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The guardian angel who refused to die

The GFC and natural disasters could not kill an ambitious musical, 20 years in the making

Marcus Cheong wants to introduce a new character in the Christmas story. Her name is Sera the Angel and she lives on top of your Christmas tree. How she got there is the subject of Cheong’s musical, Angels.

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Sera is the Angel of Light. She is gifted by God with the power to control light and place the stars in the sky, but she aspires to a more heroic role. She wants to be a guardian angel – looking after humans. And she’ll break the rules to become one. Lucifer, the fallen angel, sees Sera’s pride and ambition and manipulates her, causing problems for Sera and the humans she is trying to protect. Only when Sera humbles herself and accepts the role she was made for does she realise she has power to defeat Lucifer, and discovers her “purpose”: to place the star in the night sky on the eve of the first Christmas – the star of Bethlehem.

It’s an epic story that comes with an equally epic origin story. Angels has been more than 20 years in the making, the brainchild of Marcus and his university friend Ken Lai, who composed the show. Marcus says he originally thought of first turning it into a feature film, but settled on music theatre as his chosen medium.

“The meaning is a kingdom message that will hopefully shift people’s perspectives on life and God.” – Marcus Cheong

“Broadway is an incredible megaphone to the world,” explains Marcus about New York City’s influential musical stage and its international reach.

“It’s a platform that can really reach a lot of people. And there aren’t many people of faith operating in this industry. We’ve seen breakthroughs in film and music, with incredible artists, writers, producers of faith engaging in those industries. But I haven’t seen that same breakthrough in musical theatre.”

“You can’t preach in this medium,” says Marcus. “You have to tell a great story. But the meaning of the story – that’s where the impact lies. It’s very much like a parable. That’s how we see Angels: the meaning is a kingdom message that will hopefully shift people’s perspectives on life and God.”

Marcus is an entrepreneur. A risk taker. A dreamer. More than ten years ago, with barely a script for Angels, he travelled to New York City for a week-long workshop at the Commercial Theatre Institute. It was a crash course in everything you need to know about producing a musical. With three days left before he came back to Sydney and armed with a wish list for roles he needed to fill to develop Angels, Marcus “just started cold-calling people”.

“We needed local producers who knew people, an entertainment lawyer, a general manager, a venue, a director. I hit the phones,” he tells Eternity.

“I’ve never raised millions of dollars before. I was stepping into a completely foreign field.”- Marcus Cheong

By the time he left New York, he had booked a theatre and secured a place for a workshop production of Angels at the New York Musical Theatre festival in 2006. He went back to Sydney, quit his job and started raising money for the production. Along the way, Marcus firmly believes God was with him.

“People were brought to the project; connections were made that I just can’t take credit for. I’ve never raised millions of dollars before. I was stepping into a completely foreign field.”

Broadway stars Laura Osnes and Josh Harris perform songs from 'Angels' at the New York launch of the studio recording for the full musical earlier this year.

Broadway stars Laura Osnes and Josh Harris perform songs from ‘Angels’ at the New York launch of the studio recording for the full musical earlier this year. Angels The Musical

The workshop production of Angels in 2006 was a success, introducing the show to Broadway bigwigs who “caught the vision”, says Marcus, and wanted to help develop it further. They included Robert Blume, executive producer of New York’s Drama Desk Awards (the theatre equivalent of the Golden Globes) and music director Mary Mitchell-Campbell (who has worked on Company, The Addams Family and Finding Neverland on Broadway), who came on board as musical supervisor. An SBS observational documentary team followed the musical’s progress for two years to produce a four-part series in 2010. Other media followed as the show appeared to pick up steam towards the bright lights of Broadway.

“All the wells dried up at once. There was no financing. For anyone.”- Marcus Cheong

Marcus experienced the production as a “machine” that needed “fuel to keep on going”. His biggest job as lead producer was to unearth that fuel … the money.

By 2008, Marcus and the team had raised more than $US4 million from a dozen or so investors – from Australia and the US, Christian and non-Christian.

He says regardless of whether people were investing because they believed in the musical’s ability to send out a “kingdom message” or whether they were non-Christians investing as they would in horses or goldmines – they were all investing by faith alone because 75 per cent of Broadway shows don’t recoup their investment.

“We had very little to show people. I’d go in with a script and a few pieces of paper to show a set design or how we envisage angels flying on the stage. But people wrote cheques for something that was really quite incredibly speculative.”

“People wrote cheques for something that was really quite incredibly speculative.”- Marcus Cheong

An out-of-town production was next on the cards, a place to iron out kinks and get the set design right before launching on Broadway. Marcus settled on Shreveport in Louisiana for the out-of-towner, scheduled for September 2008.

“By this time, there were hundreds of people working on the show. Teams building sets, a cast of over 30 people, choreographers, music directors, stage managers, support teams – it was a big operation. And we’re all working on that opening in September,” says Marcus.

Laura Osnes at Downtown Music Studios recording Angels

Laura Osnes at Downtown Music Studios recording Angels Angels The Musical

And then the global financial crisis struck, hitting New York, and America more generally, “like a sledgehammer,” says Marcus. “It was fierce.”

Investors who had signed documents with the promise of money for Angels couldn’t meet their obligations. “All the wells dried up at once. There was no financing. For anyone. Over a dozen shows that were already on their way to Broadway had to cancel.”

Angels was a month away from opening in Louisiana when Marcus made the “heartbreaking decision” to close the show. “We’d just completed our first full run through of the show. We had six semitrailers of sound and lighting gear, sets, all en route. We were preparing to unload at the theatre.”

“When the moment came and I had to stand up in front of the cast to announce that we were closing, literally no words came out. I couldn’t speak. I’ve never experienced that before,” said Marcus.

“My pastors, mentors, friends came around me and said, ‘for your own sanity, you’ve got to do something else.’”- Marcus Cheong

Marcus graduated from the University of Sydney with an architecture degree, as his father had before him. Back in New York, he walked around the city and saw building works that had stopped mid-project. Buildings went years before another brick was laid. And so it was with Angels. Work halted. There was no more money.

Marcus says he reflected on a Bible passage that had come up several times on the long journey of getting Angels to Broadway -Romans 8:28, which says “And we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”

“If there was a theme for my life, since starting this journey with Angels, that would be it. Every time we’ve come against issues – and they’ve come up regularly, and continue to come up – I’ve got this knowing that all things will work for God’s good.”

On the night Angels was scheduled to open in Louisiana, Hurricane Gustav made landfall on the Louisiana coast. Close to two million people were evacuated in Louisiana. “On one hand we’re dealing with this gut-wrenching, heartbreaking loss of a dream, but also this confirmation that had we actually gone ahead, it would literally have been a disaster.”

“After the company was gone, partners gone, assets wiped out, I was still like, ‘But God’s called us to sell this message!’”- Marcus Cheong

A friend at the time also reminded Marcus of what Jesus said to Lazarus: “This sickness will not end in death,” which Marcus took as comfort as he considered how to get Angels back on track.

“The thing is, though, we all have different perceptions of what ‘dead’ is,” Marcus laughs.

Two years later, in 2010, he still couldn’t raise a cent and had to shut down his production company.

“I thought the death of Angels was in 2008, when we had to shut down the show in Louisiana, but that was just the diagnosis. Then, in 2010, and the loss of the company, I thought, ‘This is death’. But that was just being really, really sick.

“What I’ve found over the years since is that the death of something really means the complete and utter letting go – because death is final. And it wasn’t until 2016 that I really let go of Angels.”

For six years, Marcus kept the hope that Angels could be revived.

“After the company was gone, partners gone, assets wiped out, I was still like, ‘But God’s called us to sell this message!’” He throws up his hands in mock outrage and frustration as he says it, and laughs at himself.

“My pastors, mentors, friends came around me and said, ‘for your own sanity, you’ve got to do something else. Take a step back and do something else, just for now.’” He took that advice.

But Marcus and his wife stayed in New York, still with a sense of unfinished business – that Angels, like Lazarus, wasn’t really dead. Marcus took a job with cable television company, and eventually worked as a project manager for multi-Tony-award-winning actor-director Tommy Tune, learning all he could from a master.

“The angels became their role models. They ran around singing the songs and absorbing the message.”- Marcus Cheong

And then, in Australia for a holiday, Marcus had coffee with former Angels director Rich Fowler. Inevitably, they started talking about Angels again.

“I was like, ‘I’ve walked away. This is over. God, what are you doing to me!?’” he says.

The “new life” of Angels no longer has Broadway as the end goal, though that’s still on the cards, says Marcus.

“In 2006 and 2008, we had grand ideas of taking Broadway by storm. We’ve refocused on what we want to achieve, which is to introduce Sera the Angel as a new character to the Christmas story, like Rudolph, or Frosty, or the Grinch. We want a child to look up at their Christmas tree, see the angel or the star at the top, and think, ‘That’s the story of Sera, the angel of light, that points to the birth of Jesus.’”

The new goal has upended Marcus’ original strategy. Now, he’s working on getting as many grassroots, small-scale productions of Angels running as possible. A pilot was run at a school in Los Angeles in May, with children aged eight to 12 starring in the production.

“We’ve refocused on what we want to achieve, which is to introduce Sera the Angel as a new character to the Christmas story, like Rudolph, or Frosty, or the Grinch.”- Marcus Cheong

“These kids were dressing up as angels, and didn’t want to take the costumes off. The angels became their role models. They ran around singing the songs and absorbing the message. It was becoming part of their experience, and was everything we’d hoped for.”

School and community group productions are being developed in Brisbane and Sydney over the next two years. Meanwhile, Marcus is still working on staging a professional production on Broadway, planning an out-of-town run at Christmas 2018 with a New York transfer for Christmas 2019. An album produced by Broadway Records was launched in October this year, with a studio cast recording featuring Tony Award nominees Laura Osnes, Robert Cuccioli and Josh Young.

“Rather than an open-ended show, we’re looking at a seasonal model, so Angels comes in November/December each year, like a Rockettes show or The Nutcracker,” Marcus says.

“But we don’t ‘win’, once we get the show on Broadway any more,” says Marcus.

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