The cast of “Francis and Clare” rehearsed one of the musical’s opening tunes earlier this month. The locally written play follows the lives of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Modern day icons make them look serene. Saint Clare stands calmly, encircled by a halo. Lawn ornaments of Saint Francis commune with animals in yards all over the country. But these saints were real people who lived rebellious lives and, at least in Francis’ case, died young. Clare rejected society’s norms, refused her parents’ demands for an arranged marriage, and ran away from home. Francis stripped off his clothes in front of a bishop and renounced his family. A new musical opening this week in Winona follows their stories, combining voluntary poverty and chorus lines.
“Nobody wakes up one day and decides to be a saint,” said director Bruce Ramsdell. A rich kid with dreams of knighthood at the turn of the 13th century in Assisi, Italy, Francis gave up everything he owned after hearing God speak to him, according to stories of his life. Tim Olstad — the Winona native who gained a national spotlight on “The X Factor” in 2013 — took a break from recording pop albums in Los Angeles to play Francis. “It’s so beautiful — the music — and the words are something that everyone can connect with,” Olstad said. In one of the play’s earlier tunes, Olstad’s Francis struggles to figure out what God really wants him to do. “Everyone at some point has had to say, ‘What am I good at, and what am I going to do with my life? What’s my plan?’” Ramsdell explained. Faced with choices about whether to play by society’s rules, Francis and Clare stuck to their beliefs, Ramsdell added. “They were radicals and rebels in terms of what society was in those days,” composer Nancy Bachler stated.
At times, Francis’ idealism seems naive and foolish, Ramsdell explained. Francis thinks it will be simple to get a meeting with the Pope and get his blessing for a new order of street preachers. Later in life, during the Crusades, “Francis decides, ‘I’ll just go see the leader of the Saraceans and see if I can make peace,’” Ramsdell added.
Clare shared Francis’ commitment to Jesus’ message of living in solidarity with the poor, and she started an order of cloistered nuns sometimes called the Poor Clares, who gave up virtually everything but the clothes on their backs. While they were writing the play, a nun and Catholic scholar impressed on Ramsdell and Nancy Bachler that of one Clare’s most significant achievements was ensuring that Francis’ ideals did not get watered down after his death. “The friars [of Francis’ order] were so busy trying to decide how big their churches would be. She kept the purity of Francis’ message,” Nancy Bachler said. “It’s really refreshing to see a woman as a leader in the faith so long ago,” Natalie Thyren, the play’s vocal director, added.
Thyren is a veteran of musicals, but this is not just another play for her. Nearly 15 years ago, her late father played Francis in rough drafts of the local musical that were performed in Winona and at Rochester’s Assisi Heights Spirituality Center in the early 2000s as fundraisers for disaster relief in Italy. Those performances featured just a few songs that Ramsdell, Bachler, and others had written — the rough sketches of a full-length musical they had always planned to finish. Life events got in the way, however, and the half-written musical sat on the shelf until a few years ago, when an anonymous donor approached the musical’s creators with funding to finish the writing and produce it. The playwrights and composers spent the last two years fleshing out and perfecting the music and script. “It’s become a very personal thing for me,” Thyren said of being part of completing the musical in which her father performed.
Alex Cyert plays hand bells on a synthesizer in the musical’s six-piece orchestra, accompanying a group of more than 25 singers. “The harmonies are just full,” he gushed from the piano bench before a rehearsal. He and the other musicians hop genres throughout the play: polka, jazz, blues, and Gregorian chants. Bachler and Ramsdell explained that they wanted to make the saints’ stories accessible to modern audiences and their choice of music reflects that.
Saint Francis has long been one of the most popular saints, but Ramsdell and Bachler said his story is particularly timely because of the Pope’s decision to take the saint’s name and focus on his message. There are modern-day parallels to parts of Saint Francis’ story, Ramsdell added, and every once and a while throughout history, people who reject power and money.
“Francis and Clare” will premiere at the Page Theatre at Saint Mary’s University in Winona at 7 p.m. on Friday, August 4, with shows at 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 5, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, August 6. More information is available at pagetheatre.smumn.edu.