We sat down with Russell Mauldin and Sue C. Smith, creators of the new Ready To Sing Christmas musical, Breath of Heaven. Russell and Sue share about the process behind creating this musical and the message of Christ’s hope interwoven throughout the songs and narration.
Breath of Heaven is based off the very famous Amy Grant song. Walk me though why you based the musical off this song and decided to go more of the intimate, personal route.
Russell Mauldin: Well, that’s a song that I have had on the radar for a long, long time. I was blessed years ago to do some Christmas tours with Amy Grant, and every night she would sing that song. It would bring 18,000 people to absolute silence. It has such a profound lyric and the melody is so charming, but it’s not your typical Ready To Sing. After years of wrestling with it…finally we said it’s time to make this happen.
For the logistics of the song, I made it a solo because it did have some meter changes (I ironed out some of that). If you just have one person who can sing this solo and get into that moment of the song, the text itself is the musical. It’s interesting because we find that when we start to write a musical, the title pretty much tells us the big picture of it.
There’s a part in the lyric where Mary’s hopelessness and surrender increases when she says, “Help me be strong. Help me be,” and then she just says,” Help me.” That’s the tenderness that we brought to every part of this musical.
Sue C. Smith: Lyrically that song just captures so much what so many of us feel—our complete dependence on the Lord for everything we have and for all our needs. Even though this is a big choral piece, the intimacy in that song really gets to the heart of Christmas. Because Jesus has come, our help is here…It goes to the heart of our real need, which is hope.
Are you trying to walk the choir into a more contemplative aspect or is Breath of Heaven still more about the celebration?
RM: It really is all of the above…but it starts with just a huge celebration. The vulnerability that Mary had and what hopefully we brought to everyone is that we all have insecurities of feeling that the task that we’ve been given in life is something we’re neither equipped enough for or able to take on the task. Well, she’s kind of the champion for that. So we have three and a half minutes of full celebration [in the opening song].
Like in painting, if you want something to look brighter, you put darkness next to it. We did that with this. At the end of this opening celebration, it comes down to this moment where we talk about silence—silence for hundreds of years, anticipating, waiting, hoping for the Messiah to come. We did that a lot through this musical where we used those contrasts to tell the story. It really propels, not only the story, but the energy along the way as well.
SS: Russell wrote a beautiful underscore and asked me, as I introduced the musical with the narration, to write something to go over that. He [mentioned] that the title of the musical always suggests to him what it’s all going to be. The same thing happens with the narration. When he said Breath of Heaven, as I began writing over this beautiful overture that he had written, I thought about how God breathed life into creation. After the kingdom was lost, there was this silence for four hundred years. Then God breathed again and Jesus came, so I tried to capitalize on that.
The narration uses Mary and Joseph to tell the story. It was a much more vulnerable approach to tell the story. I hope it will make it so real to people because they didn’t know the end of this story while they were living.
RM: It keeps going back to this thing where we were looking at their vulnerabilities—Mary and Joseph. They’re telling the story, and they didn’t know the end of the story at the beginning. So each moment, not only are we telling their story, but we’re bringing it to relate to ourselves and our lives and our stories. [Sue] wrote an amazing lyric to the song called, “You Follow.” It tells their story and their journey. It has this pulse that just keeps going though the song to give us that plodding feel of the rough desert that they were traversing. Also, it brings it home that when God called them they followed but also when He calls, we need to follow.
Besides “Breath of Heaven,” what is your favorite song in this musical?
SS: We wrote a song called “Magnifcat” based on Mary’s response to the angels’ announcement, and I love that because it really is just a scripture. We tried to bend it slightly to make it fit with this beautiful music that Russell wrote. Then there’s a song at the very end that’s called, “At The Feet of Jesus” that I wrote with David Moffitt. It’s really a great resolution about worshipping at His feet.
RM: Typically the standards way of writing a musical is that if you have a big song that the musical is called you would have a big presentation at the end that would have that song. Breath of Heaven doesn’t really lend itself to that, so [“At The Feet of Jesus”] just knocks it out of the park. It has that sense of a finale and it has that sense of a powerful worship song. Then we added enough Christmas flavors along with it. It’s a wonderful triumphant victorious ending to the musical.
If you wanted somebody to take one thing away from Breath of Heaven after they either sang it or heard it, what would it be?
RM: To me it goes back to the idea of Mary and her despair, but she had a promise and she knew that holding on to that promise was ultimately not only all she had but all she needed. I don’t want to make it sound like this musical is all tender and ballads because there really is a lot of celebration…but I want everyone to know that this is all about hope and all that you have is all that you need through the hope of Christ.
SS: There’s a place in the narration where Mary says she had faith, but she needed more. I think for those of us who have faith, we know the promise and we cling to that, but sometimes we need a little more. Breath of Heaven is kind of the answer to that. This is a real story that happened to real people. Jesus really came, He really is the Savior, and we really do have hope.