The musical “Celebrate Life!” turns 50 years old this year — a milestone that will be commemorated in June at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Under the leadership of Roy Hayes, True North Presents is bringing together music ministers, worship pastors, choir directors, singers and instrumentalists from around the nation to perform the musical at Carnegie Hall on June 24, 2023.
Hayes expects 200–250 choir members and 55–60 orchestra members to participate.
“It’s an interesting thing to be in a historic setting like Carnegie Hall … possibly the most famous stage on earth … and to be present when the Holy Spirit comes into an environment like that in a very powerful way,” Hayes said.
The idea of presenting the musical at its half-century mark in Carnegie Hall started with Bruce Greer, a composer, songwriter and musical director as well as pianist at First Baptist Church Dallas. “The first time I heard this music, I was 11 years old,” he said. “I was sitting in church and listening to a youth choir rehearsal and was totally captivated.” He has since performed in the musical “more times than I can even remember.”
Greer did a full orchestration of the work for its 25th anniversary, which was performed in Houston by Second Baptist Church’s choir and orchestra; Cynthia Clawson, who sang the solos in the original productions in 1972; and Ballet Magnificat.
“We took what was a youth musical and helped it ‘grow up’ and become a sophisticated work that adults could present,” Greer recounted.
Movement in motion
Mike Harland was 11 or 12 years old the first time he saw a drum set in church.
But it wasn’t only the drums; it was the new musical “Celebrate Life!”
“I was completely captured by it like everyone else in my generation,” said Harland, associate pastor of worship at First Baptist Church Jackson, Mississippi, and director of worship at Lifeway Christian Resources from 2005 to 2020.
“Celebrate Life!” was an early Baptist expression of what was happening in the Jesus music movement on the West Coast, and it made its way to the northeast Mississippi town of Corinth where Harland grew up at Tate Baptist Church.
“When I was in high school several years later, we were still singing the songs of ‘Celebrate Life!’ in our youth choir and on our tours,” said Harland, a 40-year veteran of music ministry.
In 2023, Carnegie Hall in New York will become the musical’s most prominent venue since its release in 1972.
The June 24 performance, open to interested church choir and orchestra members, is being organized by True North Presents led by Roy Hayes, whose work focuses on enhancing the ministry of Christian artists and of church choirs.
“Unlike many musicals, which often have a narrow market acceptance and a short shelf life, ‘Celebrate Life!’ enjoyed a broad acceptance among Baptist and other evangelical churches,” said Hayes, a former music minister in Alabama, Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana. “It remained an important work [that was] performed for many years, and a number of individual songs from the musical retained a performance life of their own … for choir tours and festivals and as a staple in their repertoire for weekly worship in local churches.”
One of the songs, “In Remembrance,” is in the Lord’s Supper section of the 1991 “Baptist Hymnal” and the Communion section of the 2008 hymnal.
The late Buryl Red — a prolific New York-based composer, member of Manhattan Baptist Church and longtime musical director of The CenturyMen, a 100-voice chorus of music ministers — wrote the music for lyrics penned by Ragan Courtney, who turned 81 this year.
“Celebrate Life!” emerged from Courtney’s plan to end his life the previous year after the one-week failure of a Broadway musical he had written with a cousin.
Walking into the Caribbean to drown himself, he suddenly began singing “Jesus Loves Me,” recalling distant memories from his childhood days at church in Ruston, Louisiana.
“Stumbling back to the beach, I was overwhelmed with what I had experienced. Gasping in surprise, I ran to the house, grabbed a pencil and started writing as though I were taking dictation about a vision I was having,” Courtney recounted (see sidebar, next page).
50th anniversary rendition
Earlier this year, Sugar Land Baptist Church in the Houston area performed a 50th anniversary rendition of the musical, with a 79-voice adult choir and 34-piece orchestra.
Worship and arts pastor Clint Kimmel said the church wanted to acknowledge the milestone and “celebrate what God has done through the years and through many different generations.”
“‘Celebrate Life!’ was and still is a monumental work in church music and in Baptist church music particularly,” Kimmel said.
As a youth in the 2000s, Kimmel learned of “Celebrate Life!” from his parents, longtime choir members who as teenagers in the 1970s performed various songs from the musical and spoke of “the impact it had on their faith and their relationship with the Lord.”
Kimmel first conducted “Celebrate Life!” 10 years ago while serving part time at Chalk Bluff Baptist Church near Waco as a music student at Baylor University. He said the only way to describe the experience is simply as “a powerful work of the Holy Spirit.”
The musical is told from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Kimmel said, “but not in a way with pretense — just very real, with [informal contemporary language]. … It goes back to the Scripture that the word of God does not return void. We are declaring the gospel, and we expect the Lord to move.”
‘Excited my passions’
Paul Magyar first encountered “Celebrate Life!” in 1974 as a 14-year-old missionary kid in Colombia, South America, when a team from Swope Park Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, taught the musical to 50-plus kids during their parents’ two-week missions meeting.
“I was already captivated by music,” said Magyar, worship pastor of West University Baptist Church in Houston. “But there was no doubt that Buryl’s and Ragan’s creative genius further excited my passions to continue a pathway of music-making.”
Magyar conducted “Celebrate Life!” after his freshman year at Oklahoma Baptist University, enlisting a college and career Sunday School class at Bayless Baptist Church in St. Louis during the summer break of 1979.
It was “the first work that I conducted as a minister of music in the making,” Magyar said. “And it was while we were rehearsing, then performing ‘Celebrate Life!’ in that context that I realized this is what God is calling me to do for my life.” He subsequently conducted the musical at churches he served in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Houston.
“Celebrate Life!” exists in a category all its own, Magyar said.
Other musicals created during the ’70s and ’80s served a good purpose, but “Celebrate Life!” stood out in how it conveyed the biblical story of Jesus — “the Life, His Life, Life with a capital L” — with music “crafted in a timeless continuum,” Magyar noted. “Even ‘I Quietly Turned to You,’ while in a ’70s pop/gentle rock style, still sounds fresh.”
Reaching young people
Leslie Anne Tarabella of Fairhope, Alabama, was in elementary school when her father, Cordell Harrison, minister of music at Myrtle Grove Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida, began to make plans to produce “Celebrate Life!”
“I believe he heard it as a demo performance at a conference. He came back very excited about it and wanted to be one of the first churches to produce it,” Tarabella recounted.
Harrison, who died four years ago, was building toward a moment like “Celebrate Life!” “A lot of people in the church were against any kind of contemporary music aimed at teenagers,” Tarabella said. “So in the morning, he would always have traditional hymns, but in the evening the youth choir did more and more contemporary music.
“Some people would call our house after church about how they didn’t like guitars and drums being used. He would just smile and say, ‘Yes, yes, I understand,’ and then he would hang up and shake his head because he knew what was important — trying to reach the young people. And because of that, he had a large youth choir that overflowed out of the choir loft and down both sides onto the platform.”
“‘Celebrate Life!’ won over even the harshest critics when they heard the music and saw that it was biblically based,” Tarabella said. “And once the parents saw their kids coming home from practice excited, they too joined in the excitement and helped with the production.”
Myrtle Grove produced the musical several times during the ’70s and ’80s, once in conjunction with churches in the Pensacola Bay Baptist Association at the former Bayfront Auditorium.
Youth choir members from the ’70s and ’80s have gathered twice for reunions, each time including “He Is Alive” and “The Truth Shall Make You Free” in their performance at Myrtle Grove.
“It was just like yesterday. A lot of us, even though we need reading glasses, didn’t even need the music because we remembered it by heart,” Tarabella said. “If the accompanying musical score wasn’t equally as powerful as the lyrics, I don’t think it would have stuck with us all these years.”
First person: From failure on Broadway to believing ‘Jesus loves me’
“Celebrate Life!” at its inception was a half-hearted response to a request from the Baptist Sunday School Board (now Lifeway Christian Resources) to write a 30-minute skit for youth.
At the time, I was preparing for the opening night of “Earl of Ruston,” a musical I had written with my cousin, C.C. Courtney, and my good friend Peter Link.
Compared to the excitement of a show opening on Broadway, the Sunday School Board was a faint thought — something to do later.
The reviews for our show were … mixed. The show closed in one week. My dream died.
A couple of weeks later, some friends suggested we go somewhere to escape, so we all bought tickets to Antigua, an island in the Caribbean.
I was far more depressed than I realized, and that depression reached its depth when I privately decided to end my life. I waded into the warm turquoise water feeling that my agony and sense of failure would soon be over.
Chest deep in the waves, I found myself singing a song I had not thought of since I was a small child in the junior choir at my church back in Ruston, Louisiana:
Jesus loves me! This I know, For the Bible tells me so;/ Little ones to Him belong; They are weak, but He is strong./ Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!/ Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.
Suddenly I was weeping! I was alive! I had forgotten that the faith I had been brought up on was based on this truth: “Jesus loves me!” I immediately changed my outlook.
Stumbling back to the beach, I was overwhelmed with what I had experienced. Gasping in surprise, I ran to the house and started writing.
Suddenly, I paused [at the line] “The best was … .” What was the best thing He said to me? “I love you” did not fit the meter or the rhyme. Then it came to me. The best thing He said was “I love you” — and that was the truth! It was the truth that set me free. So I completed the poem:
The best was, truth shall make you free./ You shall know the truth,/ And love is the proof …/ that the truth shall make you free!
I realized I was writing about my Savior.
It was a story that had been told repeatedly down through the centuries, but somehow I had missed the truth of it.
I realized that if I missed the point, chances were others had missed it also. I would tell it again and call it “Celebrate Life!”
I was moved to tears by a Savior who muttered, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — First person sidebar by Ragan Courtney as told to Art Toalston.