A forbidden love, a comedy act and an evil king – the Christmas musical that aims to spark joy

The nativity’s never looked like this before!

The forbidden love of  Mary and Joseph, a poisonous rivalry between King Herod and his son Antipater and the buffoonish antics of three Wise Men are at the heart of the new Christmas family film, Journey to Bethlehem.

The first live-action musical about the Christmas story, written, directed and co-composed by Hollywood hitmaker Adam Anders (Glee, High School Musical), is a full-colour Disney-style rendering of the story of the birth of Jesus.

It has great fun with the idea (and sound) of myrrh, has a bunch of catchy song-and-dance numbers, and physical and lyrical comedy that should leave children and their parents smiling.

“I’m like, ‘Why hasn’t anybody told this story? This is the original Romeo and Juliet.” – Adam Anders, writer and director

In dramatising the love story of a fiery Mary and conflicted Joseph, the film fills in the blanks about the agonies Joseph must have suffered when he found out Mary was pregnant, torn between trust and suspicion, and how Mary suffered from her family’s incredulity about her account of seeing the angel Gabriel (played by rapper Lecrae).

“I’m like, ‘Why hasn’t anybody told this story? This is the original Romeo and Juliet. This is a forbidden love. He should have left her. She should have been stoned. He took her stain upon him and his family name stayed with her.’ It’s an amazing story that nobody talks about,” Anders tells Eternity.

“So I was like, well, this is very human. This is very relatable for us. This is very current. So it’s not really that I put a modern spin on it, as much as I looked at it through a lens of what we go through today.”

Fiona Palomo as Mary in Journey to Bethlehem

Fiona Palomo cradles the newborn Jesus.

A Swedish-born pastor’s kid who forged a highly successful music career in Hollywood – selling more than 100 million albums and becoming an in-demand executive producer for music-driven film and television – Anders first dreamed of making this musical 17 years ago.

“When I first had the idea, I didn’t have children. But then they came along and that was probably part of the plan why God pushed pause on this idea, because once you have kids, you have a different perspective on what movie you want to make for kids. The struggle I have as a parent to find something to all watch together.”

“As a person of faith, with a Christian family, it’s not often we go see a Christian movie. But you want to go see great movies, frankly, so it’s great that there’s a wave of very talented [Christian] filmmakers (forget me) who are making really good movies now, and striving for quality.”

Antonia Banderas as King Herod in Journey to Bethlehem

Antonia Banderas as King Herod

Speaking to Eternity via Zoom from Los Angeles, Anders said part of his mission was to make a musical that his two sons would enjoy and confound the truism that only girls like musicals.

“Let’s be honest, not many guys go, ‘What are you doing this weekend, bro?’ ‘I’m going to see a musical.’ You just don’t say that. That’s not part of the vernacular. A lot of guys do like [musicals], but boys, not necessarily. So, my mission was to create a musical that was great, and that my boys loved as well. They are brutally honest, children, so they were very instrumental in it being what it is.”

Anders said his sons love the extravagantly evil King Herod, played with great relish by Antonio Banderas.

The film was a family affair, with his wife and partner, Nikki Anders, co-writing its nine catchy pop songs, along with Peer Astrom.

“Our first date was writing a song together, and 26 years later, we’re writing songs together. She’s been there every step of the way, not letting me quit, pushing me, telling me things are awful, being honest with me. Nobody’s going to be more honest than your wife, and the fact that I have a wife who’s a brilliant artist herself is kind of a secret weapon.”

Anders said his sons love the extravagantly evil King Herod, played with great relish by Antonio Banderas, and his mutinous eldest son, Antipater, played by Australian singer Joel Smallbone of For King and Country. They also laugh at the antics of the Three Wise Men (played by Geno Segers, Omid Djalili and Rizwan Manji) and Fig, Mary’s donkey. As a boy, Anders loved the adventure of the Indiana Jones films, so he included map sequences that give a sense of adventure and scope of the journeys of Mary and Joseph and the Magi.

The three wise men provide comic relief in Journey to Bethlehem

The comedic relief: Rizwan Manji as Gaspar, Omid Djalili as Melchior and Geno Segers as Balthazar, the Three Wise Men.

“We’re telling an important story with eternal value, but we’re having a lot of fun doing it.” – Rick Peluso, head of Affirm Films

Rick Peluso, head of Affirm Films, says in the promotional trailer: “We’re telling an important story with eternal value, but we’re having a lot of fun doing it with this music and dance that I think kind of pierces through defences in hearing the story, and opens hearts and minds up to hear it fully.”

Mary visits Elizabeth in Journey to Bethlehem

A banished Mary makes her way to Hebron to see her cousin Elizabeth.

Anders agreed that he had borrowed some tropes from his time working with Disney.

“One of the things I learned from Disney is they usually kill a parent in the beginning to give you empathy for the lead character. I didn’t want to kill a parent, but instead, I started with this argument [by Mary] with her father to make us feel sorry for her, to go with her, to feel for her from the very beginning,” he reveals.

“So that’s very Disney in a way. So now you’re like, ‘Wow, he’s wronged her. He’s making her marry somebody she has never met,’ which, by the way, culturally … the girl usually got to choose … It was important to me to make a strong Mary. And when I look at the biblical account, I see a very modern woman. I see a strong, independent woman who wasn’t afraid even to be a single mum. If Joseph had left her, she would have still gone through with it.”

With the movie shot in Spain, Anders makes no apology for the brilliant hues of his Holy Land.

“I didn’t want a movie with sheep grazing in dirt – we’ve seen enough of those biblical movies. I wanted a storybook Bible come to life and my Israel, the Israel I visited, is colourful. It’s beautiful – an amazing thing. And the culture is amazing – a colourful culture. They would dye their clothes in these magnificent colours and I’m like, ‘That’s the movie I want to create.”

Fiona Palomo, centre, as Mary, with her sisters – Deborah, played by Moriah Smallbone, right, and Rebekah, played by Stephanie Gil.

Anders says he had a hard time finding just the right actress to play Mary and auditioned hundreds before casting Mexican actress Fiona Palomo in the role.

“The studio was ready to fire me if I didn’t pick somebody. It was 3 am in the morning. I was in Madrid. We’re a couple of weeks from starting rehearsals. I had no cast. I just know from experience and having done this for 20 years now and having seen it go horribly wrong that 80 percent of directing is casting. If I don’t get that right, it will not be good … So at three in the morning, I got her audition. I sat up in bed and I watched it over and over again. I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I found her.’”

For Anders, Palomo’s unique package was a combination of strength, humility and lovability. “She looks like Mary looked in my head; she’s beautiful,” he says.

“I grew up in the ministry my whole life. And so it very much affected my life and shaped it.” – Adam Anders

With the movie set to be released worldwide, Anders sees this as a full-circle moment in his career.

“My parents left classical music for the ministry, and they also did missions, so I grew up in the ministry my whole life. And so it very much affected my life and shaped it. I’m one of the few pastors’ kids who didn’t run from the faith or have some kind of issues or baggage from the faith, which is a testament to my parents. Instead, it was the foundation for what I’ve done for my whole career. And it gave me the ability to work in Hollywood in a tough town that’s probably not too receptive to Christians historically,” he says.

The friends he made in Hollywood helped to make the film look and sound as good as it does, he says.

“The reason this movie is elevated and probably looks and sounds better than it should for the money we had is because of those relationships, those friends, that I’ve built over these 20 years. They showed up for me and gave us time and effort to make this movie what it is. That comes back to how it all started, staying true to that faith and now having the opportunity to share that faith through these stories. It’s a full-circle moment for me. It’s beautiful.”

Journey to Bethlehem opens in Australian cinemas on November 30.

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Some prayer points to help

Adam Anders seeks prayer that people will go and see the movie, whose marketing has been hit by the Hollywood actors’ strike.