Pastor wrote a musical, and ‘A Funny Thing Happened”

What happens when you combine a musically astute pastor with a charitably minded congregation with a grand biblical story?

At Salem UCC in Plymouth, you get “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Nineveh,” an original musical written by the Rev. Jim Hoppert, the congregation’s pastor. The production, an updated version of the story of Jonah drew 240 people to three performances from July 15 to 17 and generated more than $2,000 from a freewill offering. The money will be split between a local food pantry and the Wisconsin Conference Ukraine Emergency Appeal.

The idea for the musical came to Hoppert about five years ago, and he wrote most of it while on sabbatical, planning to stage the production in summer 2020. Then COVID intervened.

“It was the first time I decided to tackle a musical. Goodness knows why,” said Hoppert, who has “a little bit of musical training. I’ve written some things for our choir. Someone needled me one time about writing a musical. That was a dare that stuck in the back of my mind and I thought why not. The story of Jonah popped into my head.”

For most Christians who have heard or read the story of Jonah, the enduring image is of the prophet trapped in the belly of a great fish after being tossed into the sea by the terrified sailors who had been transporting him on his journey to Tarshish, where he was seeking to flee after God called him to preach repentance to Nineveh. “A Funny Thing Happened” takes a subtle approach to the scene.

“It’s set in a contemporary setting,” Hoppert said. “Jonah gets thrown off the ship, and the next thing we see is him in a dark place. It’s not grossly literal.” Besides, Jonah’s experience with the big fish isn’t really the point of the story.

“The big piece of this (story) is the plant that grows up and withers and dies,” Hoppert said. “It’s a battle between Jonah’s sense of justice and God’s sense of compassion. The big fish is just a comic piece of the story, and that’s why we titled it ‘A Funny Thing Happened.’” In the story, the fish, the plant and the worm that eventually attacks the plan all are agents of God’s purpose.

The pastor did not intend to be part of the dozen-member cast but “got sucked into being the lead. It’s not what I wanted to do. I’m not as comfortable as a performer. But if nothing else, I should have a better idea what the music and lyrics are having written them.”

So would he do it again?

“As I told my wife, that’s like asking a woman who’s three weeks from delivering if she wants to have another baby,” Hoppert said.

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