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SONG STORIES: “In My Father’s House”

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

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By the time we got to writing this song, Brian and I had hit our stride. I sent him a lyric which was ready to be set to music as is, and he wrote the song with only minor lyrical adjustments. Perhaps this one came easily to us because it was so obvious where the song fell in the story and what the song needed to be.

“In My Father’s House” is the only song in the show lifted directly from the parable itself. As the original story goes, the runaway son “came to his senses” while feeding pigs (a questionable job choice for a Jewish boy), and fabricates his homecoming speech on the spot:

“When he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ “

Do you feel a song coming on as we did?

In the original story, the father throws a wrench into the younger son’s homecoming plan by hiking up his dignified robes and running full steam to greet the son while the son was still “a long way off” from home. Being filled with compassion, the father throws his arms around his son and kisses him. Culturally speaking, that’s very undignified behavior for a grown man!

On cue (and somewhat incongruently as if the father’s bizarre response didn’t register), the younger son delivers his pre-fab apology: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

In a musical, this is what is called a reprise (a song that is sung two different times in a show, usually with irony added the second time around). The irony in our case is that the father deviates from the son’s script and interrupts his apology: “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ “

Like the father’s behavior, our song may dash expectations. Sure, the younger son is sorry in his own way, and feels bad about his situation. (Colin Janz captures this pain alarmingly well in his performance on the CD.) But the younger son is only seeing the situation from his very limited vantagepoint. He’s sorry that things didn’t go well for him which is quite different from being sorry for what he actually did to his father. He’s sincere, but he’s not changed.

During one of our staged readings, an actor was having a hard time understanding the lines “I will work my way back” and “give me another chance to prove my worth to you”. In the mind of this very perceptive woman the song seemed like such an earnest and sincere statement of apology, but these final lines made it seem like the younger son wasn’t truly seeing the light, as it were. He still seemed to be conniving, working for favor, as if he felt a need to perform penance for his failures. This bothered her.

Brian and I both said, “Of course. That’s on purpose.” Our answer bothered her even more because she thought we were holding up the son’s offer of penance as a model of how to act when one fails grandly. That’s not what we were intending at all. But we were suggesting that the human heart tends to respond to its own failures by trying to prove its worth ‘over and against’ its failures. Like the younger son, we may attempt to make things right out of guilt – whether heartfelt or posed.

If there’s something unnatural and startling in this story, it’s how the father responds to his sons’ failures. He doesn’t “guilt” either son and he refuses the son’s penance. Furthermore, the father completely exonerates his son after interrupting the half-baked apology. This just doesn’t seem right and fair (especially to us elder brother types).

Rewind to the pig farm: We don’t believe for a minute that the younger son had a deep revelation about the true nature of his father’s extravagant and no-strings-attached love for him. Rather, he was hungry and out of options. In coming to his senses, he just saw the obvious and the expedient. His shrewd mind concocted another scenario whereby he could provide for himself through his father’s wealth – if not as a son, then as a paid servant. This makes the father’s embrace of the son all the more powerful – because it’s not what the son expects or deserves.

If the son is to truly come to his senses and be changed – which we believe he does – it can only happen AFTER he’s been received back, AFTER he’s been celebrated, AFTER he’s been truly forgiven. Then he can see what kind of prodigal father he has, and how unrelated his father’s love is to his own guilt and failure. He couldn’t have known any of that on the pig farm.

To date, this is the song about which we’ve received the most emotional comments, especially from men. It seems to have struck a chord. How has it struck you?

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