Tony Cummings interviews John Larsson to get the story behind the groundbreaking musicals created by LARSSON & GOWANS
John Larsson and John Gowans have been called the Webber & Rice of the Salvationist movement. Beginning in 1967 composer John Larsson and lyricist John Gowans co-authored 10 full length stage musicals. Their popularity amongst Salvationists was huge and such works as 1972's Jesus Folk and 1973's Spirit helped shape worship music in the denomination with 10 songs from those two musicals featured in the current Salvation Army songbook. John Larsson went on to become the 17th General of the Salvation Army and is today highly regarded as one of the foundation stones of the current Salvationist movement. Also, despite it being years since the last of the Larsson/Gowans musicals (1990's The Meeting), Larsson is still keeping his hand in with a series of instrumental albums, released through Salvationist Publishing & Supplies, where the church veteran's sprightly piano offers instrumental versions of the musicals at a rate of two musicals per album.
Swedish-born Larsson was the son of Salvation Army officer parents and as well as in his homeland spent periods in Denmark, Chile and Argentina. John became a SA officer with the Upper Norwood Corp, London in 1957 and graduated from the University of London with a BD degree. In 1967 while serving at SA's International Training College in London Larsson met up with John Gowans. Scotsman Gowans was a talented writer and poet. John Larsson told Cross Rhythms how the famed duo first came together. "We first began writing together when The Salvation Army was planning a Youth Year for 1968. The Army's enterprising national youth secretary of the day - Dennis Hunter - gathered a small group of Salvationists together to discuss the possibility of a musical. In that group was a Captain John Gowans and a Captain John Larsson. At the time we hardly knew each other, but in the meeting we must have said something that made the youth secretary think we had writing potential, for he concluded the meeting by pointing to John and myself in turn and saying: 'You and you get together and write the musical'. That is how it began."
Back in 1967 the theme of Take-Over Bid, based on the concept of the Holy Spirit impacting a group of young Salvationists, was a highly controversial idea, one likely to raise the hackles of conservative church-goers. However, the youth secretary "did a great PR job" in raising expectations for the new approach to music and drama for Youth Year 1968. Said Larsson, "When it happened most Salvationists were mentally prepared and recognised the potential for mission in the concept. I am pleased to say that even those who had their doubts were quickly won over. The youth secretary had cleverly arranged for a private premiere of the first musical to be presented some months ahead of Youth Year on an occasion when all Salvation Army officers in Britain were gathered for a conference. It was a bit of a high risk strategy, especially as the performance was going to be on a Sunday. But when at the end of the presentation this vast crowd of Salvation Army officers rose to their feet and simply would not stop applauding, we knew that the era of the musicals had come to The Salvation Army. Its success was partly because it was the first of its kind. But it also had a very relevant message for the younger generation. The story line is simply that the young people of a Salvation Army corps (church) stage a take-over bid for running the corps, but in the process discover that what counts is not them taking over the leadership of the corps but they themselves being taken over by God the Holy Spirit. The setting was of course very Salvation Army with the musical being aimed, as it were, at the internal market."
The success of Take-Over Bid led to more Larsson/Gowans musicals, with Hosea (1969), Jesus Folk (1972), Spirit (1973), Glory (1975), White Rose (1977), The Blood Of The Lamb (1978), Son Of Man (1983), Man Mark II (1985) and The Meeting (1990) all making an impact.
Larsson continued, "The musical that jumped all denominational barriers and therefore became by far our most successful work was the musical Spirit!. This musical is based on the Holy Spirit at work in the early church as recorded in the opening chapters of the Book of Acts. It was premiered in 1974, at the very time when the Holy Spirit renewal was breaking into all denominations, and therefore had a special relevance for the Church as a whole. In June of this year my wife Freda and I were in Los Angeles for the launch of Spirit! II Empire, written by our sons Karl (script) and Kevin (music), with Malcolm Westwood as the lyricist. This is a belated sequel to the original Spirit! The first Spirit! took us to the conversion of Paul. Spirit! II picks up the story from that point and covers Paul's missionary journeys and his martyrdom."
Most of the Larsson/Gowans musicals were launched in London, but not all. Explained John, "One was premiered in Glasgow, one in Los Angeles and another in Macomb, Illinois. All of our musicals were commissioned for some celebratory event or other. Two were requested for international congresses the Army held in London, and the musical launched in Macomb was commissioned for a Salvation Army international youth congress held there with 5,000 delegates. The musicals were all designed to live on beyond the event for which they were initially commissioned. The Salvation Army is at work in 126 countries, and there is therefore a large internal network for the dissemination of new music and drama. Most of our musicals have been translated into several languages."
Larsson continued, "The musicals not only made an impact on those watching the presentations but also on those who participated in the performances. An officer colleague told me recently that when he was in charge of a corps and wanted to put on one of our musicals he found he needed more men participants. There were three married women members of the songsters (choir) whose husbands did not attend the services. He visited each couple and persuaded the husbands to become members of the cast of the musical. All three couples eventually became full-time Salvation Army officers (ministers)."
In John Larsson's autobiography Saying Yes To Life, he recounts some of the unexpected church responses to the Larsson/Gowans musicals. "Some churches found it a challenge to get brass players to play the instrumental parts, something we in the Army handle as a matter of course. I heard of one church which found itself short of someone to play the demanding solo cornet part for Spirit! 'There's a Salvation Army corps in the next town,' said some. 'Let's borrow a cornet player from them.' 'No, let's keep it local,' said others. 'Why don't we ask the trumpet player who plays in the pub in the High Street?' 'He isn't a Christian,' commented others.
"But after discussion it was decided to invite the pub player. He was pleased to accept and became a valued member of the team. In the rehearsals he was always first to arrive and last to leave. And what joy there was in the church when following one of the early performances of the musical, the trumpet player came on to the stage in response to the invitation to accept Christ as Saviour. He immediately started attending the church services. After a week or two he asked whether he could bring his trumpet and play it when the organ was playing. This presented the elders with a dilemma. It was explained to him that music in the actual church services - unlike in the musical - was strictly organ only. He accepted what was said. But some weeks later he returned to the subject. 'I believe God has given me a gift - and I can't use it. What should I do?', he asked.
"The elders conferred and had to agree that the trumpet player had a point. They came up with a possible solution. 'There's a Salvation Army corps in the next town,' they said to him. 'We hate the idea of losing you, but we fully understand that you want to use your gift for the Lord, and we are sure the Salvationists would be delighted to receive you into their band.' And so introductions were made, and a happy corps officer and bandmaster welcomed a new arrival at band practise. The former pub trumpet player became a staunch Salvationist."
The Larsson/Gowans body of work always had a very clear spiritual purpose behind it. John Larsson emphasized, "The writing of musicals has always been an avocation for John and myself - something we have done in addition to our main vocation as Salvation Army officers. But we have always seen the writing of musicals as being a vital part of our ministry - something that we can contribute to the Army as a mission-weapon. Our musicals have therefore always had a strong evangelical message - and it has not been unusual for performances to be followed by altar calls, as described in the story of the pub cornetist. This motive has also strongly influenced the content and style of our songs. Many of the over 200 songs that we have written have deliberately been geared for possible congregational use. We were delighted to discover when The Salvation Army published a revised edition of its congregational songbook (hymnal) in 1986 that 23 songs from the musicals had been included. John and I have often said that when we each arrive in Heaven and the Book of Life is opened we will find that we have influenced more people through our songs than through our main-line appointments."
All the Larsson/Gowans musicals were released on vinyl albums and latterly cassette tapes. After his retirement as General of the Salvation Army, John decided to record instrumental versions of the musicals and these are currently being released on a series of CDs. Commented Larsson somewhat ruefully, "The albums introduced me to the challenges and joys of midi recording, with orchestral voices being added to the piano sound - a very bracing and stimulating experience. The first three of these CDs, under the generic title of 'John Larsson Plays', have been released at annual intervals by Salvationist Publishing & Supplies. I am pleased to say that there has been a revival of interest in these musicals and the printed music and scripts of all 10 of them are now available again from Salvationist Publishing & Supplies. Having completed the series of CDs, with the last one being on ice until its release next year, I have moved away from musical projects in order to concentrate all my energies on the writing of books. I am currently working on a book about William and Catherine Booth as parents, a book that will include the biographies of each of their eight children - all of whom (bar one who was handicapped) turned out to be amazing personalities and achievers. The working title of the book is Those Incredible Booths!"
So how did Larsson and Gowans feel about being referred to as the Salvationist equivalent of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice? Said Larsson, "No greater compliment could be paid. Speaking as the musician in our partnership, what I most admire about Andrew Lloyd Webber is his gift for melody. He has written some hauntingly beautiful tunes - and this is the aspect of music-making that I have most wanted to develop in my own compositions. I think John Gowans and I were meant to be co-writers, for his lyrics almost invariably spark off melodies in my mind, often more than one to the same set of words! In fact, when we first started collaborating I would write down all the various melodies that came to me for some particular lyrics - but I then found it almost impossible to have to select only one of those melodies to live on! It was like selecting only one child to live and was so painful that I decided that, as a general rule, whatever tune came first was going to be it!"The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.