New Music(al): The Unusual Tale of Mary & Joseph’s Baby

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Sometimes the Christmas story almost sounds like the start of a joke, “A pregnant Jewish virgin and her husband knock on the door of an inn.” It seems crazy. That’s because it is. It’s a crazy story. So when New York City playwright, Chris Cragin Day and I decided to try re-telling this age-old story, we wanted a medium equally crazy, a medium where, say, people burst into song during heightened emotions. Yep. A musical. It’s called The Unusual Tale of Mary & Joseph’s Baby, and we’ve launched a Kickstarter to help fund not one but two productions of it–one in NYC, one in Knoxville, TN.

In Nasvhille, in 2014, Chris (my co-writer from my first musical, Son of a Gun) stayed with our family while she and I knocked out our first draft of the story of Jesus’s mother and stepfather in only nine days. The songs and scenes just kept coming, twelve hours a day. It was a rare burst of creative energy born of a shared passion for this story and this way of telling it.

Germany has lots of trees, but Israel has lots of rocks. Israeli builders were stonemasons. So, I guess someone needs to order the “My boss is a Jewish stonemason” bumper stickers.

Don Chaffer

That October, we had a reading of the show in Knoxville, where a friend reported her mother’s assesment to us afterward, “I loved Son of a Gun, but when I first heard Don & Chris were doing a Mary & Joseph musical, I thought, ‘Oh Gawd,’” and the pitch of her voice dropped, as she dragged out the word “Gawd,” in a way that says spare me. “But when I saw it, I was in, couldn’t wait to see what happened next. They pulled it off!” A director friend said something similar, “When I read the script, I had to remind myself who I was reading about. It all felt so new and different.”

Okay, I know. I’m bragging, but I’m also trying to combat a disease. This story suffers from widespread AIAMS (Away In A Manger Syndrome). The original story has been so domesticated, so smoothed over and commercialized for so long now that the reality of it is almost on life support. But we still think there’s a story worth telling in there.

For example, did you know that Joseph wasn’t a carpenter? Nope, he was a stonemason. Apparently, Martin Luther is to blame for that. In the original Greek, Joseph is a “builder” and since German builders are carpenters, Luther called him a carpenter. However, Germany has lots of trees, but Israel has lots of rocks. Israeli builders were stonemasons. So, I guess someone needs to order the “My boss is a Jewish stonemason” bumper stickers.

Secondly, consider Joseph hearing the news. He’s engaged to Mary, whom he presumes is a virgin, but she turns up pregnant, and tells him the baby is God’s. Whew. That’s tough. Not only does he fear that the woman he loves is unfaithful, she may also be crazy. Still Joseph plans to end the engagement, and arrange for Mary’s exile, a mercy compared to death by stoning, which was called for in the extreme religious laws of the day. So, what changes his mind? A dream. In a dream, an angel confirms Mary’s crazy story. It’s one little dream between Mary and a potential death sentence.

Then there’s Herod, the psychopath ruler Rome installed over Israel, who was so paranoid about retaining his power that once, when he heard a rumoured assassination plot, he rounded up hundreds of Jerusalem’s rabbis and told his men that if someone succeeds in assassinating him, kill all the rabbis. One way or another, he told them, “I will have all of Israel mourn my death.”

So, obviously the show is a comedy. Seriously. Someone spilled the beans about Mary’s pregnancy to Joseph, right? Enter Benjamin, fictional cousin and fellow stonemason who lets the news slip on the job site in the song “Eggplant Casserole.” There’s Naphtali, the Shepherd, who arrives early, while Mary’s still in labor, and tries to calm Joseph’s nerves with his “Birthing Checklist for Sheep and/or Fathers” an effort plagued by the shepherd’s questionable ability to distinguish between sheep and humans. And of course, at the heart of it is a pair of common, sleep-deprived young parents, trying to figure out how to care for a very special baby boy.

A lot of people who write musicals never get to see a production, so Chris and I feel very forunate that The Unusual Tale of Mary & Joseph’s Baby, already has two productions planned for later this year: one at the Fringe Festival in NYC this August, and one at River & Rail Theatre in Knoxville, TN this winter. However, producing theater is both difficult and expensive. Most theaters, including Firebone Theatre, who will produce at the FringeNYC, and River & Rail, who will produce in Knoxville, are non-profit, and rely on benefactors to make their shows happen. That’s why we mounted a kickstarter to help them. All we need is for people like you to join in.

[Editor’s note: the Kickstarter campaign is also going to produce a new Waterdeep album (not to mention t-shirts and other cool stuff). Check out the campaign page here for all the details.]


1 Comment

  1. Matt Garner

    @mattgarner

    Very cool, Don. I know the Fringe well. Crazy process but very rewarding as I’m sure you know. Keep us tucked in if a Nashville production pops up in the mix. Would love to see it.

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