When Michael Marszalkowski taught confirmation preparation at St. Gregory the Great Church in Williamsville, N.Y., he came up with an innovative idea: making Church teaching come alive through music and entertainment.
“At the time, my children were very involved in theater and the arts,” he said. “I thought, Here’s a way I can blend the two together. That was a challenge, and Spirit the Musical is the result.”
Spirit the Musical, set in a coed Catholic high school, features students preparing for their confirmation. They represent today’s real students, with real problems, challenges and hopes, as well as the choices and temptations they face on a daily basis.
For example, there’s Sarah, a deeply religious girl who recently lost her father, and Katie, an overachiever who is under stress to get into a prestigious college. Dean, Katie’s boyfriend, faces peer pressure to prove he’s a real man, and Lisa, queen of the popular girls, is a master manipulator. Jake has money and looks but is virtually ignored by his parents, while Daniel, a troubled teen, deals with addiction. And then there’s Father Frank, a compassionate teacher whom all the teens admire.
While the musical has the theme of confirmation, it broadly reflects the faith. “I want it to be the first great Catholic musical,” quipped Marszalkowski. “The real essence of the show is its themes. It’s about love and the ultimate expression of love — sacrifice — as well as forgiveness and not judging people.”
He added, “The main theme is a journey from pain to hope; that’s the essence of the show, and that’s why it appeals to everyone — because we all have pain in our lives, and the beauty of the gifts of the Spirit results in hope.”
Marszalkowski’s oldest son, Paul, who recently graduated from SUNY-Fredonia with a music degree, is the driving force on the creative side, being composer and co-writer of the musical with his father.
“Paul has always had the ability to compose original music,” his father said.
The other family members are also involved. “I have three other children who were all blessed with good voices and the ability to act, so they have been in the play in various roles. My wife ended up being the glue that holds it all together, because you need someone to manage a project of this size.”
Marszalkowski said that coming up with the characters was interesting: “We wanted to identify with real kids that I’ve seen and talked to as a parent, religion teacher and soccer coach.
“It was also an opportunity to work with my son and incorporate people that he knew to come up with a character that was easily identifiable and multidimensional; we wanted someone who showed the uniqueness of a human individual.”
He said that they knew that they got it right when virtually every confirmation instructor who saw the show came up to him and said, “You just got my class; every kid in there is in my class!”
The performers in Spirit are local college and high-school students.
Colleen Reidy, a college sophomore, heard about Spirit three years ago. “I heard about it at the very end of my junior year in high school, but I didn’t know much about it. One of my friends mentioned he was auditioning, so I thought, Why not? During the audition, we were given a portion of the script to read. I loved the way the script was written and how real it was. I knew then and there that I really wanted to be part of Spirit.”
She was in the ensemble her first year and played Betsy in the school choir the past two years. This year she plays the role of Katie.
Colleen feels that the musical has had an impact on her spiritual life and on the spiritual life of other teens: “At the time of my first audition, I felt that I was the only one who had struggles to work through. Spirit has helped me become more aware of the fact that other people have their own crosses to bear and that no one is alone.”
“Spirit is written in such a way that there is a character that everyone can relate to,” she said. “Because the show is so relatable, once you can recognize yourself and your struggles in one of these characters, you will find that there is hope for you as well, through God and the workings of the Holy Spirit.”
Michael Boltri, a high-school junior, had seen Spirit a few times and decided that he wanted to be part of it. In his first performance, this past January, he played the role of a very stuck-up, rich teen.
He says his life has changed for the better after being part of the musical. “Spirit is a show all about how confirmation and the gifts of the Holy Spirit can profoundly change the way in which people act and think about other people,” he explained. “When I performed in Spirit, I was preparing for my own confirmation. Being involved in Spirit really helped me to understand confirmation from a different perspective.”
His mother, Renee, teaches morality and social justice to juniors at a private girl’s school in Buffalo and has incorporated Spirit the Musical into her class. Students view a DVD of the show over several class periods. “I decided to use Spirit in my class after seeing the way in which typical questions and struggles of adolescence were handled in Spirit,” she said. “I used it only during the 2010-2011 school year so far, but I anticipate using it regularly into the future. The students’ reactions were very positive. They appreciated the characters’ interactions and true-to-life scenarios.”
On the Road
Spirit the Musical has been performed in Buffalo, Syracuse and Fredonia, N.Y.; however, they are looking into other cities, including Rochester, N.Y., Erie, Pa., and several locations in Ohio.
“The goal is to have it eventually turn into a national and international musical production,” said Marszalkowski. “However, we are still in the development stage, where we are continuing to improve it and tweak it to make it the best we can make it.
“The goal for next summer is to turn it into a touring company. That was our goal and dream from the beginning and, that’s what we are working towards.”
Christine A. Smyczynski writes from Getzville, New York.
Performances this month: Aug. 12 in Fredonia, N.Y., and Aug. 13 and 20 in the Buffalo area. Visit SpiritMusical.com or call (716) 626-9498 for details.