‘The 12’ at Goodspeed imagines what might have happened to the disciples during the 48 hours after Jesus’ death
The new musical “The 12” focuses on the disciples in the two days after Jesus’ death, but during its world premiere in 2015 in Denver, it became clear what a universal reach the show has.
Composer Neil Berg, who created “The 12” with playwright Robert Schenkkan, recalled how talkbacks after performances gave theatergoers a chance to react to the piece.
“Somebody raised their hand and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, this was incredible. I saw my faith onstage. It was unbelievable. Thank you, thank you, thank you,’” Berg remembered.
“That wasn’t our intention, but OK, that’s how you saw it.
“The next person raises their hand and says, ‘I don’t believe in religion at all, and this was fantastic … It spoke to me as a human being.’”
In other words, audience members got vastly different things out of “The 12.”
So “The 12” is about the disciples, and it’s also about more. For Berg, it’s ultimately about love — how hard love can be and what a person has to give up to truly love.
“I think everybody can relate to that,” he said.
“The 12” opens Friday at The Goodspeed in East Haddam for its second full production after that Denver run.
The men behind ‘The 12’
The creators of “The 12” have impressive resumes.
Schenkkan won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Kentucky Cycle” and a Tony for “All the Way.”
Berg’s musical adaptations have included “The Prince and the Pauper” and “Grumpy Old Men.”
Directing the Goodspeed production is Tony winner John Doyle, whose Broadway credits are led by revivals of “Sweeney Todd,” “Company” and “The Color Purple.”
“The 12” is the first musical that Schenkkan has done. He said he loves — and had long been eager to tackle — the genre. Mutual friends introduced him to Berg, who was working on a rock ‘n’ roll apostle song cycle. Schenkkan liked the music but wasn’t really interested in the project in general.
He was, though, fascinated by one part of the tale that was briefly referenced in Berg’s work. It’s a segment of the Passion story that, to Schenkkan’s knowledge, no one had ever dramatized. It’s at a point where Jesus and Judas were dead, and, Schenkkan said, “You have these people, these blue-collar people who followed (Jesus). They didn’t have much, any of them, but whatever they had, they’d given it up for this. Even though they didn’t necessarily understand it while they were in the middle of it, they could feel the excitement of it and knew it was important.”
When they had arrived in Jerusalem, they had been treated like rock stars. But suddenly, Jesus was dead in a brutal, public fashion, and one of their own was a traitor.
They had all retreated to a room and, Schenkkan said, “You can only imagine what they are feeling. And then, 48 hours later, they will leave the room prepared to preach an entirely new idea — for which they will all die.
“The dramatic question is, what happened in the room?” Schenkkan said.
“The 12” examines ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Schenkkan said the show looks at people who are experiencing a dark night of the soul, which is not exclusively a religious experience.
“Everybody, regardless of what you believe or don’t believe, we’ve all had that moment where, whatever it was we committed ourselves to — maybe it was a marriage or relationship or the job, career, political party, an ideology — and then it failed us. I mean, it completely failed us. You’re left, all of us, trying to figure out how you could be so wrong and how do you possibly go forward,” he said. “To me, that’s such a basic human struggle and one well worth examining. That’s what we’ve done here. I think people are going to be very, very moved and provoked and entertained.”
Berg said musical theater is about writing emotions, and there is a lot of emotion going on among the disciples at that point in their lives.
When “The 12” premiered at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the response was very positive, not just from audiences but from critics, too. The show won the Henry Award for outstanding new play or musical; the Henry Awards honor artistic excellence in theater produced in Colorado.
But Berg said he and Schenkkan realized they didn’t have “The 12” where they wanted it to be. They figured they were about 70 percent there. One of the things they did after Denver was bring in a new director, Doyle.
Schenkkan and Doyle have known each other for a long time and had been trying to work together for two decades before they finally did with “The 12.” At one point in his early adulthood, Doyle was considering a career in the church.
“So he takes his Christianity very seriously,” Schenkkan said. “And then he discovered theater and that became his church. I couldn’t imagine anybody who is more suited for this material than John Doyle. He knows all of the story backwards and forwards, but more importantly, he has a deep emotional connection to the story and the ambiguities within the story and the questions it continues to pose after 2,000 years. And he’s just such a pleasure to work with as a human being.”
Making it timeless
With COVID, everything in the theater world stopped and became backlogged afterward. So this second production of “The 12” took time. Berg said while that was frustrating, “I truly do believe good things happen to those who wait.”
As in the Denver production, the actors will be costumed in modern clothing at Goodspeed.
Berg said, “Robert put it eloquently in write-ups he did. He said, ‘Our play could be set in Jerusalem or in New York City today.’ We’re trying to link a timelessness with the story.”
Discussing the music in “The 12,” Berg said it’s what he’d imagine blue-collar fishermen might listen to on a bar jukebox after work.
From plays to a musical
As for writing his first musical, Schenkkan said, “It was fascinating. For starters, you have this entirely other tool kit to work with and that’s so potent and works on so many levels. Suddenly, you’ve not only got dialogue and you’ve got lyrics telling one story, but then the music can be telling a completely different story underneath that, against that.”
He said it’s made him a better writer. When you challenge yourself, he said, you’re going to fail but you’re also going to learn something about yourself and your art.
What: “The 12”
Where: The Goodspeed, 6 Main St., East Haddam
When: Sept. 8-Oct. 29; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; also select Thursdays at 2 p.m. and select Sundays at 5:30 p.m.;
Tickets: Start at $30
Contact: goodspeed.org, (860) 872-8668
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.