"!Hero" – Christ's Life Inspires New Rock/Hip-Hop Opera
- Harold Schrader Contributing Writer
- 2003 3 Sep
If people are watching three hours of MTV each day and not going to church three times per week, chances are good they won't pay attention to the 2,000-year-old account of Jesus Christ. But if that same demographic hears the story of a dark-skinned, dread-locked miracle man raising drive-by shooting victims from the dead and feeding a crowd of 5,000 with two hot dogs and some pretzels – to the beat of modern rock and hip-hop music – anything might happen.
At least that's what Eddie DeGarmo hopes as he launches his long-conceived musical, "!Hero," this month with a two-disc album followed by a nationally touring stage production, both starring Michael Tait (dc Talk, Tait), Mark Stuart (Audio Adrenaline), and Rebecca St. James.
Eddie, a Christian music pioneer who co-fronted rock band DeGarmo & Key, co-founded Forefront Records, and is now president of EMI Christian Music Publishing, first dreamed of this ambitious project back in 1994 soon after his daughter shared some humbling feedback from a classroom survey. Only one in ten teenagers could connect Easter with the Resurrection.
"I felt like the marketplace was ready for something new and fresh; an inventive way to share the true Gospel," DeGarmo says. "The story's been softened through the years, but it's really a gritty story – as Mel Gibson has pointed out recently."
With grit on his mind and truth penetrating his heart, Eddie partnered with friend Bob Farrell to script "!Hero." Poetic license firmly in hand, they chronicle the modern day title character (played by Tait), who was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, flees with his family from a hostile government to the Jewish section of Brooklyn, New York, and begins to speak out against the systems of the world. Along the way, Hero selects his disciples from the docks of the East River, delivers the Beatitudes in Central Park, and shines in glory from the observation deck atop the Empire State Building. Odd as these twists may seem with their liberties, the plot remains reverent in message and should be duly intriguing to newcomers and seasoned believers alike.
"When Bob and I wrote it, we tried to pull out the nuggets of the story and translate them into modern vernacular," DeGarmo says. "We're not the first ones to adapt the Gospel, but we may be the first to try and superimpose the climate of Jesus' time on Earth with the climate of 2003."
Likewise, the music of "!Hero" is made for today's dynamic radio listener. Produced by rock-wise/pop-smart guitarist Pete Stewart (tobyMac), the majority of 33 tracks are anchored by the three well-loved leading players and packed along the way with special guests like John Cooper of Skillet and Matt Hammitt of Sanctus Real. Even with some hit singles up its sleeve ("Raised in Harlem", "I Am"), the project stays true to the distinctive musical form, with plenty of jovial group singing, emotive recurring themes, intense spoken interludes, elongated songs, and well-connected conversational lyrics that make the story's subtleties easier to follow.
Known more recently for his executive production skills ("Jesus Freak", "Stacie Orrico"), DeGarmo enjoyed his return to songwriting on "!Hero," even coming up with an outright classic in the heartbreaking mother/son ballad, "Lose My Life with You." Sonically, he found a home base in urgent post-grunge rock, peppered with pop, orchestration, and mild shades of industrial. But admittedly, he asked for help from guests like T-Bone and GRITS when it came to filling the gaps on the scratched-up hip-hop cuts.
"I couldn't do a story in New York without hip-hop," Eddie reasons. "But I don't really have much experience when it comes to writing rap."
On stage, "!Hero" will make its biggest leap of faith -- presenting itself as a purposeful melding of rock concert and classic theatrical elements and incorporating an elaborate live-action and multi-media set that will travel to 19 U.S. cities beginning November 1. Instead of an orchestra pit, a no-holds rock band will support the 21 cast members. And helping the lead players feel right at home, musicians will include members from the Tait and Rebecca St. James tour groups.
DeGarmo says "!Hero" was constructed from day one with live performance in mind and predicts the shows will be like nothing ever seen before.
Finally, all that remains to be seen is how the world at large will react to an intricately detailed and outspoken Christian musical in today's often politically correct, short-attention-span society. The success of musicals, from "Jesus Christ Superstar" in the 1960s and Pink Floyd's "The Wall" in the 1980s to the 21st century film hits "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago" bode well for "!Hero"'s potential, and DeGarmo holds fast to the ultimate reason for the project's arrival and claim to fame:
"It's the most ambitious thing I've ever done, and probably the most risky, but it's also one of the most moving pieces I've been a part of. I would challenge anyone to listen to it from beginning to end and not be moved…. "!Hero" is based on a desire to get people talking about Jesus. It is that simple."
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