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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

All your children, lost and found

The elder son, David, with the singing cows,
"Now You Tell Me," 2008 performance at YSP.
At the parish where I work, St. Anne Catholic Community in Barrington, Illinois, this is just the second year in nineteen when we've had no actual catechumens during Lent. Which is all well and good, of course—whomever God sends our way we're happy to take in. But it means that we don't use the Year A readings on the Third through Fifth Sundays in Lent, and so a lot of my "automatic" music selections get shelved as we delve into the readings of Year C this year. On the 4th Sunday, this involves the gospel of Luke 15, including the parable of the two lost sons. It is very unusual in the Sunday lectionary, but this means that this gospel will be used twice this year, once now, and once in September. (Unusual for us, anyway. I suppose if a parish rarely has catechumens, this happens every three years!)

I hope to say more about Luke 15 and the parables therein in a few days. There's so much interesting about these amazing little stories that I love to talk about them. In fact, I love them so much that, when I got the chance to write a musical based on the story, I jumped at the chance. That's what I'd like to write about today, my one-and-only musical, Lost and Found.

In 1986, three composers (I have no idea who the others were) were asked to submit a scene and a song to win a commission to write a musical to be produced at Youth Sing Praise (YSP), an annual program that combines music, theater, and spirituality for high school teens, held at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, in Belleville, Illinois. In 1985, I had worked there as a prayer leader during the event, when the musical was Champion of Israel, a piece by Fr. Ron Brassard, with music by Chris Brubeck, the musician son of the jazz great Dave Brubeck. With the help of my friend, writer Jody Serey of Phoenix, I submitted what was asked for, and won the commission. The show was to be produced for YSP in the summer of 1987.

Now, before you think this was like falling off a musical log, remember that the story in Luke 15 has three characters: the father and two sons. The challenge here was to write a show for about 70-80 teenagers, most of whom were girls, and probably among whom the best singers would also be girls. This helps to explain the need for bartenders, servants, singing cows, pig-bikers, and floozies by the dozen. But it was a no-brainer to add a mother into the family, and a sister for the two brothers. In a form that's used by community theaters and churches, a cast of 20-25 can do the show by using people in several roles.
The Youth Sing Praise production went very well, and there was enough interest at my publisher at the time, NALR, that they pursued the opportunity to do performances of the musical at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians conference in Long Beach in 1989, and also at the Los Angeles Religious Education Conference in Anaheim in 1990. For the NPM in Long Beach, NALR rented a local theater and bussed conference goers to the theater for the production. The LAREC production was on the main stage one evening, with seating available for thousands in the Anaheim Convention Center. Both were really overwhelming experiences made possible by the cooperation of many, many people, and the talents of many more. Most of all, they were made possible by my classmate and friend of many years, Stephen Storc, about whom I will tell you more one day, to be sure.

For the Long Beach and Anaheim productions, NALR wanted to have a studio recording made so that they could have a product to sell, so we went into the studio and made one. It was only released on cassette (we were in that awkward time between the demise of vinyl records and the profitability of CDs), but a decade or so later, Gary and I got the original digital tapes (in beta format, no less!) and had them made into CDs so that we could sell them at concerts, and make them available to people who wanted to put on the show and might want something to sell.

The original show had a song for Mama, but not for Sharon, and for the productions at NPM and Long Beach, and so for the recording, I added a ballad for Sharon, the sister, to sing between the two acts. The song is a commentary on the timeless frictions of family life called "Too Many Walls," which definitely became the favorite song of the show, along with the title song. Terry re-recorded these two songs on her 2003 CD with GIA entitled Family Resemblance in new arrangements by Gary Daigle and me. 

It made me happy that Steve Storc and most of the other directors of whom I'm aware did not try to prettify the parabolic ending of the show, in which the elder son is invited into the feast, but we are not told whether or not he does go in. This is part of the genius of Jesus the story-teller and of the whole parable tradition. Papa and the family urge the David, the elder brother, to come inside to the feast, but the stage fades to black before we see his response, and the cast sings the finale, "Step Inside the Door," directly to the audience. In a couple productions of which we are aware, the director tries to clean up the ending by having everyone join together. The parable does no such thing, but invites the listener to make the decision: will I forgive, stop being judgmental, and surrender to the universal love of God, or will I need to be right, self-righteous, and separate from "those sinners"? It's really the central question of the moral life, and for me, what is so attractive about this parable. 

Unlike many religious theater pieces (like the several by Marty Haugen) the songs don't really lend themselves to liturgy. They weren't meant to. I love the opportunity to hear them performed live when an occasional production is close by, because the sensibilities of each musical director update the songs, and makes them sound fresh to me. This is always good news to a songwriter!

There is more information on the musical here. Special to blog readers: If you would like a copy of the CD, you can send me $10 and I'll pay for the postage. Send via Paypal using the "Buy now" button below, or mail to me at 972 March Street, Lake Zurich, IL 60047, and I will send you a CD by first class mail. The CDs are available via my website, but the cost there is $15, so use this link for the lower price. (All offers USA only.)


  1. Thanks Rory, just clicked "buy now!"

    1. It works!! Thanks for your support in SO many ways, and all the ways you affirm my music.

  2. Check's in the mail.


  3. Mr. Cooney - Thanks to the creativity and support of composers like you, Youth Sing Praise is now in its 31st year. Thank you for a wonderful musical for our teens to perform (we last did this show in 2008). We are currently accepting applications from teens for this summer's performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and anyone interested is invited to drop by our site Thank you and God bless!

    1. I hope people do drop by your site. It's a great program, and I happy to have had a part in it over the years.