Church seeks revival with John Paul II, the musical

Michael Day
Friday 02 July 2010 00:00 BST

Mamma Mia certainly did the business in reviving Abba's worldwide reputation; now the Catholic Church is hoping a new, all-singing, all-dancing biography can do the same for John Paul II and his flock.

The posthumous reputation of the Polish pontiff appears to be at a crossroads. As the Vatican clears the way for his beatification, serious questions have emerged about John Paul's responsibility for the clerical paedophilia scandal that has exploded into the open in Europe this year.

Mounting cases of misconduct under the late Pope's watch have emerged, with abusive priests being moved to different dioceses rather than confronted over their actions. The late Pope's supporters, however, have no doubt about his saintliness, and they believe that celebrating his legacy can turn around the Church's fortunes – with the help, that is, of a few good tunes.

The show, Non Abbiate Paura, takes its name from the rallying cry "Don't be Afraid" oft employed by John Paul during his time in St Peter's, and attempts to chart the 84 years of his life in two short hours. According to Don Giuseppe Spedicato, the parish priest from Lecce who wrote the script, the musical will "by focusing on the most beloved Pontiff of recent times... be a reminder of all that is good about the Church".

It is not all organ music and choirboys. To pull in the crowds, there are songs from home favourite Giuni Russo, an Italian blend of Grace Jones, Dusty Springfield and Cliff Richard. John Paul II doubtless appreciated the religious songs of her later years even if he didn't approve of her sexual ambiguity. And there are other populist touches, including rap music and Fame-style dance routines, leading the theatre critic of Italy's business daily Il Sole 24 Ore to pronounce the show "pure pop". It is perhaps an appropriate tribute to the man, often dubbed "the rock star Pope", whose death in 2005 drew 3million people to Rome to pay their respects.

Don Spedicato is definitely not complaining about the epithet. "John Paul II loved young people and connected with them. He was also a fan of music so I thought music would make the play more inclusive." But there is a serious point to all the singing and dancing, he adds. "Today so many of us live in fear: in fear of others, of failure, of terrorism. That's why his message – 'I'm not afraid' – is so important."

The musical extravaganza faithfully charts John Paul's life, from his childhood in Poland as Karol Wojtyla, experiencing both Nazi occupation and Communist dictatorship, followed by his ascent into the Church, via a brief flirtation with acting, culminating in the white smoke that made him Pope in 1978. It, of course, trumpets John Paul's stands against war and totalitarianism, and naturally avoids any mention of his extremely conservative views on abortion or homosexuality.

Art critics have focused on the scene in which he meets his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot him in 1981. In the prison meeting, there is a theological duet where John Paul counters the Turkish gunmen's nihilist message "God is dead" with the refrain "God is reborn".

After press previews in Rome, the play heads to Lecce this month, before returning to the capital for a full season in the autumn.

Its director, Gianluca Ferrato, is confident about the box-office prospects – and not just with the faithful. "This play is very much for a general audience. It is for men, women, black people, white people, for everyone. This is a universal message."

Vatican watchers, including Sandro Magister of L'Espresso, magazine have expressed doubt whether the play will repair the damage that's been done to the late Pope's reputation after the global paedophilia scandal. But Don Spedicato is defiant. "If I were writing the play today after this year's events, I wouldn't change a thing," he said.

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