When Mother of God opens today at the Southwest Arts Center, audiences will get the chance to see a brand-new, homegrown musical in its first full-scale production. From local writers Christian Magby (music and lyrics) and Christian Albright (book and lyrics), the musical, directed by Jade Lambert-Smith, depicts Mary, the mother of Jesus. The piece might have familiar source material, but the creative team says they have focused on bringing this larger-than-life story to a relatable level. Magby and Lambert-Smith sat down with ArtsATL to discuss their journey, from their staged reading at the Atlanta Musical Theatre Festival in 2017 to the rehearsal room mere weeks before opening.
ArtsATL: Take us back to the beginning of this process. Where did this show come from?
Christian Magby: I just remember graduating high school, and my collaborator and best friend Christian Albright and I had just finished our show Black in Time and had a “What’s next?” type of moment. I had always felt that there was this need to tell this story in the way that we knew how. I felt it in a way that almost felt divine. We realized, if we don’t tell this story the way that we feel it’s supposed to be told, who will? [From 2013 to now], seeing it evolve over time, despite the fact that we’ve all been working on other projects, this is the one that we knew we could never put down. We’d be doing a disservice not to do it right now, when it feels like we need it.
ArtsATL: Jade, when did you come into the process?
Jade Lambert-Smith: I believe it was 2017, when we started rehearsing for the Atlanta Musical Theatre Festival. I directed that workshop with them. So I’ve seen all the iterations of the script. It’s been wonderful.
Magby: And being able to collaborate with Jade, it’s another perspective of where the story can go. Especially with [the writers] as two guys, it’s really, really important that we’re tapping into our female colleagues and friends to ask, “Do you identify with this part of Mary’s journey?” It’s not only helped us be able to grow but keep the story grounded in reality, with stakes.
ArtsATL: What did you learn from your staged reading workshop at the Atlanta Musical Theatre Festival?
Magby: It was really big. I think that was the big takeaway. We had 31 people in our cast, and then everybody in town was like, “We’d love to do your show if there weren’t so many people in it.” I realized that having a whole bunch of people on stage doesn’t necessarily help you tell your story. You have to have the right people to tell your story. In being able to watch it then, I was able to see how it was . . . a Mary and Joseph story instead of a Mary story. [But] it’s not [supposed to be] a love story, so . . . eliminating the possibility of that has truly enabled us to find her voice and her arc.
ArtsATL: What’s your perspective on that, Jade?
Lambert-Smith: I’m a dramaturg as well, by trade. So the big factor I think I brought to the gentlemen in conversation about the script has been looking at the Bible as a historical text, as opposed to this piece of literature that is heralded as something divine. What happens when you extract it like Shakespeare does with all of his war plays? What happens when we take this historical text and extrapolate a particular part of it? In many religions, Mary is deified, but [we wanted to explore] what happens when she becomes a woman who has a very tough choice to make.
And so I, as a director, am looking in the script constantly for, “What does it mean when you are presented with the unknown?” And we watch people in this show grapple — with really beautiful music behind them — with how to make really big life choices. It’s regular people making life choices. And so we are bringing it back down to that. And I think that also inspires the cast and others to know that even though we are regular everyday human beings, we have the tendency to make what will later be choices that are beyond us in service for humanity.
ArtsATL: What are you looking forward to with your show opening this week?
Lambert-Smith: Audiences. We’re looking forward to the audience’s shock. I’m not even going to lie! I’m looking forward to their faces, their mouths wide open and just in awe of how — it is a mega-musical, let’s just be honest. The energy of it is just really big, it’s sweeping, and it covers time and different locations in such a new way. People are going to be excited, and there’s something about this show that makes audience members feel like they’re being embraced. Don’t ask me what that is, but it feels like you’re being welcomed into the world [like in a Disney movie]. You think about opening moments in animated musicals and things like that, and it just has that wonderful energy. And you know, this season can be particularly challenging for people nowadays. I think this will create a space of joy in their hearts and be a wonderful memory moving forward.
Magby: I definitely have to agree. I think it’s the audience for me — just seeing how they respond to this story and for them to also see what happens when you invest locally in your community, whether talent and creatives or crew.
ArtsATL: I know y’all have released some demo recordings of some of the songs. Do you have a vision of releasing an official cast recording of the whole show?
Magby: Yes! Will that happen this year? [Laughs] Well, next year for sure and only because [during rehearsals] we could have a song today that ends up getting cut tomorrow. We could have a new song that gets written a week before previews. So I think after we have the complete [score], we will definitely be coming out with that cast recording.
Sally Henry Fuller is a theater nerd and performing arts journalist with a passion for telling people’s stories. When she’s not interviewing artists, you can find her in a local coffee shop or watching a musical with her husband.