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Russ Breimeier

A Different Kind of Hero

Retelling the gospel in a new rock opera

It started as a simple concept that grew into a fully developed idea, which took the shape of a song and eventually evolved into a rock opera. Shortly after that it expanded into the medium of comic books and then a trilogy of novels.

The phenomenon is called !Hero, and don't let the oddly placed exclamation point throw you—love it or hate it, it's there to call attention to the title. The vision behind !Hero stems from Eddie DeGarmo, best known as half of the Christian rock duo DeGarmo & Key, as well as the co-founder of Forefront Records. Currently the President of EMI Christian Music Publishing, DeGarmo has made !Hero a labor of love for more than ten years now. "I wanted to do a modern depiction of Christ that incorporated the culture of today," says the Christian music veteran. "I asked myself, What could I do to re-create the story of Jesus for the MTV Generation?"

DeGarmo started by writing a song called "Hero," the core of what has now evolved into a 33-track, two-hour rock opera. Since DeGarmo is a product of the late '60s and early '70s, it's natural to draw comparisons between !Hero and the messianic-themed rock operas of that era. This new creation combines the heart of Stephen Schwartz's Godspell with what is essentially the same story as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, set to music that is the modern rock and hip-hop equivalent of The Who's Tommy with the goals of a Billy Graham Crusade.

!Hero was written by two evangelically minded Christian music veterans, DeGarmo and his friend Bob Farrell (from Farrell & Farrell). A retelling of Christ's Passion through modern music, it's also a hypothetical glimpse of a parallel universe that is seeing the Word made flesh for the first time. "I'm not the first guy to do this kind of adaptation [of the Gospel]," says DeGarmo. "The difference for me was that I gave this particular version of the world 2,000 more years to get weirder. It's not a second coming, it's the first coming."

In the !Hero universe, society is controlled by the International Confederation of Nations (ICON), a modern equivalent to the Roman Empire of biblical times with some reasonable similarities to the Global Community of the ever-popular Left Behind series. There are no Christian churches in this version of our world. Street violence is rampant, kept in check by the police state that is ICON.

!Hero is intended to be somewhat provocative in its modern-day depiction of the story of Jesus. In this universe, Hero is an African-American born in Bethlehem (Pennsylvania), who takes his divine mission to New York City. One of his first disciples, Petrov/Peter, first appears on stage wearing a t-shirt with a Confederate flag on it. The modern depiction of the wedding feast at Cana has the rabbi singing like a gospel preacher. In the gospels of Mark and Luke, Jairus is a prominent leader in the Jewish community; in !Hero he's a drug kingpin.

The story is narrated by ICON Agent Alex Hunter, who serves as the rock opera's hip-hop Greek chorus as well as the modern depiction of the faithful centurion (perhaps with a touch of Paul, the persecutor turned apostle). Piecing together pivotal events, beginning with the calling of the disciples, he offers the gospel according to Agent Hunter, if you will.

The rock opera's tour doesn't begin until November, but the accompanying CD gives a taste of what to expect. All of the roles are sung by prominent or up-and-coming Christian recording artists. Michael Tait (Tait, DC Talk) gives the vocal performance of his career as Hero, depicting Christ with a good balance of power, tenderness, and passion. Rebecca St. James is appropriately seductive and sincere as Maggie/Mary Magdalene, while the powerful rock vocals of Mark Stuart (Audio Adrenaline) provide Petrov with the requisite strength and brashness. But the album's biggest surprise may be Quinlan, a Christian artist and producer with a relatively unknown voice who plays the role of Jude/Judas. Quinlan infuses the part of the traitorous disciple with a dark balance of schemes and misgivings.

In !Hero, in contrast to the earlier rock operas about Jesus, there is indeed a resurrection at the end, though the listener doesn't actually hear Hero's return on this concept album. In fact, the CD's ending is underwhelming, relying on the testimonies of Agent Hunter and Maggie. Word is that the stage version will feature a more definitive resurrection.

The comic books are the work of Ross Lawhead, once a Forefront Records intern, and his father, best-selling Christian fiction author Stephen R. Lawhead. A four-part series, the comics are also bundled together (in a shrewd marketing plan) as a graphic novel with a fifth chapter not sold separately. It is a handsomely rendered work that falls between outlandish Japanimation and traditional comic book art. And as is expected from this medium, it also puts the "graphic" in graphic novel, not shying away from the harsh reality of suffering and evil and the high cost of Hero's sacrifice. (Both the graphic novel and the promotional video feature a stark image of Hero crucified on a street sign.)

After the comics were well under way, the senior Lawhead approached DeGarmo with the idea of novelizing the story. With the first of the trilogy, City of Dreams, Lawhead adds detail and texture to the world established in the rock opera and the comics, developing the political tension that is the backdrop to the story of Jesus. (The novel opens with a massacre reminiscent of the Masada siege in A.D. 73.)

The !Hero blitz begins with the September 2 release of the CD, the first novel, and the comics, followed by the 21-city tour beginning in November.1 !Hero is certainly one of the loudest rock operas to be developed, even eclipsing the heavy vibe of the late Jonathan Larson's 1996 musical smash, Rent. It's Evanescence meets Eminem, blending electronica and modern rock with hip-hop and pop.

DeGarmo has consulted a number of theater experts for advice on bringing the musical to the stage, including the great producer Cameron Mackintosh (Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Cats). Yet according to DeGarmo, Broadway is not necessarily the goal. "If the Lord's willing and !Hero goes to Broadway, that's great. But I'm not really trying to compete with Broadway. I just know rock 'n' roll and I understand drama, so I've combined the two to create rock theatre. I really felt like I was supposed to do this. And if it fails, I'll still say I was supposed to do this."

George Grant, enlisted by the production team as a consultant to ensure that their modernized take on the gospel was handled with care, has given !Hero his stamp of approval, calling it a "tool of evangelism," which is exactly what DeGarmo envisioned it to be. "My hope for !Hero," DeGarmo says, "is that it will serve to engage kids and to get them talking about the gospel. I'm not even trying to direct the outcome of the conversation necessarily. I just want to get them talking about Jesus."

While !Hero isn't ground breaking in the same way that Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy were for their time, it is unquestionably intriguing in its vision and ambitious in its goals. Will kids flock to see it because it's fresh and features some of their favorite artists, or will they avoid it because they perceive it as another trite musical? Will adults rush to see a quality Christian musical in the idiom of their teenage children? Will non-Christians go out of their way to see an openly evangelical rock opera? Will telling the story in multiple media help it to penetrate the imagination of an already oversaturated audience to become one of those works that mysteriously manage to leave a mark on their culture?

Time will tell. Whether or not the venture succeeds, it should inspire anyone who hopes to present the gospel in fresh and relevant ways.

Russ Breimeier is the co-director and lead music critic for the ChristianityToday.com music channel.

1. For more information on !Hero, including tour dates, visit www.herouniverse.com.

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