcial Maciel, the Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ. As the story of Maciel has unraveled, it has revealed a crafty pedophile, womanizer and drug abuser who found a friend and champion in John Paul, even after tales of the priest's double life began to emerge. The Vatican recently denounced Maciel, who died in 2008.

"His image doesn't improve because of this," said Sandro Magister, a leading Vatican watcher with the Italian newspaper L'Espresso, referring to the pope with wry understatement. The revelations, he said, will help shape a "more realistic view of John Paul II, more realistic and less mythologized."

The authors of "Be Not Afraid" don't exactly see their work as mythologizing, but they want to do their part to cement John Paul's image as a great and deeply spiritual man.

"I wanted it to be a kind of musical icon that would make the texts of John Paul II emerge to the greatest of their potential," said Mandorino, the composer.

Spedicato, who wrote the play, said he was especially interested in burnishing John Paul's reputation as a spiritual guide to young people. He consciously assembled a young cast.

"This musical, filled with young talent, shows that when young people come together they are able to create something extraordinary," he said, "and the secret, really, is that all of them are in love with John Paul II."

The play reprises the familiar contours of John Paul's life: his childhood as Karol Wojtyla in Poland; his experiences living under Nazi occupation and communist dictatorship; his youthful fling as an actor and playwright; his decision to enter the priesthood; his ascent in the Roman Catholic hierarchy and ultimate election as pope in 1978.

It hits some of the highs and lows of his pontificate: the nearly continuous world travel; his strong stands against war and violence; the nearly successful assassination attempt against him in 1981, in which he was shot four times by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.

One of the stranger scenes of the play involves the pope's famous meeting with Agca in prison in 1983. In the musical, Agca complains to John Paul, "I've never missed from so close," and the two eventually break into a duet.

Agca decries the path of his life, "down roads which lead nowhere, following dreams that lead to madness." His voice rising, he sings, "I'm tired of civilization … and God is dead. God is dead in the extermination camps, God is dead in the political parties, God is dead."

To which John Paul counters, "God is reborn.... God is reborn in the world that will come, God is reborn."

"Be Not Afraid" has some catchy tunes, a little dancing and a love interest, although the future pope announces fairly early on that he's leaving her for someone else.

"I'm in love with the Lord," he explains.

The play doesn't emphasize John Paul's theological and political positions, which refocused the church's opposition to abortion, suppressed left-leaning liberation theology and encouraged the restlessness in Eastern Europe that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Writing in the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore, critic Damiano Laterza called the show "entirely pop," which he meant as a compliment. "After all," he said, "the globe-trotter pope was often compared to a star of mass entertainment."

The show's producers are hoping they can bring the musical to the pope's summer residence outside Rome, Castel Gandolfo, for a performance for the current pope, Benedict XVI. A spokesman for the Vatican said he hadn't heard of the play and didn't know whether Benedict would be seeing it.

Spedicato, who is a parish priest in the Puglia region of southern Italy, said he personally promised "Giovanni Paulo," as Italians call John Paul, that he would write a musical about him.

Of his play, he said, "I think the title, 'Be Not Afraid,' is the most beautiful and concrete message that John Paul II left in the history of humanity. Today, unfortunately, many men suffer from anxiety, egoism, envy and jealousy, and many fears. And so the message of John Paul II is to let yourself be guided by Christ and to open your heart to hope."

Including the hope, perhaps, of some boffo box-office numbers.

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