Pastor of the opera
brightly for Jesus on Broadway
By Kirk Noonan
Larry Wayne Morbitt ducks into an alley, leaving the roar of New Yorks
rush-hour traffic in his trail. At the end of the alley he passes through
an open steel door then past a security guard before entering the Majestic
Theatre on 44th Street. After chatting with the stage manager, Morbitt
crosses the theaters darkened stage, then climbs several flights
of stairs cramped by hundreds of colorful costumes that line the stairwells.
"We have so little space in this ancient theater," Morbitt, 50, muses
as he enters his tiny dressing room. "This is the only job I have ever
had that where I stand backstage is choreographed during the performance
its quite a challenge."
is the life of a Broadway performer. For three years Morbitt has played
Ubaldo Piangi, the comic relief, in Andrew Lloyd Webbers The Phantom
of the Opera, which has grossed more than $3 billion since 1986.
For Morbitt, who is a licensed Assemblies of God minister, making it
to Broadway was never a dream; it has always been a calling.
"I never wanted to come here and do the thing so many others did like
finding an apartment, working a part-time job and hitting every audition
for four or five years before getting a big break," says Morbitt, who
at barely 5 feet 8 inches has a voice that puts him among the giants
on Broadway and around the world. "But there is no doubt in my mind
that God has called me here."
Morbitt holds one of Broadways much-coveted principle contracts
(there are only about 130 of them) and has become a mainstay in the
Phantom, the story of a physically deformed genius who falls
madly in love with a ballerina in a Paris opera house. In the Phantom,
which theatergoers pay $85 to see, Morbitt sings and acts in six scenes.
But for Morbitt, the lights of Broadway have only served to expose a
mission field where he can share the love of Jesus Christ.
"I know I am here as an extension of my 15 years in church ministry,"
says Morbitt, who served as a full-time music minister in Assemblies
of God churches in California, Oregon, Nevada and Texas. "Those years
were like being in boot camp and now I am on the frontlines in a world
filled with people of many different lifestyles."
Back out on the street, the heavy foot traffic slows his walk, but like
a seasoned New Yorker Morbitt bobs and weaves at a steady pace. Being
an ambassador for Christ not only requires proximity to the world, but
a willingness to serve those who are in it, he says.
Today is no different. A fellow cast member recently underwent surgery.
Morbitt has offered to pick up his friends paycheck and deposit
it. Its a small favor, but in doing so, Morbitt says, his friend
will see Christianity in action.
"How are we going to evangelize those in the world unless we go where
they are?" asks Morbitt as he negotiates his way across a busy intersection.
"One of the most effective ways to share Jesus with people is to live
the gospel in front of them."
When opportunities to share his faith arise in conversation Morbitt
embraces the chance to do so, but he quickly points out that his greatest
witness is modeling the actions of Jesus.
"The entertainment world gets very little exposure to Jesus Christ
and has very definite opinions about evangelical Christians," he says.
"For believers to be effective, nonbelievers need to see them reacting
as real people would to trying situations and circumstances. When we
do, they notice there is something inside us that makes us different."
Chip Huddleston, 41, a former actor in the Phantom, agrees.
"Theater people dont want to be preached to," he says. "The strongest
witness one can have is to live a very clean and happy life. Larry does
both. He is a very happy person and people sense that he has something
that not everyone does."
Morbitt is convinced that being effective for Christ on Broadway also
entails faithfulness to the talents and gifts God has given. According
to Morbitt, the challenge for Christians who step into the entertainment
world is not only to serve others and live godly lives, but also to
be excellent and disciplined in their craft.
As a student, Morbitt obtained a masters degree in music from
Texas Christian University. He also spent hundreds of hours in the tutelage
of some of Americas best voice teachers. For those who aspire
to perform he suggests an unwavering commitment to excellence and education.
"Christian performers need to be the best they can be on stage for
the sake of Christ," he says, adding that influence follows excellence
in the entertainment world. "We have to understand the language spoken
in these worlds so we are prepared when the Holy Spirit gives us the
opportunity to exercise leadership."
Morbitt learned the language of the musical theater and opera worlds
while serving as a full-time minister of music. "I got a lot of support
from pastors to keep one foot in the performing world," says Morbitt,
who graduated from Oral Roberts University where he sang with the World
Action Singers. "That helped me keep growing and moving forward. I always
knew someway, somehow the Lord would open doors for me to use this gift
He gave me, but I never dreamed it would happen quite like this."
Morbitt got his start with the Phantom in Basel, Switzerland,
in 1995. After two years in Switzerland he moved back to the States
to play Piangi for the First National Touring Company. Two days before
the tour ended Morbitt received his big break. Producers in New York
phoned and offered him the role of Piangi on Broadway. Since then, he
has been fast at work performing and ministering in the Big Apple.
"When theater people see the love of Jesus through Christians, that
works on their hearts," says Huddleston, who met Morbitt while performing
with him in Switzerland. "Larry is great at doing that and has been
a great witness at the Phantom."
Though Morbitt misses ministering in the church, a conviction to be
a positive influence for Christ among nonbelievers keeps him on Broadway.
"I dont want to stand before the Lord someday and be called accountable
for not doing what He wanted me to do," says Morbitt, walking through
Times Square a few hours before a Friday night performance. "I
loved being a minister of music. But I never felt that going from a
full-time music ministry position to the stage was any different in
terms of being in the ministry."
At 7 p.m. a queue of theatergoers winds out the Majestics lobby
and down the sidewalk on 44th Street. Taxis zip past. Horns blare. An
almost melodic din, found only in busy cities, fills the air. When the
theaters doors open the patrons rush in to find their seats or
to mingle in the lobbies with other theatergoers.
A few minutes before 8 p.m. lobby lights flash signaling that the performance
is about to begin. When all have found their seats the house lights
dim and the Phantom begins.
Despite its allure, Broadway is not all glitz and glamour. Tonights
performance marks the sixth of eight performances Morbitt performs this
week and every week. He has the most operatic role in the musical and
changes costumes five times for the six scenes he is in. At one point
in the first act he climbs a gigantic fake elephant, while singing,
in a 40-pound costume.
After the final act has played and bows have been taken to the accompaniment
of thunderous applause, members of the cast and crew change clothes
quickly and dash for the door. "I always laugh when people think of
this business as being so glamorous," says a tired Morbitt after the
show. "It really isnt except when were onstage."
Its almost 11 p.m. The theater, now empty, is eerily quiet. Morbitt
stands on the darkened stage his mission field looking
out over the 1,607 empty seats. "God has brought me here for this time,"
he says, tears threatening. "I dont know how long I will be here.
But I know I am here to be a light in this place. Jesus is coming soon.
We have to get people ready for it, and being among nonbelievers is
one of the best ways to do it."
Kirk Noonan is associate editor of the Pentecostal