Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

The Story of Bread for the World's Original Musical 'Lazarus'

Lazarus-poster-small-versionBy Sarah Godfrey

In 1986, Rev.  Joel Underwood, then a Bread for the World staffer, decided to take a sabbatical, but wondered how he would fill those months. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and [Bread for the World founder] Art Simon said, ‘Do what you’ve always wanted to do, but never could,’” Underwood recalls. “I said ‘I want to do a musical.’ He said I should write one on hunger and poverty, and I said ‘Well, gee whiz, why not?’”

Underwood says what immediately popped into his mind was the parable about the rich man and the poor man in Luke 16:19-31. 

“When I went home that evening, I went through that passage with the idea to see how many song titles I could create out of that story,” he recalls. He came up with 21 titles, 19 of which would be used for his musical, Lazarus. “It all fell right into place.”

Lazarus was designed to lift up the problem of hunger, and also be fun to perform, Underwood says. The plan worked: after its 1986 premiere at Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre, the piece (written by Underwood, with music arranged by Louise F. Carlson and Sam V. Nickels) would go on to be performed thousands of times across the globe: in the United States, El Salvador, Australia, India, Egypt, and other countries.

At Bread for the World’s 2013 National Gathering, Lazarus will be performed yet again, this time as a completely reworked, updated version of the original. The new Lazarus debuts Saturday, June 8, at 7 p.m. at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C.

“When Joel left, [Lazarus] went by the wayside, but I still saw potential in it,” says Bishop Don diXon Williams, Bread’s associate of African-American church relationships. “If we are talking about being grounded in God’s love and having different resources and ways to get people to become involved in hunger issues and advocacy, to me nothing reaches out more than the arts, than music.”


Williams’ idea was to update the music, while preserving the original words.  In 2012, he brought the idea to Bread’s managing director, Alice Walker Duff. “I wrote her a note telling her about Lazarus, what it was—a folk opera, really—and that I thought it was something we should revive, provided we get the music redone. When she read it, it immediately resonated—she really liked the idea, and then we went from there."

He contacted Underwood, who was thrilled that Bread wanted to revive the musical, and then phoned Dr. Bill Cummings, a well-known music director and also his childhood friend. “He got excited and he started immersing himself in it,” Williams says.  

Cummings wrote 26 songs in about six weeks. “Music has changed since the debut of Lazarus, and I wanted to make sure that the melodic and harmonic structure felt contemporary—from the very first song, ‘The Ballad of Lazarus,’ to the last, ‘Mustard Seed Faith,’” Cummings wrote in a recent Bread newsletter article.  “For weeks I studied it with passion.”

(For a sample of the music from the new Lazarus, visit www.bread.org/lazarus)

 “It’s not just amazing—it’s a miracle,” says Williams. It also is a story similar to how the first Lazarus came to be; Underwood banged out the original songs at a similar pace.   

“I had moved from New Jersey, where can drive as fast as you want, to Maryland, where we’d moved when Bread relocated to D.C.  I racked up a whole bunch of tickets and I did have my license taken away from me for one month—and it happened to be one of the months of my sabbatical,” Underwood says. 

In addition to Cummings, the 2013 musical and production team includes Emmy Award-winning producer and composer Rickey Payton; Glenn Pearson, musical director; Ronald Lee Newman, stage manager; Tevin Phifer, production manager; and Felicia Kessel Crawley, vocal director. “It’s a dynamite group,” says Williams.    

The original music was diverse—including “a dirge, hymn, a Gregorian chant, and even a Broadway show tune,” says Underwood. And the music in the new version is similarly eclectic. “We have some blues, some jazz, some du-wop, some gospel—It’s going to be a real mixture,” says Williams.

And although the musical hasn’t had its premiere yet, Williams knows its message will resonate, as it has already touched the members of the multicultural cast and choir. “I’ve been talking to them about the issues, giving them a foundation on why we’re doing this, and the importance of what they’re doing,” he says. “And I’ve invited them to the National Gathering—while they’re doing the play, they can see what else is going on, and go with us up on the Hill to lobby.”

Saturday’s presentation of Lazarus is completely sold out, but National Gathering attendees without tickets are welcome to view a simulcast of the performance in the Mead Center’s Kogod Cradle Theater. And there may be other opportunities to see it as well— all involved in the musical say its reach won’t end with the June 8 performance.  They hope churches will take the materials and put on their own versions, as was done with the original. “We will be trying to come up with a strategy to bring Lazarus to other places,” says Williams. “There was a lot of work between the idea and the reality, but it’s a wonderful thing to watch it become a reality.”

Sarah Godfrey is Bread for the World's associate online editor.

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