This November marks 150 years since the sinking of the Ville du Havre, a French ocean liner, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The ship disappeared beneath the waves in just 12 minutes and 226 passengers were lost.
One who was pulled from the water into a passing lifeboat was Anna Spafford, wife of Chicago lawyer and preacher Horatio Spafford.
Their four daughters tragically perished in the sinking and Anna famously telegraphed her husband the words, "Saved alone." In the aftermath of the tragedy, Horatio penned the words to the beloved hymn, "It is Well with My Soul," with music by Philip Bliss:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, Thou hadst taught me to say
"It is well, it is well with my soul"
In April 2020, during the first lockdown, I started writing a new musical (as you do!). I had wanted to write one for a while, as I enjoy both writing and musicals, but was waiting for the right story to 'grab me'. I had heard the story of Horatio and Anna Spafford before but around the time of writing, I also came upon the story of Philip and Lucy Bliss.
Philip was a prominent hymn-writer in the decades following the US Civil War and an associate of preacher and philanthropist DL Moody. Their story of faith in the midst of suffering was no less tragic than the Spaffords'. Certainly, in the UK, Philip's hymns have been all but forgotten. So, I set out to tell the story of those behind this beautiful and timeless hymn.
Set mainly in Chicago in the 1860s and 1870s, the musical explores the central themes of deep, authentic faith in the face of tragedy and suffering, along with staying true to what God has put you on this earth to do, despite the temptations to settle for less than God's best. The production features several original hymns by Philip Bliss, set alongside new original songs, and is directed by David Robinson of Searchlight Theatre Company, formerly Artistic Director of Saltmine Theatre Company.
I finished a first draft of the script after a writing retreat at the end of August last year. We did a couple of read-throughs on Zoom with actors and friends and the script went through some fairly significant rewrites. Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim once said, "Musicals aren't written, they're rewritten." I have learned the truth of these words over the last twelve months.
The cast had a rehearsal and workshop day back in February and, though the actors are from different parts of England, we've made good use of Zoom to rehearse in the lead-up to our intensive, in-person rehearsals in the West Midlands.
In just a few days, a talented cast of eight professional actors and two technicians will embark on a short world premiere tour, with the musical being produced by evangelistic ministry Kerygma 180, who I have the pleasure of working for. We are bringing the story of the Blisses and the Spaffords to Dudley, London, and Witney. We've also been able to record an original cast album of the songs which will be made available on all streaming platforms in the next few months.
Our vision for this musical is simple: to communicate the Good News of Jesus in a creative way that is accessible to people and can be used as a Gospel event for Christians to bring along a friend who wouldn't normally come to church. We hope these performances can be an encouragement to many!
Christianity has a long and rich heritage of using the arts to communicate the Gospel message. Our prayer is that the Lord will use this new musical to bring Him much glory and to beckon people into His Kingdom. Please pray for us as we prepare to bring "It is Well with My Soul" to the stage.
Tickets are selling well and one of the performances has already sold out. For more information, and to book your tickets to come and see one of the performances, please visit www.itiswellmusical.com
Thursday 1 June – Dormston Mill Theatre, Dudley
Friday 2 June – The Arts Centre, Hounslow
Saturday 3 June – The Chelsea Theatre, London
Sunday 4 June – The Corn Exchange, Witney
Gareth Hides is writer/producer of the musical, "It is Well With My Soul". Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @itiswellmusical