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Pastor of the opera

Shining brightly for Jesus on Broadway

By Kirk Noonan

Larry Wayne Morbitt ducks into an alley, leaving the roar of New York’s 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 theater’s 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 — it’s quite a challenge."

Such is the life of a Broadway performer. For three years Morbitt has played Ubaldo Piangi, the comic relief, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 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 Broadway’s 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 friend’s paycheck and deposit it. It’s 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 don’t 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 master’s degree in music from Texas Christian University. He also spent hundreds of hours in the tutelage of some of America’s 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 don’t want to stand before the Lord someday and be called accountable for not doing what He wanted me to do," says Morbitt, walking through Time’s 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 Majestic’s 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 theater’s 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. Tonight’s 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 isn’t — except when we’re onstage."

It’s 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 don’t 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 Evangel.

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