By Jessica Easthope and Paula Katinas
Of the numerous stage productions being performed across New York City as the pandemic eases, perhaps only one will star … a saint.
“Happening Woman,” a musical based on the life and times of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, better known as Mother Cabrini, the beloved patron saint of immigrants, is being staged Nov. 13 and 14 in the auditorium of Our Lady of Mercy Church in Forest Hills.
Featuring 15 songs and a cast of 24, the play spotlights the founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who spent much of her life tending to immigrants and the poor and started more than 100 hospitals and schools in the U.S.
It’s the brainchild of AnnaMarie Prono, a parishioner at Our Lady of Mercy, who recalls the point in time when she developed an interest in the Italian-born luminary. During a chat, she asked a friend, “What do you know about Mother Cabrini?”
Her friend answered, “She was a happening woman when women weren’t happening.”
That comment became the inspiration for “Happening Woman,” which Prono has co-written with composer Bob Kaufmann. Prono wrote the book for the musical and is co-producing the show with Malini Singh McDonald, founder of the group Theater Beyond Broadway. Kaufmann is responsible for the music and lyrics; the show is directed by Cathy Chimenti.
The show features a variety of musical genres — including a traditional Italian tarantella, marching band music inspired by John Philip Sousa, rock-and-roll numbers and music with a Mexican flavor.
Kaufmann, who said the score is “unapologetically spiritual,” added that his goal was to make the songs “as upbeat and catchy as possible.”
The plot of “Happening Woman” jumps back and forth in time between the past and the present. It depicts Mother Cabrini’s life, but also tells the parallel present-day story of a 13-year-old girl struggling with multiple sclerosis.
Prono has MS, as does McDonald. They’re both inspired by the legacy of Mother Cabrini, who was “sickly her entire life,” Prono said.
“And yet she just did so much. She never stopped. People told her no. She didn’t care. She just kept going. I have MS,” Prono said, “and I kind of felt like I could identify with her a little bit.”
The playwright’s interest in Mother Cabrini grew during the “She Built NYC” controversy in 2019, when the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio failed to include the saint on a list of statues to be erected in honor of influential females. The legendary Catholic had garnered the most votes out of 320 “She Built NYC” candidates in a 2018 survey of New Yorkers.
After researching Mother Cabrini’s life, she asked Kaufmann to write a song and then asked if he would co-write an entire musical.
“Every cell in my body said, ‘Don’t do it.’ I was scared. But for some reason, I said yes,” the composer described. “There was some sort of divine inspiration at work here.”
After the show was written, Prono approached McDonald and asked her to co-produce it. McDonald agreed, saying: “When I‘m asked, I’ll usually do it if it resonates with me.”
The musical comes at a time when New York City is starting to get back to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic, with the reopening of Broadway theaters and the return of large public gatherings.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing,” said Father Frank Schwarz, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy. “This is the first time that we’re really going to have something like this in a long time, and we’ll be able to do it safely.”
The church’s auditorium fits approximately 150 people. With the two scheduled performances, “Happening Woman” will likely be seen by 300 people.
Prono is hoping “Happening Woman ” inspires people, just as she was inspired by St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. “Mother Cabrini overcame so many obstacles, and this young woman in the play also overcomes obstacles,” she said.
The creators want the show to bring Catholics closer to their faith. “I wanted to really give Catholics something they could feel good about,” Kaufmann said.
Mother Cabrini has lessons to teach even today, Father Schwarz said. “She trusted in God, and she went with a vision that she had and she made things work,” he said.
Prono, McDonald, and other friends have started a GoFundMe page to raise money to bring “Happening Woman” to other churches in the Diocese of Brooklyn. Supporters can search for “Happening Woman” at gofundme.com.