Love and Death

By Retta Blaney

Brush Strokes may be the only musical to begin as a conversation at a church convention, when the Rev. Stephen Chinlund met the Rev. Herbert G. Draesel, Jr., his partner in creativity.

Based on a play by Chinlund and backed by Draesel’s music, Brush Strokes will premiere Sept. 14 at Hudson Guild Theater. Jim Semmelman, a longtime television stage manager of The View and Today, wrote the lyrics to Draesel’s songs.

Chinlund and Draesel, both now retired from full-time church ministry, discussed their musical, which will be produced Off-Off-Broadway by the Thespis Theater Festival.

Chinlund writes in this crowded space behind a canary yellow door on a floor filled with artists’ studios festooned with a rainbow of colorful doors, and he paints here as well. His paintings adorn the wall, and shelves are crowded with books and photographs of his family: his wife of 50 years, Caroline, two sons, a daughter, and grandchildren. It is a familiar setting in New York’s creative world, but the priesthood brought Chinlund here.

While rector of Trinity Church in Southport, Connecticut, in the mid-1980s, Chinlund counseled many older parishioners who said “nothing moved them” once their children were grown and their careers were complete.

“I thought, Maybe if I wrote a play and they could see themselves onstage, they could think, ‘Maybe I could be like him or like her.’

Although he had only written one play, never produced, Chinlund gave it another try, creating a story of an older man and woman who meet at an art class, fall in love, and marry. When he shared it with friends, they were underwhelmed.

“They said, ‘A play is about drama, and drama is about conflict. You don’t have any.’”

So he decided to introduce another topic, assisted suicide, which he champions. Chinlund’s parents helped found Death with Dignity. “They were terrified of being hooked up to tubes,” he said.

Draesel said this element drew him to the project.

“It was something both of us wanted to say, and to say it as a musical would say something that mattered rather than doing Annie Get Your Gun one more time,” he said. “This is something the church should be discussing and grappling with. What better way than as a show?”

Chinlund hopes churches will produce the musical as a way to discuss end-of-life issues, but also to highlight positive aspects of aging, something he has urged for years in discussion groups called Happy Surprises in Life’s Later Chapters.

“It was the same idea as the play, that old age is not just a time to be denied or lamented, but could be the best time of life. That’s really countercultural.”

So is talking about death.

“It’s taboo,” Chinlund says. “We don’t use the D word freely. We’ve still got a long way to go.”

Both men emphasize, though, that death is not the end of love. The inspiration behind the joyful final song, “Always Together,” came from Chinlund’s sister, who kept conversing with her husband after his death.

“Everyone in my bereavement group is doing he same thing,” she told her brother, and that line is now in the play.

“That’s just how my sister felt about her sort of ongoing marriage,” Chinlund said.

“That’s not morbid,” Draesel said. “It’s just natural.”

While the Thespis Festival performances will be the first full production, the musical has been tested in public readings.

“We got a lot of encouragement from audiences,” Draesel said. “People were walking out crying, happy crying, and hugging each other. But we were preaching to the choir. I’d like to get beyond that and create study guides to be given out as they leave for people to think about these things.”

Both men hope the new production, which is being videotaped, will land them a producer who can take the show to an Off-Broadway run. Draesel envisions a rotating cast of A-list performers, such as Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.

“I pray,” he said.

This foray into the performing arts is new to Chinlund, who spent nearly five decades working in prison ministry and becoming chairman of the New York State Commission of Correction.

Draesel, who spent most of his ministry in urban areas, can trace his artistic involvement to when he was 5 and listened to his sister practicing her piano lessons, which she hated. When she finished a practice session, he took to the piano bench and played her pieces by ear. He wrote his first song at 7.

“Faith and the arts have been a very happy coupling all my life,” he says. “Most of the things I’ve written have been labors of love and explorations of faith.”

He composed another musical, Walden, about the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad.

“Those are issues dear to my heart from my years in urban ministry,” he says. “The church is not always terribly responsive. It says it’s interested in the arts, but there’s not a lot of expression.”

“We have to find God in the ordinariness of life and we have to celebrate at every possible moment.”

Chinlund agreed.

“I hope people will find in the play reasons to feel fulfilled in life that have nothing to do with a checked-off list. I think we could do more in the church to encourage people.”

Image: Joy Franz and Chuck Muckle are the lead actors in Brush Strokes.

Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, which includes interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad and Vanessa Williams.

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