Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Interview with composer and playwright Phil Hall

I wrote this feature for the March 16, 2007 issue of National Catholic Reporter

In the anxiety and excitement of getting a play up and running, the last thing most playwrights want to think about is its closing. Phil Hall is an exception. He had the ending day clearly in mind from the start and then went about finding a theatre that could accommodate. For a play about resurrections, it could close at no other time than Easter.

“It was imperative to have the most dramatic impact,” says Mr. Hall about scheduling Matthew Passion, a new play with music that will be performed off-Broadway at the American Theatre of Actors’ Chernuchin Theatre from March 29 through April 8, 2007.

Advertising itself as a play about “a man who chose to die; a man who should be dead and a boy who never saw it coming,” Matthew Passion parallels three stories thousands of years apart. The central plot surrounds Jim Keenan, a middle-aged actor who was diagnosed five years earlier as being HIV positive. Assuming he was going to die, he allowed his career to fizzle out but now realizes he has to embrace life.

“I made my peace with dying,” he tells his roommate. “Only, the end never came. And now I have to find a way to reinvent myself -- to find meaning in a future I didn’t expect to have.”

The other two stores, that of the passion, crucifixion and death of Jesus and the murder of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming, are portrayed through the play-within-a-play technique as a director casts plays telling their stories. All find their resurrection in the end.

“The grace of these people and the human spirit is that we can go on and heal from these tragic acts, and by not forgetting can impact the world,” said Mr. Hall, 54, during a telephone interview from his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “The message is be all you can be and be comfortable with who you are. There’s no place we go where God’s not there too.”

The inspiration for “Matthew Passion” came from a college-aged woman Mr. Hall saw interviewed on television about Mr. Shepard’s murder. She said people should no longer be beaten up for who they are.

“I was 50 and I thought, ‘she’s the next generation and she gets it,’” Mr. Hall said. “I sensed some sort of cosmic gear shift. It was noteworthy and stuck in my mind’s eye for a long time after. Matthew Shepard was beaten and tied to a fence and that so closely paralleled the crucifixion of Christ. I don’t deify Matthew Shepard, but I do feel both were crucified for who they were on some level.”

He added the third story because he had a friend who was HIV positive and had been expected to die, but instead found himself still living and struggling with understanding why he was infected and how he was to live his life.

The play had a reading two years ago at Marble Collegiate Church, of which Mr. Hall is a member. The performances at Chernuchin Theatre will be the first full production. Although Mr. Hall has extensive experience as a conductor and musical director, having worked in noted venues including Broadway, Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center and written the lyrics to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” this is the first show for which he has written the book as well as the music.

Mr. Hall can foresee criticism from conservative Christians over a scene in which Jesus visits a gay bar and Jim, not realizing he is talking to the real Jesus, tries to pick him up.

“I don’t think that will go down too well,” he said. “It’s preposterous in some sense, but it’s also funny. Jesus is literally and figuratively the straight man.”

Mr. Hall was raised Southern Baptist in Durham, NC, and felt he always had to hide the fact that he was gay.

“The hardest thing is the lack of integration,” he says. “You can’t sit down and talk about having a crush on so and so with your family and friends so you have to split off.” The result, he said, is having part of one’s life with family and straight friends and part with groups made up of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.

“We don’t get to include all of who we are, and we have to be all of who we are if we are to be psychologically healthy.”

Mr. Hall remembers asking his therapist years ago what he should do in a world that wasn’t big enough to include him as he is. The therapist gave him advice he has taken to heart.

“He said, ‘create a world that’s big enough for all of you.’ Writing this play was my coming out spiritually. The last step to integration is coming out spiritually and being comfortable in our own skin.”

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