Playing God

The Bible on the Broadway Stage
Henry Bial
A fascinating look at how the Bible has inspired Broadway plays and musicals, from Ben-Hur to Jesus Christ Superstar


Biblical texts have inspired more than 100 Broadway plays and musicals, ranging from early spectacles like Ben-Hur (1899) to more familiar works such as Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. What happens when a culture’s most sacred text enters its most commercial performance venue? Playing God focuses on eleven successful productions, as well as a few notable flops that highlight the difficulties in adapting the Old and New Testaments for the stage. The book is informed by both performance studies and theater history, combining analysis of play scripts with archival research into the actual circumstances of production and reception. Biblical plays, Henry Bial argues, balance religious and commercial considerations through a complex blend of spectacle, authenticity, sincerity, and irony. Though there is no magic formula for a successful adaptation, these four analytical lenses help explain why some biblical plays thrive while others have not.

“Henry Bial’s keen dramaturgical eye, love of Broadway lore, and deep respect for faith and faith concerns elevate his subject. He asks what it means to balance the demands of theatrical (and commercial) representation with the challenge of doing justice to transcendent ideas and personages... Bial’s writing is incisive and sophisticated but also accessible and, frankly, fun.”
— John Fletcher, Louisiana State University

“A detailed and entertaining overview of more than 100 years of Biblical theatre on the Great White Way, Playing God asks important questions about the complex interplay between theological, commercial, and aesthetic enterprises found in scripturally inspired theatre.  Henry Bial's love for the American stage and deep respect for religious practice shine as he addresses the interplay between religious antitheatricality and secular antireligious sentiment, all the while asking significant questions about adaptation, representation and transcendence. An important, and enjoyable, read for any scholar of religious performance, or lover of Broadway.”
— The Reverend Canon Julia Whitworth, Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine

“In Henry Bial’s fascinating study of Broadway stage adaptations of the Bible, theater and church meet and greet, celebrate or offend, garner glowing reviews or get panned, pack houses or close quickly, are frequently revived or quickly forgotten.  Bial offers a terrifically useful series of Broadway Bible-adaptation keywords… through which he smartly reads a wealth of archival materials and playscripts.  This new excavation of U.S. theatre history gives readers—religious or not—compelling performance analyses and a vibrant sense of being-there.”
— Stacy Wolf, Princeton University

Henry Bial is Professor of Theatre and Director of the School of the Arts, University of Kansas. 

Praise / Awards

  • "[Playing God is a] well-researched study of dramatizing the Bible for Broadway audiences and the tensions between theater and religion that ensued...Highly recommended."

  • "[Bial's] writing is engaging and his performance-based analysis never loses analytical precision. Incidentally, Playing God is also entertaining in how it showcases the evolution in style, vocabulary, and zingers used by Broadway critics over the twentieth century."
    --Jill Stevenson, Studies in Theatre and Performance

  • "Playing God is an engaging and resonant work of scholarship, one that makes a significant contribution to theories of adaptation and enriches critical conversations on theatre and religion by extending them to the profane space of the commercial theatre."
    --Modern Drama

  • "Bial’s provocative paradigm of performative sincerity, faith, irony, and spectacle opens new critical territory in the field. Broadway’s dalliances with biblical drama have received scant scholarly attention, and Playing God makes a valuable contribution, filling this void."
    --The Drama Review
  • "Bial’s book is an extraordinary achievement. It builds upon some of the best scholarship in theatre studies, and is an important follow-up to the author’s own Acting Jewish (2005) in its examination of the negotiations of religion, ethnicity, and race on stage as part of American history."
    --Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism
  • "Like the rest of Bial's oeuvre, Playing God is remarkable for both the breadth and the depth of its analyses." 
    --Theatre History Studies
  • Winner. John W. Frick Book Award, American Theatre and Drama Society 
  • Byron Smith Caldwell Award, winner for non-fiction, 2017

Look Inside

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 260pp.
  • 15 photos, 1 figure.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07292-7

Add to Cart
  • $89.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05292-9

Add to Cart
  • $29.95 U.S.

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