Monday, April 25, 2011

Mondays With Mike: Playwright Tom Quiner and JPII, the musical

AS THIS IS posted it is Easter Monday, and the Christian world is entering into that period where the Resurrection is being celebrated. It is also a week away from the Catholic Church’s beatification of the late pontiff, John Paul, The Great. So this week I’m making a departure from my normal visit with mystery, romance, or other fiction writes and am happy to interview a local playwright who has written – to much acclaim – a musical on the life of John Paul II: The Pope of the People, which has just completed a very successful run in the Des Moines.

Tom Quiner has written and produced six musicals, all with faith-based themes. One of his favorite subjects is “Does God exist?” In 2009 he wrote a play titled, The Guy Agnostico Show. The play was modeled after The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The host of the show, Guy Agnostico, an agnostic, debates famous people from history on God’s existence. Tom and his wife, Karen, founded Breakthrough Marketing 23 years ago. His company writes, designs, and prints brochures and collateral marketing pieces along with designing Content-Managed Websites and eMagazines.

Mike: Tom, let me welcome you and wish you a Happy Easter. First tell me, how did you get started writing … did you start with plays and musicals? Or prose?

Tom:  I’ve been writing my entire business career, specializing in marketing and advertising copy. In my spare time, I began writing songs in the 1980s as an enjoyable pastime because of my love of music. They were mostly secular. But my music interests began to shift toward expressions of my faith. To that aim, I began setting psalms to music and wrote two Mass settings. Eventually, I expanded my musical interests to telling stories using a variety of musical forms, from an operetta, to mini musicals of faith, to full-blown musicals. Some of my efforts were purely musical, like a series of Easter fanfares I co-wrote with Robert Weast. Some were plays with minimal music, like The Guy Agnostico Show. Collectively, I term these efforts as “evangelization through entertainment.”

M: You also write a blog and newspaper op-eds, what is the general nature of those? Political, religious, etc?

T: Most of my blogging and newspaper entries are political in nature. My opinions are very much influenced, though, by the question of whether truth is relative or absolute. Because my Catholic faith teaches me that God is the source of Truth, my political writings very much reflect those views. That doesn’t mean I agree with the Church on every political issue, but our goals are certainly the same. I do write on faith matters on occasion, but more on the subject of apologetics. I have many readers who do not agree with my Catholic religious views and, in fact, question God’s existence. I enjoy making the case for God based on the evidence in a way that makes the agnostic think. That is the basis for my play, The Guy Agnostico Show.

M: How did you start writing musicals? What kind of musical background do you have?

T: I took traditional classical piano lessons as a kid. When I was in college, a good friend of mine gave me piano lessons on how to play music off of a guitar lead sheet. A lead sheet simply gives the melody line of a piece of music along with the guitar chords. That preliminary instruction in music theory helped to launch me on the road to writing songs. I have no more formal training than that.

Everything after that was mostly self-taught. So much of writing music comes down to desire and then doing it a lot. I have written a ton of music. A few pieces are pretty good! After writing songs for about fifteen years, I began writing a musical based on the parable, The Prodigal Son. It was never performed, because it wasn’t very good. That was followed by a 45 minute Advent operetta called We Need a Savior. It was performed twice.

Cast of Pope of the People with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad

M: What is the primary difference between writing prose fiction, and writing for the stage?

T: I have not actually written prose fiction. I’ve read plenty. There are obvious differences. Writing for the stage uses far fewer words. For example, it is up to actors to physically convey emotions with expression and gesture that may require many words to convey in prose.

Many of my musicals are all-sung productions. It is more difficult to hear sung words than spoken words. This creates a challenge for the composer to write music that is singable. I have written lyrics for three musicals where I did not compose all the music. And I’ve written several musicals where I did both. My newest production, The Pope of the People, is the first musical I wrote that uses extensive narration. This approach made it easier for the audience to follow the storyline.

M: Let me go to The Pope of the People … where did the idea come from? How did you ever get the idea about writing a musical about John Paul II?

T: I was very much inspired by Peggy Noonan’s book, John Paul the Great. Specifically, the chapter titled “We Want God!” thrilled me. It described Pope John Paul II’s trip home to Poland in 1979 and how it changed history. Newt Gingrich’s documentary, 9 Days That Changed the World helped provide additional fodder for the musical. Then I went to the Vatican’s website and poured over the Pope’s homilies he gave in Poland on that fateful trip.

M: Can you give us a thumbnail description of the play?

T: The Pope of the People focuses on a few key elements of JPII’s first ten years as Pope: his trip to Poland and the threat he posed to the communist government; the impact it had on the Solidarity Labor movement; his trip to Iowa; the assassination attempt; and his forgiveness of his would-be assassin. The theme is man’s yearning for God.

M: One of the interesting scenes in The Pope of the People involved his visit to Iowa. Were you there when he was here?

T: Yes, I was there. I was a Protestant in those days, but nonetheless thrilled to see a Pope come to Iowa. I converted to the Catholic Church a year and a half later. I celebrated my 30th anniversary as a Catholic this Easter.

M: Pope of the People was a big success here … and it garnered a good deal of publicity … have you received any inquiries from outside the area about licensing the play?

T: I have heard from groups that would like to have it performed in their area. For example, I received calls from a couple of people with Polish ancestry who live in Pennsylvania. I told them to buy the CD and DVD, which are under production, and I heard from folks in Kansas City, Sioux City, and Cedar Rapids. I am in the process of reviewing the first seven performances in order to make some revisions and hopefully make the piece even better. My hope is to actively market it to other Catholic dioceses and theater groups around the country when I feel it is sufficiently polished.

M: Have you received any comment from anyone in the Church hierarchy … or even the Vatican?

T: No, other than [Des Moines] Bishop [Richard] Pates who attended a performance and enjoyed it. A number of Central Iowa priests attended the production.

M: I know you’ve written other plays … are they all musicals? And can you give me a sentence or two about each one?

T: We Need a Savior: an Advent operetta. The lives of a bereaved Jewish man, a street waif, and a Roman Soldier collide around the time of the birth of Christ.

Calvary, the Resurrection Story: A full-blown, all-sung musical co-written with Phil Havens. It begins where Jesus Christ Superstar ends.

The Day I Lived Forever: An all-sung mini musical of faith. Two broken souls encounter Christ at communion.

The Woman at the Well: An all-sung mini musical of faith co-written with Phil Havens based on the gospel account.

Fanfares for the Stations of the Light: A series of fourteen Easter Fanfares co-written with Robert Weast based on the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Christ.

The Guy Agnostico Show: Talk show host, “Guy Agnostico,” debates God’s existence with special guests from history, including Adam & Eve, King David, and St. Thomas Aquinas.

A Living Heaven: The story of Jesus as seen through the eyes of the saints (co-
written with Phil Havens).

The Pope of the People

M: How would someone contact you about licensing rights?

T: Call me at 515-276-9266 (office); 515-689-9266 (cell); or

M: I understand there will be a CD and perhaps a video of Pope of the People… how can someone get one?

T: I hope to have the DVD ready in late April and the CD by late May. Visit the website to order:

M: Tom, I really want to thank you for joining us today. My wife and I saw Pope of the People and it was a great show … in fact, my wife enjoyed it so much she went to see it a second time. Good luck with everything.

By the way, here is the link to Tom’s blog, Quiner’s Diner.

The pope in Iowa, "O, Iowa!" from Pope of the People.  Pope John Paul II was played by Maxwell Schaeffer

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