Longtime DCPA composer Gary Grundei leads a community gospel choir in Boulder that does not require its members to believe in any specific religious precepts. All comers are welcome to sing out as a powerful means of spiritual reflection and contemplation. “At its best, I believe that church is a place to participate,” Grundei said, “especially when you don’t have to have everything all figured out.”
Which sounds a bit like Lucas Hnath’s highly acclaimed The Christians, one of the most-produced plays in the American theatre this season. Set in an “actual” 18,000-seat megachurch service, this provocative new play is the story of an evangelical pastor who comes to question a basic tenet of his faith – and his changing perspective will prove challenging to his tens of thousands of followers.
“When music works to maximum effect in a church service, I think it gives you a chance to consider big questions in a way that is not necessarily linear or rational,” said Grundei. “It gives you the space to sit with it in your body, ear, and voice. The music I am drawn to in church doesn’t necessarily tell you what to think or feel in a dogmatic way. When you sing those phrases over and over again, there’s room for you to have it mean something a little different each time or change as you’re singing it. I find that to be a very rich experience.”
The Christians will feature live music at every performance from an 11-member praise band made up of eight singers and three musicians. The score of known contemporary gospel and traditional spirituals, including “God’s Unchanging Hand” and “Farther Along,” will be arranged by Grundei, who has spent most of his 20 years with the DCPA Theatre Company composing original underscoring for homegrown productions such as the Plainsong Trilogy.
“We are definitely going to church with this play,” said Grundei, who was also the choir director at Parker United Methodist Church for two years. “We haven’t determined yet how participatory it will be. But honestly, my hope is to get some of the audience to participate.‘’
The DCPA describes The Christians as “an intimate look at the moments that define who we are and what we believe.” Grundei says the play is respectful to people of faith, and opens a two-way ideological dialogue that proves relevant to anyone who has ever questioned something they believe in, whether they are a person of faith or not.
Video bonus: Chicago Mass Choir’s take on ‘God’s Unchanging Hand’
“Honestly, I really love this play,” Grundei said. “It is beautifully written. It brings such sensitivity to progressive ways of thinking about a spiritual life. And it offers a really smart perspective on what it’s like for someone who is going along on the spiritual path and is now struggling with whether to lose some of the dogma he has been taught. I tend toward not telling folks exactly what to believe, but rather let’s steep ourselves in the tradition of stories that have wisdom and stories and music.”
Grundei first came to the Denver Center to design sound for A Servant of Two Masters in 1997. He has a band called High Fictions and teaches music at Naropa University in Boulder. He is also the co-creator of Bar Choir, a kind of flash mob of melody-makers who take over hipster bars once a month by breaking into songs by artists ranging from Pat Benatar to the White Stripes to Prince. Grundei’s wife is actor Meridith C. Grundei (pictured right), whose recent DCPA credits include Sweet and Lucky and Frankenstein.
Here is more of our conversation:
John Moore: How big would a real praise band be in a megachurch that’s the size of the one represented in The Christians?
Gary Grundei: The church in our play has a huge choir of 100 or so, but they are not there this day. Today, when we stop in on the story, there is instead this small worship choir made up of eight very talented and enthusiastic singers.
John Moore: What is the role of a praise band in an actual large community church service with as many as 18,000 people in attendance?
Gary Grundei: Our job at the beginning of the service is to raise the energy of the people gathered, get them on their feet and get them participating in the service. We’ll see if anyone in the congregation wants to sing along or not.
John Moore: What’s different when you are putting together a band for a church service as opposed to a band to play for a live musical in a theatre?
Gary Grundei: For The Christians, we are looking for musicians who really understand contemporary and gospel music. In a traditional musical, you read charts that tell you exactly what to play. We’re not looking for that. We are looking for people who are willing to bring out their own musical personalities in their music.
John Moore: Did you attend services at one of these 18,000-seat community churches as part of your research?
Gary Grundei: Actually, whenever I visit a new town I like to find the local gospel church, just to have that experience. I have many times been moved, crying, moving my feet and shouting during these services. But I’ve only been to two actual local megachurches: One was very new-age, and I found that to be very affirming. The other, to be honest, was not very dynamic, and the music was not very good. I found myself not engaged by anything except the Jumbotron. Now, that was gorgeous. They had good lighting and good camera work, too.
John Moore: What is your role as arranger here?
Gary Grundei: The songs will be based on common traditional arrangements. There will be a little bit of scoring throughout the piece, too, in the tradition of an organ player who plays under the sermon a little bit.
John Moore: Are you a member of the band?
Gary Grundei: I’m not because I am committed to doing a production of Beowulf that my wife is directing for The Catamounts in Boulder. It conflicts with the performance schedule.
John Moore: Tell us about how you got started at the Denver Center.
Gary Grundei: The first thing I did at Denver Center was the sound design for A Servant of Two Masters in 1997. I had a paid internship in the sound department, so I designed three shows that year. It just so happened that Anthony Powell was directing Macbeth, and they didn’t have a composer budgeted. And so I said, ‘Well, I’m already on contract. How about you put me to work composing music for Macbeth? And he did. I had a good run of doing all the Shakespeare plays with Anthony Powell for a number of years. And then when Kent Thompson came onboard, he brought me in to do some of the new plays, like the Plainsong trilogy. That was great.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Video bonus: Watch Gary Grundei lead a recent Bar Choir event:
Here’s a video glimpse at a recent Bar Choir gathering where drop-ins learned songs including Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” and the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” Video by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. To read more about Bar Choir, click here.
The Christians: Ticket information
A new play about the mystery of faith and what happens when a doctrinal controversy shakes the foundation of a large community church.
Jan. 27-Feb. 26
ASL and Audio-Described matinee at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12
303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
Selected previous NewsCenter coverage of The Christians:
The Christians: Five things we learned at first rehearsal
The Christians is ‘a pathway to empathy’
2016-17 season: Nine shows, two world premieres, return to classics