A Portland church musician, raised Presbyterian, has earned acclaim for portraying a Catholic priest on stage. Or, as Doug Webster puts it, he's playing not a priest, but the priest within every human being.
Webster, 48, is the go-to baritone when musical theater companies perform Leonard Bernstein's 1971 "Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers."
Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy, the operatic piece was meant to signify her late husband's complex and passionate Catholicism. Bernstein got help from popular composers of the day, including Paul Simon and Broadway songsmith Stephen Schwartz. Choirs sing in Latin but there is also a rock band.
"Mass" is controversial not just because it injects contemporary music into a sacred milieu, but because it reflects modern doubt and faith.
"It has artistic value that inflames ire in some people," says Webster, who plays the lead role of Celebrant. "Some people leave ten or fifteen minutes into it. They find something that does not fit their faith. But they won't just leave and get a burger and forget about it. They'll go out and discuss faith. Those people will examine what they believe. To an artist, that is a great compliment."
As the musical moves forward, harmony turns to discord. The Celebrant ascends in authority and feels increasing disillusion and even breaks with belief. But something always brings him back, whether it's the unruly congregation or an altar server advocating simplicity.
The Vatican welcomed a performance in 2000. A crowd of 8,000 filled an auditorium and thousands more watched on screens in St. Peter's Square. Webster later spoke with Vatican officials — including archbishops — who were moved by the portrait of a priest struggling with doubt. After the Vatican performance, a tiny weeping French nun stopped Webster on a Rome street and told him that he had told her spiritual story exactly.
Webster has played the Celebrant 25 times, the first in 1988, just out of Northwestern School of Music. He performed the role in Dallas on the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination in 2003 and just last month he did it again at St. Joseph Church in Vancouver, Wash.
His unique abilities eventually made him the essential pick for the role. "You have to really be trained as an opera singer," he explains. "There is so much heavy-duty singing for the Celebrant that is technical and virtuosic. But you need the sentimentality of a folk singer."
On top of that, Webster identifies with the struggles of men who are agents for God in an era that worships autonomy.
"Here was a guy who had faith," Webster says of his first encounter with the role, at age 25. "The faith is questioned and reaffirmed, questioned and reaffirmed over and over. I was like him."
Over the years, he has consulted actual priests about the role. They explain to him the poignancy of being in the world, but not quite of it. One campus minister expressed the pain of attending parties but being expected to leave early so the young people could get on with what young people do.
"I learned I was portraying a priest but he was also a man," Webster says. "He is kind of an everyman."
In one scene of "Mass," a chorus of worshipers goes cacophonous, representing the distracting overload of modernity. The Celebrant feels such despair and anger that he falls to the floor. The script calls for him to smash a prop chalice and prop monstrance, something Webster avoids with many audiences. Whatever the detail, the Celebrant's collapse is akin to Moses smashing the tablets — it halts the madness. That sets the stage for grace. At the Vatican, the scene caused onlookers to shout "Bravo!" for so long that Webster had to hold up his hand to restore silence.
At the Vatican, he met a Dominican who had spent summers with the Kennedy family and who had used parts of the Bernstein Mass to explain faith during home Masses. Webster, who knows the family of Leonard Bernstein, says the Mass also expresses the composer's Judaic roots and the Jewish and Catholic shared tradition of rigorous questioning to find truth.
Webster often travels, but has a day job as activities director at a Vancouver, Wash. retirement residence. He plays other musical theater roles, too. Last year, he was Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables," notably also a role about redemption and grace.