It’s usually the case that a cast album comes after the success of a Broadway musical. Not so with ANGELS, a stage production which tells the story of what happened among the angels – and the spiritual wrestle of one in particular - in the lead-up to Christ’s birth.

Ready for its debut on New York’s Broadway back in 2008, all was looking good for the production when the global financial crisis hit and funds needed to stage the show dried up.

Angels Album

ANGELS Original Studio Cast Recording

 

“We were inspired by things like Ben Hur which takes a Biblical truth and Biblical kind of background but then weave a fictional story around it."

- Marcus Cheong, speaking about the inspiration behind ANGELS.

While that meant the musical theatre project has sat on the shelf ever since, Australian Marcus Cheong says that last year he felt the time was right to bring out the album which was subsequently officially launched in Australia at Sydney’s Northern Beaches Christian School last week.

Mr Cheong - who co-wrote the script and lyrics for the musical with fellow Sydneysider Ken Lai (Mr Lai also wrote the music) - describes the album as a “tapestry of music” which stretches back to when a concept album was first recorded in 2006.

“We actually recorded the concept album here in Sydney with a whole bunch of of Sydney musicians and Sydney talent…and now 10 years later, with all the kind of experience and contacts, we brought back some of the core team that was involved in that album and used some of the music that was developed in 2006 to be kind of a template for what we did. But now we have access to some of the best voices in Broadway so we ended up having these major Broadway stars singing.”

The performers on the album, which sold out in the US following its release in late October, include twice-Tony nominee Laura Osnes as well as Josh Young, who recently played the role of John Newton in Amazing Grace, and Robert Cuccioli, best known for playing the lead roles in Jekyll and Hyde. Mr Cheong says the music - performed by Australian musicians - reflects a contemporary sound.

“The first recording we did was primarily orchestral and to reach the audience we wanted to reach with this recording, we developed a more modern contemporary sound…and they were overlaid on top of the orchestral originals.”

Mr Cheong says the idea for the musical came out of a desire to tell stories which have a “positive impact” and delivered a “Kingdom message” on a Broadway stage.

“We were inspired by things like Ben Hur which takes a Biblical truth and Biblical kind of background but then weave a fictional story around it,” says the 44-year-old who now lives in New York with his wife Clara where they attend the C3 Church Manhattan.

Linda Wood Jane Lesley Anderson

Australians Linda Wood and Jane Lesley Anderson perform at the Australian launch of the album. PICTURES: Supplied.

He notes that it was his own journey to faith during his final year of high school which helped inspire him.

“For me, the journey took over a year and it was largely due to the stories, the music, shows and the books that I was reading and watching that shaped and started raising questions and over the course of that year, those questions led me to committing to…Jesus and realising the truth of what’s in the Bible.”

Mr Cheong subsequently spent six years studying architecture but realised he wasn’t passionate about buildings. Rather, he wanted to spend his life telling stories that could contribute to the faith journey of others.

His first script came in 1997 when Mr Cheong co-wrote a musical called And Can It Be? which told the story of an investigative journalist who set about attempting to disprove that Jesus Christ was the Messiah.

Five years later, “when we had a whole lot more experience and training”, Mr Cheong says he and Mr Lai came up with the idea of telling the story of what the angels were doing in the lead-up to the first Christmas, thinking it could be a “great way of reaching a wide audience by directing them to the real message of what Christmas is all about”.

The story of ANGELS – which Mr Cheong says is, at its heart, about finding purpose in life – follows the story of Sera, the Angel of Light. It tells of how she longs to be one of the “guardian angels” who protect humans and how, when Gabriel announces that one angel is to be chosen for a special task (which turns out to be placing a star - that's right, the famous one - in the sky for the first Christmas), she denies her calling and attempts instead to be a guardian angel – something that gets her and the humans she’s trying to protect in trouble when her pride and ambition attracts the attention of Lucifer. Sera is eventually able to humble herself and accept who she is called to be in life - and, well, you can guess the rest.

“These are iconic characters that people can connect to and are familiar with."

- Marcus Cheong.

Mr Cheong describes the work as being like a parable, noting that “it’s not a theological discourse on what angels are actually like”.

“These are iconic characters that people can connect to and are familiar with,” he says. “Pop culture has presented what an angel looks like and how they behave and people already have that preconception, so we’re using what is already out there in the culture to communicate a message…"

Mr Cheong says the decision to opt for a musical was made after, when researching various formats including film, they found that not only did a musical cost a vast a lot less than film, it would also live for longer.

“The Broadway stage is such an important megaphone to the world and has the capacity to reach so many people and yet it seems a natural fit for believers because we’ve got some of the most amazing music within the church, we‘ve got great story-tellers, we’ve got great singers and actors but we’re just not engaging in this industry. And so we just felt this was an industry we needed to participate in…”

The first version of the show was ready for presentation off-Broadway in 2006 – in Mr Cheong’s words, “just to see whether it was even possible to bring a show from complete[ly] unknown writers from Australia to the best theatres in New York". "Because we had no idea whether or not this was actually any good or would hold up to the scrutiny of the Broadway stage.”

They need not have worried. The response at the Duke Theatre in New York was so positive that Mr Cheong says it became clear ANGELS could go further. So he quit his job in Australia – he was working for Anglican Media at the time - and relocated to New York where he set up a new production company to run a “full, professional, version of ANGELS”.

 

Tim Moxey Dan Steinhauer Linda Wood

Tim Moxey, Dan Steinhauer, and Linda Wood perform at the Australian launch.

Millions of dollars were raised and hundreds of people joined the team as work to produce the show progressed. Then came the global financial crisis and Mr Cheong says that, with just a month to go before opening night, the “heart-breaking” decision was made to shut the production down.

“We had actually completely built the entire show, we had just finished the first run through with all the actors and we had to announce closing,” he says.

But the story of the production, which was documented in the SBS four part documentary series Angels in New York, doesn’t end there.

While Mr Cheong says that in the wash-up afterwards he followed the advice of respected mentors to “take a step back, get some perspective and do something else for the time being”, spending the next few years working for a Christian cable television company in the US and later working as a project manager for the Broadway star (and 10-time Tony award-winner) Tommy Tune – something Mr Cheong describes as an “extraordinary experience”, last year he had the sense that the time was right to revisit ANGELS.

But rather than leap straight back into the production, Mr Cheong says, the decision was made to first release the script and musical score to schools, churches and community theatre groups so they could put on their own versions of the production as well as produce the cast album which was quickly snapped up by the US label Broadway Records.

“As you can imagine, it was quite humbling experience to lose all those millions of dollars while we were on this track to Broadway, so the philosophy as we started this venture [recording the album]…a year and a half ago was to use the idea of a seed; of just starting small and starting humbly."

- Marcus Cheong

“As you can imagine, it was quite humbling experience to lose all those millions of dollars while we were on this track to Broadway, so the philosophy as we started this venture [recording the album]…a year and a half ago was to use the idea of a seed; of just starting small and starting humbly,” he says.

Given their humble ambitions, Mr Cheong says he was surprised by the talent which signed up to be involved in recording the album (as well as Broadway stars, it also includes musical arrangements by veteran worship leader David Holmes and international worship artist Rev Dr David Thornton).

“We had no expectation of who was actually going to be involved in but we had all these amazing names come..." he says.

Mr Cheong says there are now also plans to mount the musical on Broadway. While it remains very early days with regard to the talent that will take part, Mr Cheong says the production is tentatively slated to open as a fully-fledged stage show in the lead-up to Christmas 2019.

But he adds that while he’s looking forward to seeing the show on the stage, it’s the process to getting there that he’s enjoyed.

“I’ve come to realise that the journey is even more important than the destination. Of course, I look forward to ANGELS being on Broadway, but I also have learnt to appreciate each step along the way."

The album can be purchased directly from www.broadwayrecords.com or via iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and other major music retailers.

Below - The cast and creative team at the Australian launch.

The Cast and Creative Team