The Rev. Stephen Chinlund had an agenda in mind as he headed to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine for the diocesan convention about a decade ago, and it had nothing to do with church governance. He was there to court a partner.
And he found him, luring him across Amsterdam Avenue to the Hungarian Pastry Shop where the two men bonded over coffee and decided to cast their futures together. The consummation of that union is about to be born.
In a city where the unusual borders on normal, Brush Strokes may be the only musical conceived at a church convention. Its birth will take place this month in that mecca to which so many in the performing arts aspire — New York’s theatre district.
The other proud parent of this collaboration is the composer Bert Draesel, known in church circles as the Rev. Herbert G. Draesel Jr., whom Chinlund, the show’s book writer, sought out because of his extensive experience as a composer of musical theatre. A third parent, Jim Semmelman, a long-time television stage manager of “The View” and “Today,” wrote the lyrics to Draesel’s songs.
Chinlund and Draesel, both now retired from full-time church ministry, discussed their musical, which will be produced Off, Off-Broadway by the Thespis Theater Festival at the Hudson Guild Theater, at Chinlund’s Garment District studio. Chinlund not only writes in this crowded space behind a canary yellow door on a floor filled with artists’ studios festooned with a rainbow of colorful doors, but he paints here as well. His paintings adorn the wall, and shelves are crowded with books and photographs of his family — wife of 50 years, Caroline, two sons, a daughter and grandchildren. It is a familiar setting in New York’s creative world, but it was actually the priesthood that brought Chinlund here.
While rector at Trinity Church in Southport, CT, in the mid-1980s Chinlund counseled many older parishioners who felt that with their children raised and their careers behind them “nothing moved them.”
“I thought, ‘Maybe if I wrote a play and they could see themselves onstage, they could think, ‘Maybe I could be like him or like her.’”
Although he had only written one play, which was never produced, Chinlund gave it a go, creating a story of an older man and woman who meet at an art class, fall in love and marry. When he showed it to friends, they were underwhelmed.
“They said, ‘A play is about drama, and drama is about conflict. You don’t have any.’”
So he decided to introduce a topic dear to him — assisted suicided —something he champions heartily and which has put him at odds with his 54-year-old daughter, Sarah, now a Roman Catholic, who opposes it. Chinlund’s position was shaped by his parents, founding members of Death With Dignity and strong believers in the right to determine one’s ending.
“They were terrified of being hooked up to tubes,” he said.
Draesel said it was this element that drew him to the project.
“It was something both of us wanted to say, and to say it as a musical would say something that mattered rather than doing Annie Get Your Gun one more time,” he said. “This is something the church should be discussing and grappling with. What better way than as a show?”
Chinlund hopes churches will produce the musical as a way to discuss end of life issues, but also to highlight positive aspects of aging, something he had been championing for years in his Happy Surprises in Later Life discussion groups.
“It was the same idea as the play, that old age is not just a time to be denied or lamented, but could be the best time of life. That’s really counterculture.”
So is talking about death as a church topic.
“It’s taboo,” Chinlund says. “We don’t use the D word freely. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
Both men emphasize, though, that death is not the end of the love that was central to a relationship. The inspiration behind the joyful final song, “Always Together,” came from Chinlund’s sister who continued talking to her husband after he had died, making her feel he was still with her. “Everyone in my bereavement group is doing he same thing,” she told her brother. That line is now in the play.
“That’s just how my sister felt about her sort of ongoing marriage,” Chinlund said.
“That’s not morbid,” Draesel said. “It’s just natural.”
While the September performances will be the first full production, the musical has been tested in public readings.
“We got a lot of encouragement from audiences,” Draesel said. “People were walking out crying, happy crying, and hugging each other. But we were preaching to the choir. I’d like to get beyond that and create study guides to be given out as they leave for people to think about these things.”
Both men are hoping that the September production, which is being videotaped, will land them a producer who can take the show to an Off-Broadway run. Draesel envisions a rotating cast of A-list perfumers, citing two he would love to entice — Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.
“I pray,” he said.
This foray into the performing arts is new to Chinlund who spent nearly five decades of his priestly years working in prison ministry, becoming the chairman of the New York State Commission of Correction. Draesel, whose time was spent in parish ministry especially in urban areas, can trace his artistic involvement to when he was 5 1/2 and listened to his sister practicing her piano lessons, which she hated. When she was finished, he took to the piano bench and played her pieces by ear. He wrote his first song at 7.
“Faith and the arts have been a very happy coupling all my life,” he says. “Most of the things I’ve written have been labors of love and explorations of faith.”
He cites his musical Walden, about the abolition movement and the underground railroad.
“Those are issues dear to my heart from my years in urban ministry,” he says. “The church is not always terribly responsive. It says it’s interested in the arts but there’s not a lot of expression.
“When people think about religion they think about fundamentalists and people finding Jesus. That’s not what I do. What I’m trying to do is be a little more subtle. We have to find God in the ordinariness of life and we have to celebrate at every possible moment.”
“I hope people will find in the play reasons to feel fulfilled in life that have nothing to do with a checked-off list. I think we could do more in the church to encourage people.”
Image: Joy Franz and Chuck Muckle are the lead actors in Brush Strokes.