Just as I sat down to write this blog posting one of the two church hymns included in Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone came on my music-streaming service. I’m not going to tell you which one: the play has not yet begun previews and a few surprises must be maintained. But the serendipity of the streamed song was such that, were I religious, I would have detected the hand of a higher power. Even without such convictions I felt the music’s force, and, as it happens, I had, the day before, discussed related matters with Justin Ellington, who is responsible for the play’s music and sound.
I asked Ellington about how potent sacred music can be even for the un-religious. “You can be moved by the sound of a melody and the quality of the singing,” he said, “even if you don’t share the beliefs expressed in the lyrics.” The fact of being moved, he added, “can bring a disparate audience together.”
Ellington elaborated on this statement with reference to his own youth. “I grew up in the Atlanta area,” he recounted. “My mother was Baptist and my father Episcopalian. In high school, I was involved with a choir that toured around the city, including to churches. Time and time again, I would hear a pastor preach a sermon that had things that I or other choir members would disagree with. But then the music would happen, and it would feel good to everybody. Nobody could disagree with the music.”
With The Rolling Stone, Ellington wears a uniform he didn’t wear in his two previous assignments at LCT: Other Desert Cities, in 2012, and Pipeline, in 2017. It’s the robe of a choir director. “Yes,” he said, “I worked with the cast on the singing. This isn’t a musical, so my goal was not to create this amazing choir. My goal was to get the actors to do with the hymns what all sacred music should do: be honest. The singing needs to come from the truth.”
When he begins work with actors Ellington often asks them who their favorite singer is. “It’s rarely someone like Pavarotti – someone with an extraordinarily beautiful singing voice. It’s usually someone more like Donny Hathaway, who was helluva singer but whose value was also in translating and telling stories. Someone with the passion of honesty. Actors tell stories, so they gravitate to storytelling type of singers.”
In The Rolling Stone, the hymns enhance the mood but also contribute to the narrative. “This is in part a Romeo and Juliet type of story, about secret love,” Ellington said. “To oppose such love some people take refuge in tradition. Hymns are a powerful part of tradition. But hymns can also express an emotional yearning that breaks the boundaries of the realities and dangers of life in the present. I think that’s part of their function in this wonderful play.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com