Through faith and determination, retired Asheville native Fred Northup resurrects his biblical music

Nov 4, 2021

Fred Northup inside Cathedral of All Souls, where a choir is rehearsing for a performance of Northup's creation, "David: The Faces of Love."
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

Decades before he retired from the ministry, Fred Northup devoted himself to a more creative calling.

“I wrote this play, actually, 40 years ago,” Northup recalled. “And we did it, but I’ll just say, I failed, let’s put it that way.” 

But since that regrettable premiere, Northup never gave up on remounting what he titled “David: The Faces of Love.”

He resurrected and revised the play in fits and starts over the past decade and caught a second wind during the pandemic. He found a young music director to freshen the score and raised about $25,000 from a couple of investors to restage “David.”

“I just think it was pride that I’d failed and I was gonna succeed,” he said.

A single performance can be seen in person or online Nov. 13 at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts.

The live production will feature six main characters and a 16-voice chorus supported by a 14-piece orchestra. Northup is paying to record the performance as a multi-camera concert production. 

He plans on sending the video to performing arts presenters around the country, with hopes of taking this musical story to New York.

“Well, you just Google Broadway producers, they’ll pop right up. The question is how you get in the door. That’s the trickier question,” Northup said. “The interesting part, I think, will be how people view a religious play. To try to bring a religious story in a way people could identify with it and connect with it.”

“Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” premiered on Broadway 50 years ago. Since then, no plays or musicals have gained similar traction in the national repertory. Nativity plays and Handel’s “Messiah” are commonplace around the holidays, but productions of new Christian works are rare.

 

In the story of David, Northup chose a complicated protagonist. The Old Testament describes David’s killing of the giant Goliath, leading to his becoming king of Israel. But it also tells of him committing adultery and arranging the death of his romantic rival. And David was nobody’s nominee for father of the year.

“Here is the greatest ruler in the history of Israel. At the same time, he was a flawed person, only in his case, his flaws were really quite serious,” Northup said. “So there’s a lot of stuff about him (in this musical) that’s in brighter colors.”

Northup’s father was the minister at The Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville during Northup’s upbringing in Biltmore Village. He followed his father into seminary and then the priesthood. He led churches in several cities around the country before becoming dean of an Episcopal church in Seattle. He retired 20 years ago and founded a nonprofit devoted to fusing athletics and an ethical code of living. He moved back to Asheville 12 years ago.

At age 75, Northup is an active golfer and tennis player. He has never trained as a musician, composer or playwright. He premiered the first version of his “David” story over six performances in Lake Charles, La. He also has an unpublished novel and a screenplay drafted long ago.

“I had never written a screenplay before, a play either,” he said. “I just thought if you just tell the story, that’s enough, but I realized no, you have to do more than that. There’s an art to writing a play and there’s an art to getting a good play.”

Just as he envisioned four decades ago, Northup still views his stage play of David’s story as uniquely positioned to slice through what he sees as the divisiveness of modern Christianity.

“The problem with the church is all the dogmatism that you see, the paying more attention to the formulations of faith, rather than what IS faith and how can I get in touch with it,” he said.

Whether Broadway sends an invitation, Northup said he would be happy to see “David” take on a life of any kind after its night at the Wortham.

“Everybody knows about David and Goliath, but they might not know about the problem he had with his sons. That’ll probably be new information for a lot of people, and they’ll probably go home and read the Bible like crazy.”