The birth of a musical

Cheryl Goodman-Morris tells of 25-year gestation

Cheryl Goodman-Morris tells of the 25-year gestation for a play that debuts next week in Portola Valley

About the author: Cheryl Goodman-Morris is pastor of worship, art and education at Valley Presbyterian Church in Portola Valley. She also is artistic director of the Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory, and writer and director of the original musical, "Puah's Midwife Crisis," set for its world premiere on Friday, March 20, in Portola Valley. She shares the composer credit with her colleague Karen Russell.

by Cheryl Goodman-Morris

June 1984

F.O.B. "Flat On Back." At home in bed for six weeks. That was the news my obstetrician gave me. In order to carry my pregnancy to term, he's ordering complete bed rest. I'm a mix of emotions: on one hand, I'm scared for my baby. But I'm also kind of relieved because I'm exhausted from the schedule I've been keeping.

I'm to preach the Sunday I return to work. Since I've been pregnant, one story keeps popping up — an Old Testament story about Hebrew babies and midwives. I just can't stop thinking about it.

It was just before the birth of Moses. The Hebrews had been living in Egypt for 400 years. They had grown so numerous, Pharaoh felt threatened. His solution? Call his midwives Puah and Shiphrah and command them: kill all newborn boys. But midwives are called to affirm life, not kill. It was a dilemma of enormous proportions.

This could be a powerful sermon.

July 1984

My first Sunday back at worship. I presented the story as a first-person narrative, in the form of letters from Puah to God. People got caught up in the story, and I was so happy with how many came up afterwards to say how much it touched them. It had taken us all for a great ride. I began to think it would make a great play, and somebody should write it.

August 1984

I don't know — maybe it should be a musical. ... I'll have to give that some thought.


I raised my daughter, continued my work as a pastor, and graduated from a theater conservatory. Puah and her letters to God simmered away on the back burner, although I did present the story to a many audiences and congregations.

May 1993

I'm just about done with my theater training. Should I go for community and regional theater? I'm not 22 any more, and I have a husband and 8-year-old daughter at home. On the other hand, our church in Portola Valley has just finished building Lane Family Hall, and it's been designed with the sight lines and acoustics that would allow us to stage quality theater. If I start a theater program, I could have my daughter with me.

November 1994

Well, the Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory is real! We're an official 501(c)(3)! We can produce dramas and musicals here for the entire Peninsula. This could be the best of both worlds — combining work and family with theater!

May 2000

I've produced and directed a slew of musicals — and I absolutely love doing it.

I've always been drawn to musicals that tell a passionate story of hope and transformation. Of course, a good dose of humor, dancing and spectacle doesn't hurt a bit, either, but story and music are key.

February 2002

Tonight at an interfaith service for peace at First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, a rabbi approached me. I'd just presented the "Puah" story for what seemed like the hundredth time. He asked, "How did you know this story?" — and told me how important this story was for Jews. It makes me appreciate something I don't think I fully realized till now. This story could bridge both faith and culture, and I want more people to know about it.

July 2006

I ran into my friend Rebecca at the airport right after the annual National Presbyterian Women's Gathering in Louisville, Kentucky. She's on the planning committee, and asked me to consider bringing drama to the 2009 event. I told her I'd think about it. I have a lot of other projects right now.

August 2006

I talked with Rebecca and told her I'd had a musical in my head for the past 21 years. She's going to get back to me. Committees, apparently.

October 2006

Rebecca called today. The conference has never had anything like this before, but they went for it.

Now I have to write and produce it — that's just what I need to make this play happen. And for 3,000 women! But first, we'll premiere it on our home stage in Portola Valley.

October 2008

The script is finally done! I'm working with composer Karen Russell. She's so intuitive. Together, we find the right music to match the moods and moments I want to create.

We're going to have a lot of fun with this. The play reminds me, musically anyway, of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Our songs run the gamut from she-bop, blues, tango, and dramatic recitative to hauntingly lyrical. They support a story that is moving one minute and funny the next.

January 2009

Revisions, revisions. We've been workshopping the play for a few weeks now, and it really helps to see the actors onstage to know what's working and what needs changes. And what a great cast — they're fearless in their acting and comedy. I'm so happy to have so many professional singers/actors and talented amateurs to carry the show.

January 2009

We're in full production. Just two months till the premiere, and just six months till we go to the conference — and then the Actors' Theatre of Louisville! I'm thrilled!

March 2009

Only a couple weeks till our opening performance March 20 in Portola Valley. I'm amazed at the power this story holds as it comes to life through the voices and bodies of our actors.

I keep thinking back on that conversation with Rebecca. I told her how amazing that a chance encounter led to all this. She said, "It's not a chance encounter."

I think she's right.


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