In Sylvan’s Biblical musical, ‘Beloved King,’ David gets his due (and a fanfic meet-cute)
If it was surprising for Cambridge poet, author, playwright, performance artist and Boston Globe-anointed queer icon Jade Sylvan to attend Harvard Divinity School, it might be less surprising to hear about the uniquely personal path Sylvan has traveled within its collegiate gothic halls of brick, marble and oak. As a third-year student and candidate for Unitarian Universalist ordination who’s run events dedicated to “Sailor Moon” manga, they have bookended their time with a Harvard Divinity Bulletin essay on “What the Gospels Share With Fanfiction” and by writing and staging a musical that puts its concepts into practice.
Before entering the school “I had never read the Bible before,” Sylvan said, but recognized in it “a lot of some of the passion, for lack of a better word, echoed in modern fanfiction” – in that it’s a series of cultural narratives rewritten in a way that reflected what was important to its authors, albeit thousands of years ago. “I was thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if I did some sort of big fanfiction project and put some of the ideas that I laid out in that article into practice? And the story that ended up really grabbing me to do was the story of young King David,” Sylvan said. That musical, “Beloved King” is coming together now as a more-elaborate-than-typical staged reading at Oberon in Harvard Square (site of Sylvan’s 2016 apocalyptic lesbian sci-fi horror burlesque musical, “Spider Cult: The Musical,” a collaboration with burlesque artist Fem Bones), with tickets available for a March 13 performance after a March 12 performance sold out almost immediately – possibly on the power of its tagline: “‘Beloved King’ is a faithfully adapted Biblical musical,” it goes, “And it is gay AF.”
Update on March 11, 2020: A coronavirus outbreak has postponed “Beloved King” to unnamed future dates, according to Oberon and Sylvan. “Ticket holders will be contacted when those date are announced and your tickets will be refunded in the manner in which you paid,” the theater said. Sylvan’s statement is here.
Sylvan was interviewed by phone in February. The conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.
A musical Bible adaptation can’t be a common HDS thesis project. How did you come to it?
At first, I thought I would start a novel or something like that, and I was really gravitating toward David. It really struck me the first time I read it, even though this part of the Bible might have been written 3,000 years ago, ish, how relatable I felt these characters were. There’s just so much richness there.
I was given this book called “Jacob’s Wounds” by Theodore Jennings that delved deep into the relationships not only between [Biblical characters] David and Jonathan, but also David and Saul. I was just devouring this book. And I got my moment of inspiration where I was like, “Oh, this actually needs to be a musical.” It makes sense because David is supposed to be a musician, a poet and a singer – “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen is about David – and I kind of orchestrated my schedule for the next year and a half around things that would support this project. I studied a lot with the Hebrew Bible professor, whom I probably annoyed the shit out of. But much of the stuff was outside Harvard. I’ve been involved in theater and fortunately had some connections and some relationships there. And I have written songs, but I had to up my songwriting a lot and be a lot more intentional about, “Okay, this is what happens if this key changes, and this is why I’m structuring it this way.”
I wanted what I did to be as respectful and rich in knowledge of the Bible as possible, partially because I think if you’re gonna adapt a work like – that’s so influential and beloved and reviled and important to the culture, you need to understand it as well as you can. I’m a believer in the power of mythology and cultural narratives, and I think to go into something that is so intrinsic to our culture and start messing around in there, I needed to have an idea what I was working with, rather than to just take it and and be like, “Well, I don’t like this, so I’m gonna say this. Like, oh, this is what I think this means.”
You mentioned Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Did you come across other pop culture that helped shape what you were doing?
I’ve seen a range of them. There was this random book I found called “David the King” [by Gladys Schmitt} published in 1946 that was like, so gay – but also very early to mid 20th century gay, very much the love-that-shall-not-speak-its-name gay. And I really love “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin, especially because what Baldwin does with his analogue of Michal [the daughter of King Saul] was really helpful for me. It’s very modernized, but also very mid-20th century and very much a tragic-gay thing. I just found out that NBC did a show called “Kings” in 2009 that is the David and Goliath story, but modernized. It looks absolutely awful. They’re all useful in one way or another, but I haven’t seen one done that satisfies me, which is probably why I’m doing this.
Just as an aside to this, it’s interesting to me that out of the major characters in the Bible, I feel like David doesn’t really get a whole lot of press. People know the gist of David and Goliath, like “Oh, he’s this little guy who killed this big guy with a rock,” which is such a small part. And people might know David and Bathsheba as a very vague idea like, “Oh, he committed adultery and it was bad.” But there’s two whole books – really more than two whole books – dedicated to David in the Bible, and the second half of the Bible (or at least the Hebrew Bible) is largely David fanfiction. It’s a bunch of people being like, “Remember David?” He’s so monumentally important also to the New Testament, or as I call it, “Bible II.” There’s a lot of echoes of the character David in Jesus, who is supposed to be the messiah, the heir to the Davidic Kingdom. And he’s monumentally important to Judaism as well – I mean, the Star of David? That’s the guy.
I can imagine people assuming this fits in comfortably with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.“
Mine is gayer, for one thing. Let me just put it this way: I think “Cats” is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best work, because he’s not trying to do anything with character or story. He’s just doing what I think he’s best at, which is writing songs. But who the fuck am I to say? Andrew Lloyd Webber is incredibly influential, and I actually really loved “Evita” growing up – but I don’t think he wrote the lyrics. I have not seen “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” I’ve seen the movie of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and actually prefer “Godspell.” I know a lot of people really love it and are really moved by it for one reason or another, but I don’t really understand the point and don’t get the impression there’s a lot to it other than “What if we made a rock opera about Jesus and made him kind of a hippie?” I guess like there’s some interesting stuff going on, like portraying Judas as more sympathetic than is common, but I have seen that done more interestingly – kind of a lot. Like, “Last Temptation of Christ” was a lot better thought-out as an exploration and critique or commentary on the source material and its reception.
Sure, yeah, this is sort of like “Jesus Christ Superstar” in some ways – but I don’t feel like Webber knew what he was doing! This is more steeped in the Bible, for lack of a better term. It’s interacting more directly with with the Bible itself, rather than just taking the Bible story and making a spectacle out of it. I’m sure people are going to be like, [“Superstar”] is way more deep than that, and that’s fine, too. But Andrew Lloyd Webber is not writing biblical musicals anymore, so somebody’s got to, right?
What was the process that you followed?
I knew how long this was going to take and how hard it was going to be to get something on a stage before I graduated. So I started with one song, and began just going through the books of the Bible trying to understand as much as I could, sketching out the structure and what scenes would go where and what could be taken directly from the book and fit into something linear and compelling enough for a modern audience. The second thing I decided was which scenes were going to be songs; I wanted a lot of the very important biblical notes expressed through song. For the most part, I wrote the songs first, and tried to get as much of the action and emotion into them as I could, letting that dictate what I needed to fill in with scenes.
This is going to be cooler than a lot of staged readings – people aren’t just going to be standing on stage with scripts. It’s going to be pretty well blocked, with costumes, lighting and live music from Ryan Lee Crosby and his percussionist, Grant Smith. There’s are two more dancey songs, and there’s some stripping in the show, because that happens in the Bible too.
Fortunately for me, I met Ben Freeman, who is also a third-year Harvard Divinity School and has a background in musical theater. He was really excited about the project and came on board last summer to direct, thank goodness. I could not take that on in addition to producing and writing. He’s also reading the role of Jonathan, and doing an amazing job. And I hired a great dramaturg named Melory Mirashrafi. I got a Cambridge Arts Council grant and some donations from private donors and patrons who believe in the project, and I’m very grateful for that.
We did auditions in January and have been rehearsing at Harvard Divinity School. They’ve been really lovely by giving me space. It’s really hard to produce independent theater in Boston, so I really had to be kind of super scrappy in figuring out how how this could come together. It was a lot of work and me getting gray hair, but it’s meant to live on the stage. The goal is to have a fully produced run of it in the not-too-distant future, and I’m working on steps to do that.
Is there a standout song or moment you’ve written for “Beloved King” that helped shaped the rest of the writing?
The first song I wrote, called “Adoni” – Hebrew for “My Lord” – is the moment David and Jonathan meet, and in the Bible is right after David slays Goliath, when Jonathan takes off his clothes and gives them to David. The Bible says the soul of Jonathan became bound up in the soul of David and he loved him as himself and they made a covenant forever. My interpretation is of a meet cute, of love at first sight, with a back and forth that is still is very close to my heart. When the actors did it for the first time, I got emotional, because the play hinges on that in a lot of ways. There’s this negotiation of power dynamic that happens in it, and that question of power comes into play a lot in the work. It’s been really fun for me to see how I can bring this to life and make it work for a modern musical audience.
“Beloved King” sold out six weeks ahead of time. How?
I don’t know. Anybody who’s spoken to me over the past year and a half has at least heard me talk about it, so people who knew me were ready for it. But a lot of people I don’t know have bought tickets – the first tickets bought were from total strangers, and that was exciting.
I think people are excited about the idea, to see a biblical story that isn’t usually told this way be told this way – to see the thing that you were told was not for you, but being told for you; this thing inherent to the culture that we’re living in, and you’ve been told your whole life it’s not for you and in fact it hates you, but then somebody is showing you that no, you can see yourself in this, it actually has stories for you and about you. I think it’s even exciting to people who maybe aren’t queer, just because it might show them a different perspective or a different way to engage with the material. I think that’s a big part of what connected people with “Jesus Christ Superstar,” that it took this foundational story and showed it in a way that that let people relate to it, and that’s really the heart of what I’m trying to do here.