Robert Apgar and Jonas Dawson finished singing during Sunday church service at Grace United Church of Christ and the congregation applauded. The Rev. Robert Apgar-Taylor, Apgar’s husband, approached the pulpit and said, “I think Jesus just went ‘damn.’”
Apgar and Dawson had sung a powerful and emotional rendition of “Lily’s Eye’s” from the musical “The Secret Garden.”
During the last month of summer, the church puts on a program called August on Broadway. Each Sunday, a Broadway musical is incorporated into the service. Apgar-Taylor said a theme is picked every year and then musicals are chosen accordingly. This year’s theme is classic literature.
So far, the congregation has heard music from “Oliver,” “Camelot,” and “The Secret Garden.” Next Sunday, in the final installment of the program, service goers will listen to songs from “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”
Previous themes have included Disney and “the dark side” which used shows including “Carrie” and “Jekyll and Hyde.”
The program came to Grace United when Apgar-Taylor arrived. He had started it at a previous church where he served as pastor after hearing about another congregation that was basing their Sunday masses around famous book series.
“I thought, you know let’s do something fun. August is a really down season in the church. Let’s face it, people would rather be at the beach than at church,” Apgar-Taylor said. “This gives them something to look forward to.”
It isn’t an easy feat, though. Apgar-Taylor and Dawson, the church’s musical director, spend months planning the services. A theme is chosen sometime after Easter each year and then they examine how best to incorporate the music. And it’s not all about the music. The liturgy must also fit.
“It’s not just getting the music together but it’s also coming up with the themes, picking where the music fits in, [Apgar-Taylor] coming in and figuring out how the liturgy is going to match with it,” Dawson said. “So there’s a lot of groundwork that has to happen.”
Dawson said it takes about one rehearsal a week for a month to get one service together. Most of the singers are members of the congregation, although he also pulls performers from his connections in local theater — which is where he found Taylor Whidden.
Whidden has been singing for August on Broadway for three years.
Not raised religious, Whidden said she was nervous, at first, stepping into an unfamiliar environment. Now, however, she is a familiar face within Grace United and comes to service outside August. She lends it all the power of a Broadway musical.
“In any realm, people listen to music to calm them or destress them or excite them and so music in the religious world also has a massive effect on people,” Whidden said. “And then you take some music that is new to people, that tells different stories in different ways but is still giving you the same types of messages that you would hear in the hymns.”
Apgar-Taylor said this is exactly the effect he wanted the program to have.
“My job as a pastor is not just to lead Sunday morning, it’s also to help people see connections between faith and real-life and this does that,” he said. “It helps you to see that this thing about our life, this God stuff is not just about Sunday morning ... and it’s really fun.”
Whidden, who will be singing two songs next week from what she says is her favorite musical, agreed.
“They use something that I love so much and I’m so passionate about and then so seamlessly connect that to the bible and these religious ideals,” Whidden said. “[They] create that bridge...and it really makes me feel proud to be a part of it.”
Apgar-Taylor and Dawson said they have already begun thinking about next year’s theme and are considering “Americana” which would use musicals such as “The Music Man” and “Oklahoma.”
This story has been updated to correct the name of the church. The church is Grace United Church of Christ in Frederick.