Musical tracks history of gospel music

Humanity is never perfect. That’s something reserved for heaven, to which the songs of “Shout!” aspire.

And though Greg Williams Jr.’s musical exploration of the history of gospel music was a hit last May, it wasn’t perfect. New Venture Theatre performed it only twice, and audiences cheered for more, and he knew, in a way, they were right.

“They wanted us to extend the engagement,” says Williams, who also is New Venture’s founder and artistic director. “But the theater had been rented for the next night, and we couldn’t extend it.”

But that was when the theater company’s home was Independence Park Theatre.

New Venture will make its Manship Theatre debut on Feb. 6 when it opens “Shout!” for five performances.

And in the midst of these changes, Williams took another look at his script and realized that the audience, indeed, needed more.

“I loved our performances of ‘Shout!’ last year, and I didn’t want to change anything,” he says. “But there was something missing. There was a whole era between the end of slavery and the beginning of the civil rights era that wasn’t accounted for. The musical was good, but it wasn’t perfect.”

Williams is the first to say that “Shout!” isn’t a church service. But he also will point out that it carries the energy and inspiration found in church.

“Shout!” is a musical journey of the American black experience through gospel music. Williams is black, and New Venture many times will stage all-black casts in its productions. The company produces shows with mixed casts, but “Shout!” is special.

Williams began developing the idea for the musical three years ago after attending a performance by the Heritage Choir. Then, in 2012, he produced a contemporary gospel concert with a friend.

“It was through this music that I saw the struggle, and how contemporary music celebrates how far we’ve come,” he says. “I realized that the story of the black experience is documented in these songs.”

Williams began listening to gospel music and consulting members of local gospel choirs about choosing selections for the show.

Still, there was another component of this music: its power is founded in Christianity. It’s a form of praise and a celebration of faith.

And Williams takes this mix of praise and history seriously.

Which is why he knew he had to revisit the musical. It was time to insert some missing pieces.

“I started doing research,” Williams says, “and I’d forgotten about Moses Hogan’s arrangements of gospel music.”

Hogan was an African American arranger of choral music. He also was a composer, best known for his arrangements of spirituals. He died at age 45 in 2003, but his work is still performed worldwide.

“The original show had mostly contemporary songs, and I kept telling myself that the show needed something more,” Williams says. “I started looking at Moses Hogan, and I started researching that time period. I learned that African Americans had their music stolen from them through vaudeville, and they took it back in the civil rights period.”

So, Williams changed the song list, adding spirituals and other selections that better represented gospel music’s evolution. He also reworked the story, adding a more thorough narrative.

“I also added more characters,” Williams says. “There’s a girl and a boy, and they represent the audience. Their journey and what they’re thinking is also the audience’s experience.”

But music is the true star of this show with its meters and hymns, choir classics and contemporary beats.

“Shout!” may never be completely perfect. After all, its playwright is only human.

But it does give the audience more, and, as stated in the play description: “(It) will put you in a position of praise and moments of marveling at the goodness of the good news.”