Two queer love stories with Catholic backdrops are coming to theaters this season, enchanting international audiences with messages of perseverance and young love. One is a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet, while the other, The Louder We Get, is a newer tale directed by Lonny Price. Both focus on high school students who must fight for their relationships to be recognized and respected.
Currently finishing up a run at Montecasino Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, ‘Shakespeare’s R&J’ is a ‘play within a play’ that looks at the way this enduring love story impacts the lives of Catholic students more than 60 years ago. The description from the theater states:
“Be enthralled by the re-imagined classic tale of Romeo & Juliet where the two lovers are two adolescent schoolboys in a Catholic boarding school during the 1950s. Watch as their love for one another becomes the ultimate forbidden love in an austere, repressive all male milieu.
“The play follows four pupils discover an illicit copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and start acting it out in their dormitory late one night. Perceptions and understandings are turned upside down as the fun of play-acting turns serious and the words and meanings begin to hit home and universal truths emerge.”
Performed in theaters worldwide, the Johannesburg production was praised by Lesley Stones of Artslink as requiring a lot of ‘pluck’ from producers Abrahamse and Meyer: “It’s both risky and risqué. Risky in that Shakespeare isn’t a guaranteed crowd puller, and risqué in that this version has a strong gay element that’s already seen some teachers cancel their planned school visits.”
Stones notes that the backdrops in Shakespeare’s R&J include ‘church iconography,’ and praises the actors for their authenticity and versatility:
“Shakespeare’s undiluted text fills the script, but a strange thing happens. In the hands and mouths of these supposed Catholic schoolboys, the words become more comprehensible than has been achieved in many other versions that I’ve seen. The innuendos are highlighted with schoolboy jests and the passions and anger portrayed vividly.”
While the South African Shakespeare’s R&J has captured the oppressive air of 1950s Catholic boarding schools, the challenges of gay students at Catholic schools in more recent decades is deftly portrayed in another production on the other side of the world.
In January 2020, The Louder We Get will arrive at Theatre Calgary, a Canadian company in Alberta. The National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) notes that The Louder We Get is a revival of Prom Queen: The Musical, which has been in development since 2015, and followed a 2004 television film. New Ways Ministry previously covered an Ontario production of Prom Queen: The Musical, which had funding pulled by two school districts, one public, and one Catholic, in February 2018.
The official description for The Louder We Get reads:
“Destined for Broadway, this dazzling musical follows the compelling and inspirational true story of Marc Hall as he navigates the Catholic school system to fight for his right to take his boyfriend to prom. With colourful pop-inspired songs and heart-warming unity, you won’t want to miss this electric love story at Theatre Calgary.”
NAMT describes the play as “inspired by the incredible, true story of Marc Hall, the Canadian teenager who took the Catholic School Board to court when they refused to let him attend prom with his boyfriend. In this fun and uplifting musical, Marc has to learn to be his own hero and fight for the right to be himself.”
Praised by the Festival Committee as “confident, big-hearted and celebratory,” the show is also described as able to “confront issues of sexuality and religion without getting preachy…members embrace its buoyancy, sincerity and potential for broad mainstream appeal.”
In the music video for the show, 16 musical theater students from a Calgary’s Henry Wise High School and Studio Bell meet songwriters Colleen Dauncey and Akiya Romer-Segal, as well as Marc Hall himself. Hall tells the students, “The problems that happened to me in 2002…but still all the messages from the musical are still incredibly relevant today.”
The students then sing the titular song, with the swelling chorus: “The more they try to silence us, the louder we get.” Other lines beautifully capture the spirit of the musical:
“Words will never fail us when we’re speaking from the heart…raise our voice and make some noise that they cannot ignore…They haven’t heard the last of us, they haven’t heard at all. This is the sound of breaking ground, this is our battle call. If they think they’ve seen the end, they ain’t seen nothing yet. The more they try to silence us, the louder we get.”
The line, “They haven’t heard the last of us,” repeats as the students join together on stage, holding hands. It’s a moving performance and worth listening to in full.
These productions of Shakespeare’s R&J and The Louder We Get both do an impressive job of bringing powerful stories of young gay Catholics to the forefront of audiences’ minds. Their respective successes should likewise encourage the telling of similar stories, which always deserve to be heard.
—Catherine Buck, New Ways Ministry, September 11, 2019