Musings on an Oklahoma City production of Leonard Bernstein’s crisis of faith

The Miracle of ‘Mass’

by Jake Johnson


My wife and I drove the handful of miles from our beloved 92-year-old bungalow in Mesta Park to the Oklahoma City Civic Center one spring evening in 2013. We were giddy, no doubt, that we lived so close to the thriving downtown. Oklahoma City was a brittle wonder, and we loved to love her.

On the docket for the evening was a co-production of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS by the Canterbury Choral Society and Oklahoma City University. The Civic Center was bristling with the kind of excitement you might expect of a one-night-only performance. Decades earlier, in 1971, Leonard Bernstein had penned his MASS for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The slain president’s widow had commissioned the work from Bernstein, who at that time was primarily known as a conductor busily resurrecting Mahler from the ash pit of late German maximalism rather than the mind behind less highbrow works like West Side Story.

The MASS requires extraordinary forces. Hundreds of performers prepped backstage while scores of musicians, musical instruments, and what must have seemed like a battalion of drums and cymbals squeezed under the stage into an orchestral pit with square footage to rival a Manhattan studio apartment. The house was spilling over too, and the atmosphere leading up to the downbeat quickly resembled legendary Oklahoma bedlam battles of an entirely different occasion. The forces required to make the MASS a viable production made the line between performer and audience less and less obvious. The breathing and heaving bodies both on stage and pressing in upon my wife and me in the audience made for an overwhelming experience. “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life, it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stoney,” read Vikor Shklovsky’s famous words on artistic estrangement. I have a feeling moments like this would have baffled even Comrade Shklovsky—maybe there is something to be said for a stone feeling a little too stoney. So even before the first notes sounded, Oklahoma City’s flirtations with Bernstein’s MASS set this evening apart as something to be remembered, something to be felt, and something entirely sensate.

The main thrust of the MASS is the debilitating nature of a faith crisis. The story revolves around the Christ-like character, the Celebrant, who tries to make sense of a secularized world. Faced with a Greek chorus stringently realist (“half the people are drowned and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction,” they sing at one point), the Celebrant eventually succumbs to doubts about his divine mission. The trunk of wonders he excitedly pulled on stage at the beginning of the show over time seemed to me more like the kind of muddled burden the preachers of Flannery O’Connor’s imagination carried around. One character’s inquiring observation, “I believe in God, but does God believe in me?” crushes the Celebrant’s spirit. At the moment of his collapse, the Celebrant is comforted by a young girl—named the Young Celebrant—and, in the final scene amid a pregnant pause deafening in its profundity, she drags the trunk of burdens off stage and out of sight.

The particular religiosity of the MASS struck an odd note with a number of the patrons that night. The once-brimming audience slowly dissipated as the night wore on, either worn out by the length of the production or estranged by the too-close-to-home implications of a dark religious drama (too many feels, too stoney a stone). If the production were an athletic match, the bodies on and under the stage would have won by mere default. I imagine many in the audience forfeited willingly, outwitted, unprepared, and poorly matched against the emotional onslaught of what is Bernstein’s MASS. Audiences in 1971 had a hard time understanding it, too.

At the time of the performance, I was on the music faculty at Oklahoma City University and was well aware of the gargantuan efforts put into the production. I was also cognizant of more personal aspects of this show. Like the Celebrant, I knew too well the disabling
nature of a faith crisis. Fully embroiled within my own crisis as a Mormon unappreciative of my church’s churlish treatment of gays, women, and intellectuals, the story of the MASS resonated within me deeply. Yet, I also felt I was heading toward a healthier, happier place on the other side of that crisis. There was something able-ing about my disabling experience.

It’s also part of the story everyone tells, if they’re fortunate enough. One of my closest colleagues and dear friends was the stage director of the production, and he is legally blind. The Young Celebrant who dragged the heavy trunk off stage in that final scene was played by a local teen with cerebral palsy. A few months earlier, she could hardly speak, let alone sing a challenging role. Watching her struggle to walk across that large stage with a huge trunk dragging reminded me of my own trunk filled to the hinges with years of doubt, hurt, and repressed feelings about my faith.

As my wife and I drove home that night, we passed the newest and tallest building in Oklahoma, glowing with confidence in its indefatigable corporate offerings. With the lights of downtown Oklahoma City in the rearview mirror, we made our way into Heritage Hills. But not before driving along Harvey Avenue, past a quiet and calm green space straddling a shallow pool that reflected 168 glowing chairs solemnly awaiting their dethroned owners. I remember as a child seeing the gaping scar on the building that once stood where still waters now collect. That horribly disabling moment in the city’s history pushed the community to become stronger and better than before. Twenty years of mending, of growing, of reconciling have turned the pages of Oklahoma City’s story.

Wendell Berry once wrote that “the impeded stream is the one that sings.” I don’t know about the particular stream Berry had in mind when he wrote those words, but I know of another impeded stream that sits between Harvey and Robinson Avenues in downtown Oklahoma City. It reflects back a city on the mend and it sings a quiet song of triumph.


Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015.