God doesn't always play well on Broadway

The big success of "The Book of Mormon" contrasts which with the "The Testament of Mary" which closes its limited run a little early even though it has been nominated for a Tony. When is God a smash on Broadway and when is the divine a cosmic flop?

Sarah Pullam Baily explores the question in the Wall Street Journal:

But theater presents different challenges. "Hollywood is in the business of catching lightning in a bottle twice," says Jonathan Bock, president of Grace Hill Media, a marketing firm that has helped several Hollywood studios target religious audiences. "With movies, you can toe-dip with small releases or direct to DVD. On Broadway, you swing and hit or miss."

The Broadway shows about religion that have been the most successful are the less-than-reverent ones. "Book of Mormon," a musical about two young missionaries in Uganda, won nine Tony Awards and continues to draw huge crowds. Even though the play is a parody of its religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has attempted to capitalize on its success, placing advertisements in the playbills.

"Book of Mormon" follows the 1970s success of "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," shows that initially drew criticism for how they portrayed Jesus, yet became ingrained in theater culture. But even edgy looks at religion don't guarantee sustained crowds: A revival of "Godspell" played for only eight months last year while "Jesus Christ Superstar" lasted four months in 2012.

Of course, in the 1970's, "Godspell" and "Superstar" were ground-breaking. But in a world where you can walk into a church organized like a rock-concert, perhaps the shows appeared pretty boring.

It may be that theater imitates life: that religious themes succeed when they an organic part of the story. In other words, don't try so hard.

"You can't play to the choir with Broadway," says Christopher Smith, a writer for the show. "It is a mistake to market in any religious way where you're pigeonholing people, saying, 'Let's get the Christians in the seats.'"

Indeed, shows like "Les Misérables" that present faith-related themes subtly are the most successful at blending religion and art, says Tom Allen, a partner in Allied Faith & Family, a Hollywood marketing firm that aims to attract churchgoers to movies and now theater.

"In either incarnation, 'Les Mis' was not approached as a 'religious show' or 'religious movie,'" Mr. Allen says. "It showcased grace, hope and self-sacrifice, religious themes that resonate with the human heart. Religion has to be more organically woven into the content."

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