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Patricia Lawler KenetSeptember 27, 2022
Jennifer Jones and Vincent Price in ‘The Song of Bernadette' (photo: alamy.com)Jennifer Jones and Vincent Price in ‘The Song of Bernadette' (photo: alamy.com)

Mention “The Song of Bernadette” to Catholics of a certain age, and there is a good chance you will see a sparkle of recognition in their eyes or hear a reverential sigh. That is probably because the 1943 film starring Jennifer Jones was a beloved rendition of Bernadette Soubirous’s journey from a poor French girl in the small town of Lourdes to a celebrated saint. Along the way, Bernadette endured accusations of fraud and insanity, dividing family and clerics between those inspired by her faith and those who decried her claims of spiritual visions. Was she hysterical or holy? The film suggests the latter without a doubt. The Catholic Church in due course did as well.

I have my own wistful memories of coming home from grade school and finding my mother moved to tears in front of the TV, watching the movie. I think she recognized herself in the simple, impoverished but brave Bernadette, persistent in her devotion, undeterred by her own personal suffering.

Mention “The Song of Bernadette” to Catholics of a certain age, and there is a good chance you will see a sparkle of recognition.

The book upon which the film is based was published in 1941 by Franz Werfel, a Jewish author. Werfel’s inspiration to write the best-seller is a story in its own right. As he sought to escape from the Nazis and found refuge with a family from Lourdes, Werfel heard the tale of Bernadette’s visions of the Virgin Mary. He was so grateful for the safekeeping he was afforded, and so touched by the story of Bernadette, that he vowed to write about it if he survived. He did, and the book landed on The New York Times best-seller list for a year.

For readers unfamiliar with the narrative, 14-year-old Bernadette reported seeing the Virgin Mary at the Massabielle Grotto in Lourdes. From February to July 1858, Bernadette experienced 18 visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who identified herself as the Immaculate Conception. Over the course of the visions, reports of miracles, including a dead baby brought back to life and cures of the sick, spread throughout the world.

Bernadette’s parents were initially doubtful and discouraged their daughter from reporting what she saw and heard. Disputes among government officials, religious leaders and townspeople swirled around Bernadette’s claims. In 1866, she left Lourdes to join a religious order. She died at the age of 35 from a tubercular tumor after a life of poor health and physical suffering. The Catholic Church recognized her visions as valid and canonized Bernadette in 1933.The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is now one of the major Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world.

Over 80 years after Bernadette’s canonization, Frank Wildhorn has composed the music for a new stage adaptation of “The Song of Bernadette.” 

Over 80 years after her canonization, Bernadette has inspired a new generation of creatives, including music veteran Frank Wildhorn, who has composed the music for a new stage adaptation of “The Song of Bernadette.” The show is set for a four-week workshop this month and then bound for a Broadway run. Wildhorn began as a pop hitmaker, writing the music for Whitney Houston’s smash, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” The native New Yorker then set his sights on musical theater, creating “Jekyll and Hyde” and the West End production of “Bonnie and Clyde,” among others.

I spoke with Mr. Wildhorn via Zoom from his home in Hawaii, where he talked about the themes and messages of Bernadette and why they resonated with him.

Composer Frank Wildhorn
Composer Frank Wildhorn

“We fell in love with the book and movie it is based on,” he said. “The book is wonderful, theatrical, dramatic, lyrical. It sings.”

At a recent reading with an audience of priests and women religious, Mr. Wildhorn said the reaction was “fantastic.”

“A lot of people will say it’s not edgy, but I’ve always done my own thing,” he added.

Mr. Wildhorn said he was introduced to the idea of Bernadette by Robin Lerner, the show’s lyricist, who went to Lourdes and brought him back a vial of the water from the shrine.

“I found in Bernadette a fragile teen who has to find the inner strength and stick to her guns.”

“Our first idea was to make [the setting] modern, do it at the World Trade Center, but as we thought about it further, we decided to put it where it belongs” in 19th-century France, he said.

He added, “It is timeless. I found in Bernadette a fragile teen who has to find the inner strength and stick to her guns.”

In interpreting that story line, Mr. Wildhorn composed one of the show’s signature songs, “I Have a Voice,” in which Bernadette asks the people around her to listen, to put their faith first, to believe that miracles are possible. “I love the idea of this little girl saying I have a voice, this happened to me. It is a beautiful message of faith,” he said.

In its journey to Broadway, the lyrics were used in a 2016 anti-bullying campaign.

I have a voice, simple and clear.
It speaks the truth for all to hear.
It gives me hope.
It gives me faith.
It lifts me up and keeps me safe.

“The show wrote itself,” Mr. Wildhorn said. “I wrote it quickly. The first thing I had to do was shut off my brain. This story fed into my way of writing.” The book for the “Song of Bernadette” was written by Rinne B. Groff.

While having his songs on Broadway is a high point in Wildhorn’s career, he has even loftier aspirations for “I Have a Voice.” Wildhorn recently met with Monsignor Fredrik Hansen, Chargé d'Affaires ad interim of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the U.N., to discuss the possibility of a concert at the Vatican.

“My vision is to have 1,000 kids from all over the world singing at the Vatican,” Mr. Wildhorn said.

Although the lyrics do not mention the words “God” or “Mary” specifically, Mr. Wildhorn is optimistic that the message will be clear.

“Faith knows no borders. The show takes place in this Catholic world, and the two main characters are a priest and a nun. In writing the modern lyrics with [an] eye of being transplanted” to Broadway, he said, “we made it faith-based, no matter what the faith is.”

Correction, Sept. 28: Frank Wildhorn is originally from New York, not Texas. This article has also been updated to include the name of the book writer for ”The Song of Bernadette.” 

More: Theater / Saints

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