With its principal characters — from Mary, Joseph and their swaddled babe, to the innkeeper without vacancy, flock-watching shepherds, camel-riding magi, angelic seraphim and cherubim, and lowing cattle — Gospel writers Matthew and Luke provided an account of the first Christmas that has stood the test of time as the historical documentation of Christ’s birth.
Then, in 2005, after two millenniums, along came Greg and Melissa Baldwin.
A husband-and-wife team who headed the drama ministry at Burbank’s Westminster Presbyterian Church, the Baldwins believed the age-old story was in need of a little updating, one that included a cornucopia of odd characters, non sequiturs, puns, pop culture and current-event references, parodies of show tunes and pop hits, and Borscht Belt one-liners.
Under the direction of the church’s pastor, the Rev. Paul Clairville, the Baldwins were given the charge to write and produce a Christmas pageant to be presented by Westminster’s congregants.
Now, while just about every Christian church has a tradition of members donning the garb of angels, shepherds and wise kings to put on some sort of program that presents a live re-creation of the creche, the Baldwins’ version relied heavily (emphasis on heavily) on broad (even heavier emphasis on broad) artistic license.
Faithfully embracing the dogma that laughter is a treasured gift from God, Clairville has many times said that though he and his flock take their religion seriously, they don’t take themselves seriously.
“We have fun with this annual show because we believe that God has a great sense of humor and he wants us to be happy,” said Clairville.
Given a long leash to “have fun with it,” the Baldwins conceptualized “Nativity! The Musical,” which went on to become an annual yuletide event that saw the archangel Gabriel portrayed as a vaudeville-era song-and-dance man who receives a call from “the Boss” telling him he is going to have a son whose mother will be “a nice Jewish girl.”
If that has your mouth agape, your chin will hit the table when you hear that Mary was then introduced by a contingent of “South Pacific” sailors who serenaded her with a rousing rendition of “Virgin Mary Is a Girl I Love,” followed by the Von Trapp Family Singers performing “The Time Warp” from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” with modified lyrics that took the audience “back to the stable again.”
As the years went by, the show continued to live up to its catch phrase of becoming “weirder and weirder,” ultimately transforming into a 1970s-style television production called “Bing Crosby’s First Christmas Special.” That version saw the blessed event foretold by a Magic 8-Ball, the Star of Bethlehem presented as a glamorous Hollywood starlet, and the Bethlehem inn run by two burned-out hippies who harbored no concern in putting a pregnant girl out in a cold manger, because: “It’s not like anyone will ever know.”
Then it got really weird with apropos-of-nothing appearances by Cleopatra and the Roman Emperor Caligula. There was also a trio of magi composed of bike-riding Mormon missionaries; Augustus Caesar, accompanied by showgirls, performing at Caesar’s Palace; and King Herod sweeping in as the Phantom of the Opera with an entourage of (never explained) pompom-waving high school cheerleaders.
If none of that makes sense to you, then you really won’t get the ensuing year’s cameo appearances of such nontraditional creche characters as Alexander Hamilton, Annie Oakley, Abraham Lincoln, Inspector Clouseau, the sewer-dwelling clown Pennywise, Charlie Brown, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, the “Saturday Night Live” Halloween enigma David S. Pumpkins, and Cap’n Crunch of breakfast cereal fame.
While word of mouth provided the production with “you have got to see it to believe it” status, the show also beautifully wove in the true Christmas story, always incorporating a touching rendition of Faith Hill’s “A Baby Changes Everything,” a full-cast finale of “When You Believe” from “The Prince of Egypt,” and a hope-inspiring coda of Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”
This year, between the Baldwins’ retiring and moving to New Mexico and the pandemic, many folks who have made appearing in or attending this pageant a part of their holiday tradition over the past 14 years were more than sure that the final curtain had fallen on “Nativity! The Musical.”
Embracing the adage that the show must go on, Sydney Baldwin stepped in where her parents left off and in the role of executive producer employed the help of a production team led by Jacob Motz, Matt Bond and Shane Arenal to take “Nativity! The Musical” to the screen as “Nativity! The Musical: The Movie.”
“With my parents having moved to Albuquerque, we had already been discussing how we could continue the production even before the pandemic hit,” said Sydney. “It was important to all of us that we kept it going, and then when we knew we couldn’t do it as a live play due to the pandemic, we decided to do it as a movie. I took my parents’ scripts from previous years and got together with Jacob — who was the head writer — Matt and Shane, and we all worked together to finalize a script.”
Instead of six weeks of “wackadoo nuttiness and work” in rehearsing the show that close to 100 church members took part in, Sydney said they instead began filming segments by late summer and just recently completed the final post-production work.
“We wanted the movie to have the same feel of ‘Nativity! The Musical,’ so all the crazy characters and gags are there, and I’ll be reprising my role as the Star of Bethlehem who will be shining down from a ‘Star Wars’ TIE fighter. So yes, all the laughs and gasps and touching moments that people have become accustomed to are a part of the movie.”
The theme of the movie is togetherness, something the producers felt was vitally important in that they would not actually be together to do the show as they have been in years past.
“The movie is about how we are all connected, even when we’re apart,” said Sydney. “It’s the Christmas story — the story of Christ’s birth — but, as always, with the liberties we take. And the great thing is that, because it’s a movie, people from all over the country who have heard about this weird and wacky production this little church in Burbank does, can see it on YouTube. It’s a good feeling to know our tradition continues — that it’s a lot bigger than just one really bad year.”
The production is staged as a fundraiser for the church’s drama ministry. You can purchase a ticket for a minimum donation of $5 and then catch “Nativity! The Musical: The Movie” on YouTube on Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. Tickets are available now at nativitythemusicalthemovie.brownpapertickets.com. After making your donation you will receive the link and passcode one hour prior to show time.
David Laurell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (818) 563-1007.